Comprehensive treatment of cooking in the Achaemenid and earlier periods would include not only ingredients and modes of preparation but also the kitchen, cooking equipment and utensils, basic recipes, and techniques of preserving and seasoning food. The available sources, however, provide only the smallest hints on these matters. They consist of some passages from the Avesta, a few Elamite tablets from Persepolis, and texts by several Greek authors.
The Avesta. In the Avesta there are a number of references to food and its preparation. Milk (paiiah-, gauu-) from cows, sheep, goats, mares, and asses (Vd. 5.52) could be boiled or not, skimmed or not; the term gauu- is used especially in the common phrase haoma yō gauua “haoma [a drink] that is with milk” (Hoffmann). Butter (raoγna-) and cheese (fšuta-; Vd. 7.77) are also mentioned. Meat, especially beef (gauu-), as well as other foods (xᵛarəθa-), could be xᵛāsta- or axᵛāsta-, a word of uncertain derivation and origin, which according to the Pahlavi translations meant “cooked, uncooked” (Vd. 5.52, 7.55, 19.40; Y. 11.1); it is said that the mythical hero Kərəšaspa cooked a dish of meat (pitu-) in an iron kettle (Y. 9.11). Dry, or ground, grain (yauua-) was apparently used in preparation of bread; most prominent among the yauuas was wheat (gantuma-; Nīrangistān 28). The method of preparation is not known, however. In one passage (Vd. 5.20) yauua- is said to be for human consumption, whereas grass is for cattle. Wine (maδu-) could be drunk undiluted, or “waterless” (anāpa-). Meat, grain (or bread), and wine are repeatedly mentioned together (e.g., Vd. 5.52-54, 14.17), and it seems very likely that animal and vegetable foods (the main diet, xᵛarəθa- “edibles”) were “the two foodstuffs” referred to in Yt. 19.32 (AirWb., s.v. xᵛarəθa-). No information is given, however, about cooking, for which the verbal root is pac- (= OInd. pac- < IE. *pekṷ-), which originally meant “to make something edible by fire.” That the Avestan people were a tribe of herdsmen and farmers is confirmed by the apparent simplicity of their diet (cf. Geiger, p. 229).
Elamite tablets. The Elamite Fortification tablets found at Persepolis (Hallock, 1969) include registers of rations issued to individuals or groups daily, monthly, or at other intervals; quantities seem to have been contingent upon the recipient’s position, age, and gender. Grain, particularly barley (Ir. *yava-; most often written with the Sumerian logogram ŠE.BAR, but also ŠE.GAL and ŠE.GIG, the Elamite equivalent of which is not known), seems to have been the staple; it was roasted and seems to have been used for brewing beer as well. Other grains were also known, probably including wheat (Elam. tar-mu). Rations of flour (ZŠD.DA) were frequently granted instead of grain, and in text 421 the making of bread is mentioned. Among animals apportioned in the rations were sheep and goats (used for both meat and milk), several kinds of fowl, but apparently not horses. Wine of several kinds (GEŠTIN, etc.) and beer (KAŠ) seem to have had equal value. There are further references to fruits (mi-ik-tám and variants; cf. Man. Parth. mygdyyn “of fruit,” Pers. mīva), nuts, and seeds, at least some of them probably dried: pears, apples (ha-su-ur), figs (pi-ut), dates (MA), mulberries (du-ud-da; cf. Pers. tūt), pistachios, sesame (ŠE.GIŠ.Ġ), and the like. In addition there are several unidentified commodities, probably rare and exotic foods. It must be admitted, however, that the interpretations of most of these terms are somewhat uncertain and often based entirely on etymological considerations. Nothing is known about the preparation of any of these foods.
Greek texts. The most detailed information available about ancient Persian cuisine is to be found in the works of several Greek authors, but the accuracy of this information is difficult to determine. Greek reports involve mainly royal banquets, birthday celebrations, and special delicacies served to the king.
The sumptuous banquets provided by the king are legendary. Usually 15,000 men were entertained, at a cost of 400 talents (Ctesias and Dinon apud Athenaeus, 4.146c). The king himself did not join these groups but dined only in the company of his mother, his wife, and, from the time of Artaxerxes II (r. ca. 405/4-359/8 b.c.e.), his younger brothers (Plutarch, Artoxerxes 5.5). One lively and detailed description of such a royal banquet was given by Heracleides of Cumae (apud Athenaeus 4.145a-146a), who also stressed the parsimonious fare. Apparently a great variety of dishes was served: “[O]ne thousand animals are slaughtered for the king every day, among them horses, camels, oxen, asses, deer, and several smaller animals; and many birds are consumed, among them Arabian ostriches . . . , geese, and cocks. Moderate portions of these things are served to each of the king’s guests, but each of them may carry with himself whatever he leaves at table. The greater part of these meats and other foods is brought out to the royal guards and the lightly armed troops whom the king must maintaiṇ . . . ” (Athenaeus, 4.145e-f). This report can be compared with the briefer mention by Herodotus (7.119.2) of the Thracian Greeks’ reception of Xerxes and a scene in Aristophanes’ Acharnenses (vv. 85-86 and 88-89) in which an envoy returned from the Persian court describes a meal at which whole oxen had been served from the oven and a fowl three times as big as Cleonymus, probably an ostrich. It is to be regretted that Ctesias’ list of all the dishes prepared for the king’s dinner, said to have been included in his book The Tributes Paid throughout Asia, has not survived (Jacoby, Fragmente IIIC, pp. 512-13 no. 53); Athenaeus (2.67a) expressly stated that there was no mention of either pepper (péperi) or vinegar (óxos) in it.
Polyaenus (4.3.32), however, preserved an impressive list of the commodities necessary for the king’s (breakfast or) dinner (áriston) and supper (deîpnon); his source is not known but may indeed have been Ctesias (Lewis). According to Polyaenus, “Alexander read it in the Persian royal palace, engraved on a bronze column, where there were also the other laws, which Cyrus had formulated.” Slightly abridged, the passage reads as follows: “Wheat flour, pure quality, 400 art[abae]; meal, second grade after the pure quality, 300 art.; third grade, 300 art.; ground wheat altogether, 1,000 art. for dinner; barley flour, very pure quality, 200 art.; meal, second grade, 400 art.; [meal, third grade, 400 art.;] total of ground barley, 1,000 art.; groats made from rye (ólyra), 200 art.; fine flour made from barley (álphita) for some possets, 10 art.; chopped cardamom, delicately flavored with sesame, [ . . . ]; husked (?) barley (ptisánē), 10 art.; mustard seed, one third of an artabe. Sheep, male, 400; oxen, 100; horses, 30; fattened geese, 400; turtledoves, 300; various small birds, 600; lambs, 300; baby geese, 100; gazelles, 30. Fresh milk, 10 mar[ies]; sweetened sour milk, 10 mar.; garlic, 1 tal[ent]; onions, pungent, half a tal.; silphium fruit (phûllon), 1 art.; silphium juice, 2 min[ae]; cumin(seed), 1 art.; silphium, 1 tal.; juice of sweet apples, 1/4 art.; conserve of sour pomegranates, 1 art.; juice of cumin(seed), one fourth of an art.; black raisins, 3 tal.; dill flower (ánēthon), 3 min.; black cumin, one third of an art.; mustard seed (diárinon), 2 kap[eties]; sesame, pure quality, 10 art.; must from grapes, 5 mar.; boiled turnip radishes, prepared in brine, 5 mar.; capers, prepared in brine, from which they make sour sauces (abyrtákē), 5 mar.; salt, 10 art.; Ethiopian cumin(seed), 6 kap.; dried dill, 30 min.; celery seed, 4 kap.; sesame oil, 10 mar.; “oil from milk” [clarified butter?], 5 mar.; terebinth oil, 5 mar.; acanthus oil, 5 mar.; oil from sweet almonds, 3 mar.; dried almonds, sweet, 3 art.; wine, 500 maries. When he [i.e., the king] is in Babylon or Susa, half the wine is from palms, the other half from grapes. Logs (xýla), 200 wagonloads; firewood, 100 wagonloads; square fruitcakes made from sweet resin (?; hýon meli), 100 at 10 min., when he is in Media; safflower seed, 3 art.; saffron, 2 min. So much is expended for dinner and supper. And he distributes wheat meal, pure quality, 500 art.; barley meal, pure quality, 1,000 art.; and second grade, 1,000 art.; extra-fine wheat flour (semídalis), 500 art.; groats from rye (ólyra), 500 mar. [art.?]; barley for the livestock, 20,000 art.; chaff, 10,000 wagonloads; straw, 5,000 wagonloads; sesame oil, 200 mar.; vinegar, 100 mar.; chopped cardamom, fine quality, 30 artabae. So much he distributes to the troops. All these things the king consumes per diem at dinner and supper and with what he distributes.”
There is no indication of the equivalent values of these rations or of the number of people to be fed. The foods described would produce “a quite plausible Near Eastern feast” (Lewis, p. 79) but might also be “meant for the whole year, wherever the king might be” (Calmeyer, p. 58). As there is extant a similar list in a cuneiform text of Aššumaṣirpal II, found in his palace at Nimrud and concerning a ten-day feast for nearly 70,000 people, it seems quite probable that the Macedonians did find such a document in the Persian king’s palace.
When a birthday was to be celebrated, a more abundant meal than usual was prepared by the Persians, according to Herodotus (1.133.1): “Then the rich people dish up an ox or horse or camel or ass, all roasted whole in ovens; the poor, however, serve up smaller animals. Food made from grain they use only little, but a great deal of desserts.” In the same connection Herodotus emphasized (1.133.3) that the Persians were devoted to wine.
The luxurious style of the Persian kings was illustrated by Xenophon (Agesilaus 9.3) with a story that people sought throughout the country for drinks and dishes to please the king at dinner. In the same vein Dinon (apud Athenaeus, 14.652b) reported that “at the king’s table there were served all the delicacies produced by the country over which the king ruled, and each of the finest grade.” The great king thus had special bread made of wheat from Assus in the Aeolis (or Troad) and Chalybonian wine from Syria (Strabo, 15.3.22), the grapes for which were grown in the vineyards around Damascus (Posidonius apud Athenaeus, 1.28d). He drank only the water of the Eulaeus river (near Susa), the lightest water of all (Strabo, 15.3.22), or of the Choaspes, which flows by Susa (Herodotus, 1.188.1-2; Ctesias apud Athenaeus, 2.45a-b). The water was boiled, and, when the king was traveling, it was conveyed in silver jars on four-wheeled mule wagons. Also mentioned are a (scented) thorn oil from Carmania (Ctesias apud Athenaeus, 2.67a); a kind of rock salt from the oasis of Ammon (Dinon apud Athenaeus, 2.67a-b; ed. Jacoby, Fragmente, no. 23); potíbazis bread, baked from barley and wheat meal; and a mixed wine served in a golden egg from which only the king himself drank (Dinon apud Athenaeus 11.503f.). Ctesias attested from his own experience (dià peíras) that Indian cheese and wine, apparently sent to the royal court, were the most pleasant of all (Jacoby, Fragmente IIIC, p. 509 no. 45 par. 48).
In contrast to this royal luxury, Strabo (11.13.11) reported that the highlanders of northern Media lived on the fruits of trees, made cakes out of sliced and dried apples and bread from roasted almonds, squeezed wine from certain roots, and ate the meat of wild animals.
P. Calmeyer, “Textual Sources for the Interpretation of Achaemenian Palace Decorations,” Iran 18, 1980, pp. 55-63.
W. Geiger, Ostiranische Kultur im Altertum, Erlangen, 1882; repr. Aalen, Germany, 1979, pp. 228-29.
A. C. Gunter, “The Art of Eating and Drinking in Ancient Iran,” Asian Art 1/2, 1988, pp. 7-54.
R. T. Hallock, Persepolis Fortification Tablets, The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications 92, Chicago, 1969.
Idem, “The Evidence of the Persepolis Tablets,” Camb. Hist. Iran II, 1985, pp. 588-609.
W. Hinz, Neue Wege im Altpersischen, Wiesbaden, 1973, pp. 80-89.
K. Hoffmann, “Awestisch haoma yō gauua,” MSS 21, 1967, pp. 11-20; repr. in Aufsätze zur Indoiranistik II, Wiesbaden, 1976, pp. 475-82.
L. L. (anon.), “Remarks on a Passage of Polyaenus,” The Classical Journal 30, 1827, pp. 370-74.
D. M. Lewis, “The King’s Dinner (Polyaenus IV 3, 32),” in H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg and A. Kuhrt, eds., Achaemenid History II. The Greek Sources, Proceedings of the Groningen 1984 Achaemenid History Workshop, Leiden, 1987, pp. 79-87.
The general term for a cook in Middle Persian is xwahlīgar, for cooking xwahlīgarih (Tafazzoli, p. 196), but there is little material on food and cooking in Pahlavi literature. The bulk of it can be found in Husraw ud Rēdag (Pahlavi Texts, ed. Jamasp-Asana, pp. 29-33). This text consists of a debate between Ḵosrow (most probably Ḵosrow II, 591-628 c.e.) and one of his pages, possibly called Xwaš-Ārzōg (i.e., “with fine desires”; pars. 19, 125; Ṯaʿālebī, Ḡorar, p. 705). It reveals much about the tastes and preferences of the Sasanian aristocracy in arts, pastimes (horse-back riding, polo, etc.), flowers, women, and food. Various types of dishes are described and their recipes given. Among the categories mentioned are meat dishes, sweetmeats, jams, and preserved meat and other preserved foods. Various types of dried fruit (*dānēnag) eaten as snacks, as well as wines, are also mentioned. In Kār-nāmag ī Ardašīr ī Pābagan (Kār-nāmag, ed. Antia, ch. 14 no. 10) a concoction of roasted flour (pist), sugar, and possibly milk is mentioned; it appears from the context that this mixture was used to quench thirst and alleviate fatigue and was served as an hors d’oeuvre.
On the basis of the material in Husraw ud Rēdag the following categories of food can be established.
Warm meat dishes. These dishes can be further subdivided between those with red meat and those with white. For red-meat dishes two basic recipes are presented (par. 21). According to one the meat of a two-month old kid, fed both on its mother’s milk and on cow’s milk, was served with āb-kāmag (a kind of sour gruel) and kāmag (boiled and thickened buttermilk; for Arabic recipes for comparable substances, morrī and kāmaḵ respectively, see Arberry, pp. 25, 36, 22, 207). According to the other, the breast of a fat ox was cooked with spēd-pāg (sour broth) and served with sugar (šakar) and tabarzad (candy). For white-meat dishes (pars. 23-25) the following birds are recommended: peacock (fraš(a)murw), francolin (pōr), partridge (*kabk), pheasant (tadar), a kind of small gray partridge (tīhōg), young crane (kulang ī juwān), bustard (čarz), another kind of francolin (kabkanjīr), a kind of waterfowl (xašēn-sār), duck (murw-ābīg), and similar birds. The favored method of preparation, however, was the following (par. 26): A young domestic cock, fed on hempseed, barley gruel, and olive oil, then made to run around unfed the day before its slaughter, was plucked and hung by one leg for a day and by its neck for a second day. Then it was marinated in brine (sōrābag) and roasted. This method ensured a more flavorful back, and the meat became more delicious closer to the tail.
Cold meat dishes. The general term for cold meat dishes (pars. 28-31) was afsard; halām (potted meat) was one of the categories of such dishes (Kīā, p. 29). It was recommended that afsard be prepared from the meat of the following animals: ox (gāw), wild ass (gōr), deer (gawazn), wild boar (warāz), baby camel (uštar-kawādag), yearling calf (gōdar), buffalo (gāw-mēš), domesticated wild ass (gōr ī kadagīg), and domestic pig (xūg). The preferred afsard was made with the meat of a male calf fed on clover (aspast) and barley; it was prepared with vinegar and seasoned “properly” (ēwēnīhā). The back parts of the calf were set aside for halām. Xāmīz (pickled meat; pars. 33-35) was a type of afsard served as an appetizer. According to descriptions from the Islamic period, xāmīz consisted of meat that had been sliced thin and pickled raw in vinegar; sometimes it was passed briefly over a flame (Kīā, pp. 24, 31). In Husraw ud Rēdag (par. 34), xāmīz made from rabbit meat is said to be more tender, from the meat of the sand grouse (asprōd) superior in fragrance, and from another kind of meat (w šmwl, possibly for *wušm murw “quail meat”; Monchi-Zadeh, p. 70) tastier. Elsewhere in the text, however (par. 35), the best xāmīz is said to be made from a barren female gazelle.
Sweets. The most common word for all kinds of sweets was rō(g)n-xwardīg (Draxt i Āsūrīg; Pahlavi Texts, ed. Jamasp-Asana, p. 112; Henning, p. 644 n. 10). In Husraw ud Rēdag (pars. 37-42) the following types were recommended for summer (par. 39): lōzēnag (almond sweetmeat); gōzēnag and gōz-afrōšag (two kinds of walnut sweetmeat); čarb-afrōšag (lit. “fat pastry”), made with the fat of the čarz (bustard) or deer and fried in walnut oil. For winter (par. 40) lōzēnag, šiftēnag (milk pudding), wafrēnag (Mid. Pers. wafr “snow”; for further interpretation see Monchi-Zadeh, p. 72 n. 72), and tabarzad were recommended, but a kind of jelly (pālūda) made from the juices of apples and silver quince (*bēh ī sēmēn) was preferred to all others.
Jams. The general term was ambag, literally “mango,” which came by extension to mean jam. The following types were recommended in Husraw ud Rēdag (pars. 43-46): xiyār wādrang (cucumber), *singibēl (ginger), halīlag (myrobalan), gōz (walnut), and wādrang (citron; see bālang; citrus fruits). The favorite was, however, of Chinese ginger and myrobalan, possibly sweetened with sugar or honey. Also mentioned were dānēnag like coconut (anārgil) with sugar; *bistag pistachios from Gorgān dipped in brine and roasted; fresh chickpeas (naxōd) served with āb-kāmag; and dates (armāw) from Ḥīra stuffed with walnuts, pistachios, Armenian nectarines (šiftālūg ī armanīg), or acorns (balūt) or chestnuts (šāhbalūt) and served with sugar and tabarzad. Hempseeds (šāhdānag) from Syārazūr (later Šāhrazūr), roasted in the fat of the mountain goat (pāzan), were particularly preferred.
Wines and food served with wine. Wines from Herat, Marvrūd, Bost (in Sīstān), and Ḥolwān are mentioned (pars. 55-58). The best were may ī āsūrīg (Babylonian wine) and bādag ī Wāzrangīg (probably from Wāzrang in Fārs province). Among types of food eaten with wines (pars. 65-66) were dānēnag, myrobalan, xāmīz, and bazm āwurd (a sort of canapé; cf. Arberry, p. 202).
In the Islamic period, particularly under the ʿAbbasid caliphate, the influence of Sasanian Persia was strong (Rodinson, pp. 148-50). The Arabic versions of many Persian names for dishes were cited in a 10th-century cookbook from Baghdad (Arberry): for example, sekbāj (a meat dish with vinegar sauce; p. 34), fālūḏajīya (a fried-meat dish with sugar, honey, almonds, etc.; p. 196; cf. Rodinson, p. 149), and bazmāward (morsels of bread stuffed with roast meat, vegetables, etc.; p. 202; cf. Borhān-e qāteʿ, s.v.). The text of Husraw ud Rēdag itself was translated into Arabic by ʿAbd-al-Malek b. Moḥammad Ṯaʿālebī (Ḡorar, pp. 705-11; cf. Rodinson, pp. 99-100).
A. J. Arberry, “A Baghdad Cookery Book,” Islamic Culture 13, 1939, pp. 21-47, 189-214.
A. C. Gunter, “The Art of Eating and Drinking in Ancient Iran,” Asian Art 1/2, 1988, pp. 7-54.
W. B. Henning, “A Pahlavi Poem,” BSOAS 13, 1950, pp. 641-48, 809.
Ṣ. Kīā, “Čand vāža az Ḵosrow-e Qohādān wa rīdak-ī,” MDAT 3/2, 1334 Š./1955, pp. 22-31.
Idem, “Sur quelques termes de "Xosrow et son page,"” Acta Iranica 3, 1974, pp. 209-19.
D. Monchi-Zadeh, “Xusrōv i kavātān ut rētak,” in Monumentum Georg Morgenstierne II, Acta Iranica 22, pp. 47-91, esp. 66-75.
M. Rodinson, “Recherches sur les documents arabes relatifs à la cuisine,” REI 1949, pp. 95-165.
A. Tafazolli, “A List of Trades and Crafts in the Sassanian Period,” AMI 7, 1974, pp. 191-96.
J. Unvala, The Pahlavi Text “King Husraw and His Boy,” Paris, n.d. (1921).
It is difficult to formulate accurate generalizations about cooking in Persia, given the diverse climates, agricultural products, and ethnic traditions of the country. Nevertheless, many dishes are common to all parts of the country and are prepared in generally similar ways, with minor regional and individual variations.
Major ingredients. A major determinant of Persian, or any other, cuisine is the specific agricultural products that are readily available. Most of the grains, vegetables, and fruits consumed in Persia today have been cultivated there for many centuries, with the exception of tomatoes and potatoes, which are relatively recent introductions (Yāvarī, p. 13). Grains, vegetables, herbs, fruits, nuts, and dairy products are more important than meat.
Rice and wheat are the grains used most widely. The cultivation of rice is said to have originated in India and to have been introduced to Persia more than a millennium ago, though the precise period is a matter of debate (Nickles, p. 31; see also berenj). Over the centuries it has become a staple of the Persian diet, served with every conceivable combination of meats, vegetables, and fruits mixed into it, ladled over it, or presented as side dishes. Rice is the main ingredient in several categories of dishes, the names of which indicate the particular method of preparation, for example, polow (steamed rice layered with other ingredients, mostly vegetables), čelow (plain steamed rice), kata (rice boiled quickly until all the water is absorbed), and damī (rice boiled with other ingredients). Wheat bread is also a dietary staple, and wheat is a basic ingredient in a variety of dishes, both as a whole grain (e.g., in the kinds of thick soup known as āš) or as flour (e.g., in ḥalwā).
Vegetables and herbs grow abundantly in Persia. They are the major ingredients in many ḵᵛorešes (stews or sauces) served atop čelows or mixed into polows. A distinguishing feature of Persian cuisine is the use of fruits in cooking, aside from jams and preserves. Apples, quinces, prunes (both ripe and unripe, fresh or dried), sour grapes, tart cherries, apricots, fresh and dried limes, and oranges are used in ḵᵛorešes, polows, āšes, and other dishes. The inclusion of nuts, raw or cooked, is also characteristic; they are common in polows, ḵᵛorešes, āšes, meat patties, confections, and many other dishes. The most popular nuts are walnuts, almonds, and pistachios, all of which can be used whole, chopped, or ground. Roasted chickpeas are considered nuts and are generally used in ground form.
Such dairy products as yogurt, ghee, butter, and kašk (a kind of dried cheese) also play a major role in the Persian diet. The main type of oil used in traditional cooking is ghee, and there are a number of dishes that contain yogurt or kašk. Yogurt in particular is served plain as a side dish or mixed with cucumber, raisins, nuts, green herbs, and vegetables in dishes known as būrānī or māst o ḵīār (yogurt and cucumber).
The meats eaten most often are mutton or lamb and chicken; less common are fish, beef, veal, and wild game. Meats are combined with vegetables and fruits in a variety of cooked dishes.
Methods of cooking. The major categories of Persian cuisine are cooked rice dishes; ḵᵛorešes; āšes; ḥalīms (pastes of vegetables, meat, or both, usually eaten with flat bread); ābgūšts (meat soups); dolmas (stuffed vegetables); kūftas (meatballs); kabobs (small pieces of meat roasted on skewers); šāmīs and kotlets (fried meat and vegetable patties); ḵāgīnas, kūkūs, nargesīs, and šešandāzes (fluffy egg dishes similar to omelets or soufflés); būrānīs; toršīs (pickles and relishes); confections and cookies; and breads.
Rice, usually the long-grained variety, is generally parboiled in heavily salted water, drained, then steamed with additional ghee or butter. Slow cooking is particularly characteristic of Persian cuisine: Ḵᵛorešes and āšes are simmered over low heat, polows and čelows steamed. For ḵᵛorešes the ingredients are first browned, then simmered in liquid. Most šāmīs, kotlets, and kūkūs are fried slowly in ghee or vegetable oil. For kabobs pieces of poultry or red meat, ground or cut up in chunks, are marinated for several hours in lemon juice or yogurt and seasonings, then roasted over a flame. Before the widespread introduction of home ovens into the Persian kitchen in the 1960s baking was a rather involved process, in which special copper pans were covered tightly and buried in slow-burning crushed charcoal; Safavid chefs, for instance, used this method (Bāvaṛčī, pp. 183-84; Nūr-Allāh, p. 198). Because of its complexity baking was not as common in the preparation of Persian foods in the past as it is today. Recently, however, there has been a tendency to bake some dishes, like kūkūs, that were traditionally fried, browned, or steamed on the stove or over an open fire. Seasoning is usually moderate; salt, black pepper, turmeric, saffron, cinnamon, and marjoram are the most common spices and flavorings. In contrast to the practice in some parts of India, fiery seasonings are rarely used in Persian cuisine and then only sparingly. The subtle flavor and aroma of herbs like dill, mint, coriander, parsley, and fenugreek are preferred. A good cook is distinguished by the ways in which he or she blends them.
Presentation of foods is also important, and well-prepared Persian dishes are as attractive to the eye as to the palate. Āšes, ḥalīms, and other dishes are topped with golden-brown onions, nuts, saffron-colored ingredients, and yogurt or cheese in intricate patterns. Polows and čelows are usually served on large platters and decorated with a handful of saffron rice and perhaps other ingredients.
A. ʿAbd-al-Ḥosaynzāda, Barrasī-e masāʾel-e eqteṣād-e kešāvarzī-e Īrān, Tehran, 1365 Š./1986.
Ī. Afšār, Āšpazī-e dawra-ye ṣafawī. Matn-e do resāla az ān dawra, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981.
N. Batmanghelij, Food of Life, Washington, D.C.,1986.
Moḥammad-ʿAlī Bāvaṛčī Baḡdādī, Kār-nāma dar bāb-e tabbāḵī wa saṇʿat-e ān, in Ī. Afšār, ed., Āšpazī-e dawra-ye ṣafawī. Matn-e do resāla az ān dawra, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981, pp. 35-184.
M. R. Ghanoonparvar, Persian Cuisine, 2 vols., Lexington, Ky., 1982-84.
F. Hekmat, The Art of Persian Cooking, Garden City, N.Y., 1961.
N. Islami, Persian Cookery, n.p., n.d.
T. Mallos, “Persia,” in Complete Middle East Cookbook, New York, 1979, pp. 293-336.
M. Mazda, In a Persian Kitchen. Favorite Recipes from the Near East, Rutland, Vt., 1960; repr. Rutland, Vt., 1980.
Mīrzā ʿAlī-Akbar Khan Āšpazbāšī, Sofra-ye aṭʿema, Tehran, 1353 Š./1974.
A. Mīrzāyef, Abū Esḥāq wa faʿʿālīyat-e adabī-e ū, Dushanbe, 1971.
R. Montaẓamī, Majmūʿa-ye ḡeḏāhā-ye īrānī wa farangī, Tehran, 1347 Š./1968, pp. 517-18.
H. Nickles, Middle Eastern Cooking, New York, 1969, pp. 8-41, 152-75.
Nūr-Allāh, Māddat al-ḥayāt. Resāla dar ʿelm-e ṭabbāḵī, in Ī. Afšār, ed., Āšpazī-e dawra-ye ṣafawī. Matn-e do resāla az ān dawra, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981, pp. 185-256.
N. Ramazani, Persian Cooking. A Table of Exotic Delights, Charlottesville, Va., 1982, pp. 71-75.
E. Šakūrzāda, ʿAqāyed o rosūm-e mardom-e Ḵorāsān, Tehran, 1363 Š./1984, pp. 23-76.
M. Tehrānī, Ṭabbāḵī-e kadbānū, Tehran, 1346 Š./1967.
A. Yāvarī, Moqaddama-ī bar šenāḵt-e kešāvarzī-e sonnatī-e Īrān, Tehran, 1359 Š./1980.
Ḥ. Yūsofī, Rāh-e del, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981.
(Mohammad R. Ghanoonparvar)
Various traditions pertaining to Afghan cookery form an integral part of the deeply entrenched Afghan social institution of hospitality. Family honor, as well as individual status within the community, is measured in good part by the lavishness of the household kitchen. All events in the life cycle from birth to death, as well as changes of season, are celebrated with feasting (Tapper).
Although regional culinary specialties reflect the geographic and ethnic diversity of Afghanistan and affinities with the cuisines of Central Asia, Persia, and Pakistan (Bacon, passim; L. Dupree, 1980, pp. 225-38; N. H. Dupree, 1977, pp. 9-10), the daily diet of the majority of Afghans is simple, consisting primarily of bread and generous amounts of sugared tea, black or green, with or without cardamom. Only in rare instances is tea drunk with milk (see čāy).
Bread (nān) is made in various shapes and sizes and may be leavened or unleavened; the flour may be of wheat, barley, corn, lentils, or millet. Bread is sometimes baked on the walls of a clay oven (tandūr, tanūr) set into a mud-brick platform (Jeanneret, pp. 37-44). A convex iron griddle set on a tripod over an open fire is the method preferred by many nomadic groups. Shepherds wrap dough around hot rocks and set it to bake beside the campfire (L. Dupree, 1980, pp. 225-27; Wannell, p. 22). However it is prepared, nān is so central to the diet that the term refers to food in general throughout Afghanistan, as in Persia (cf. bread).
On festive occasions the main dish usually consists of a mounded platter of rice (see berenj ii). Rice cooked with large chunks of lamb or chicken (pelaw, polow) and plain boiled rice (čalaw, čelow), sometimes mixed with chopped spinach (sabzī pālak) and aptly called zamarod or zomorrod “emerald” pelaw, are particularly popular. Meat and vegetables may also be served in various forms of stew (qūrma/qorma), with rice or bread on the side. Some provincial teahouses specialize in čāynakī, meat stews cooked in teapots (čāynak) embedded in hot coals.
“Kabob” (kabāb) is a collective term for at least seven varieties of lamb dish served with bread, which are considered great delicacies. When charcoal-broiled on skewers known as sīḵ, kabobs may consist of small cubes of lamb marinated in yogurt with garlic and threaded on the skewers in alternation with pieces of fat, large meaty chunks with bone fragments attached, or minced meat in oblong patties molded around the skewer. Other dishes based on cubed or minced lamb, also called kabāb, may be pan-fried or baked in heavy iron utensils (Saberi, pp. 71-80; N. H. Dupree, 1972, pp. 160-61). Game birds are roasted, stewed, pan-fried, or charcoal-broiled. Steamed meat dumplings (mantū) are a specialty of cooks in the north.
Pasta dishes (L. Dupree, 1983) are also favorites; they range from soups containing noodles, legumes (āš), and other vegetables to ravioli (ašak) stuffed with cheese or Chinese chives (gandana/gandanā) and topped with a tomato-based meat sauce. Most such dishes are topped with drained yogurt (čaka) or the more acidic qorūtī, made by reconstituting rock-hard dehydrated balls of čaka (qorūt) in water (see cheese). A slightly sweetened pelaw flavored with turmeric, orange peel, almonds, and pistachio nuts is often served as an accompanying dish.
Traditionally the main cooking oils were clarified butter, or ghee, and lard rendered from the tails of fat-tailed sheep, but in the 1960s lighter vegetable oils were introduced and are widely used. A great variety of herbs and spices, including cumin, coriander, mint, cinnamon, cloves, and sesame, are used in cooking; chili peppers are, however, used only sparingly. Herbs and spices are also believed to have a wide variety of medicinal properties, especially in aiding digestion (Parenti, passim).
Pickled vegetables (toršī); chutneys (čotnī) made from red peppers, coriander, or fruits; and salads of chopped tomato, onion, fresh coriander, and lime juice typically accompany meals (Saberi, p. 123). The fresh juice of sour oranges heightens the flavor of pelaw, while skewered kabābs are most often sprinkled with crushed dried grape seeds and red and black pepper. Nuts, raisins, and carrots are also often used as garnishes (L. Dupree, 1983, pp. 227-31).
Qorūtī reconstituted with oil is popular eaten with bread in winter; a dish of eggplant and čaka is a particular favorite at any time (bānjan-e būrānī/bādenjān-e būrānī). Other products made from cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk include yogurt (māst) and buttermilk (dūḡ), to which diced cucumbers are added in summer. A soft, unpasteurized cheese commonly served with raisins is a springtime specialty (N. H. Dupree, 1977, p. 196). Butter is churned in inflated goatskins and clarified into ghee (Strand, pp. 127-28). A rich, clotted cream (qaymāq) is eaten with bread for breakfast (L. Dupree, 1980, p. 235) and on special occasions is also served as an elegant topping for tea.
Crisp fried pastries made from bread and stuffed with gandana or mashed potatoes (būlānī) are frequently served as appetizers or as part of the main meal. Sugar-coated chickpeas, apricot kernels, pistachio, walnuts, and almonds, collectively known as noql, as well as raisins and other dried fruits, are served with tea and before meals. A mix of walnuts and dried mulberries (čokīda) and hard bars of ground mulberries (talḵān) provide nutritious snacks, often carried by travelers (N. H. Dupree, 1977, p. 116).
Seasonal fruits, the most important being melons, grapes, apricots, plums, cherries, and peaches, are commonly served at the end of the meal, but festive occasions call for specialties. A compote made from seven fruits and nuts (haft-meywa, haft-mīva) is served at celebrations of the New Year on 1 Nowrūz/21 March, the first day of spring; another popular dish at such festivities is fish followed by crisp pastries soaked in sugar syrup (jalabī). One elaborate, and ancient, dish is reserved for weddings and similar ceremonial occasions; it is composed of gossamer strands of egg batter quickly deep-fried in hot oil and laced with sugar syrup (abrēšom- or abrīšam-kabāb, lit. “silk kabob”; L. Dupree, 1983, pp. 235-36; Saberi, pp. 128, 144).
The distribution of food, particularly sweets, as a symbolic gesture of thanksgiving plays a significant part in domestic religious rituals (Doubleday, pp. 49-53) and in acknowledging answered prayers (Saberi, p. 22). Affluent pilgrims to religious shrines publicly distribute massive quantities of pelaw to the needy and faithful in gratitude for boons granted. Many shrines maintain mammoth cooking vessels and a staff of male cooks especially for this purpose (N. H. Dupree, 1977, p. 307).
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V. Doubleday, Three Women of Herat, London, 1988.
L. Dupree, Afghanistan, Princeton, N.J., 1980.
Idem, “From Whence Cometh Pasta?” in P. Snoy, ed., Ethnologie und Geschichte. Festschrift für Karl Jettmar, Wiesbaden, 1983, pp. 128-34.
N. H. Dupree, Kabul, 2nd ed., Kabul, 1972.
Idem, An Historical Guide to Afghanistan, 2nd ed., Kabul, 1977.
A. Jeanneret, “Contribution à l’étude des boulangers de Kaboul,” Afghanistan Journal (Graz) 1/2, 1974, pp. 37-44.
C. Parenti, A Taste of Afghanistan. The Cuisine of the Crossroads of the World, Phoenix, Ariz., 1987.
H. Saberi, Noshe Djan, London, 1986.
M. Nazif Shahrani, The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan, Seattle, Wash., 1979.
P. Shalizi, Here and There in Afghanistan, Kabul, 1966.
R. Strand, “The Changing Herding Economy of the Kom Nuristani,” Afghanistan Journal (Graz) 2/4, 1975, pp. 123-34.
R. and N. Tapper, “Eat This, It’ll Do You a Power of Good. Food and Commensality among Durrani Pashtuns,” American Ethnologist 13/1, 1986, pp. 62-79.
B. Wannell, “Bread Making in Afghanistan,” Afghanistan (London) 10, 1989, pp. 22-23.
(Nancy Hatch Dupree)
Originally Published: December 15, 1993
Last Updated: October 28, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. VI, Fasc. 3, pp. 246-252