Although caviar is Iran's second biggest export
(after oil), it is collected purely for the Western market
- you are unlikely to catch many Iranians snacking on it,
in fact the majority don't know what it is.
A nighttime meal during Ramadam festival
Staples and national dishes
Iranians like to mix up their sweet and savoury flavours.
Rice is the basic staple, but it is often mixed up with meat
and fruit or vegetables to make a dish called polo,
and served with stews (khoresh), or the ubiquitous
kebab. Varieties of khoresh include ones with yoghurt,
aubergine, pomegranate juice, walnuts, quinces or rhubarb.
Fruits and vegetables are often served stuffed with rice -
the stuffed vine leaf (dolmeh barg) is infamous, but also
try the less common dolmeh beh (stuffed quince)
or dolmeh sib (stuffed apple). Iranians also
eat huge quantities of bread (nan). Soups, like
the stews, come in interesting flavours - look out for ash-e
torsh, dried fruit soup, or ash-e anar,
Drinks and desserts
Everyone drinks tea in huge quantities. Tea comes without
milk, but very sweet - the method is to hold a sugar cube
between the teeth and sip the tea through it, letting it dissolve
slowly. Also popular are fruit or flower syrups, served with
ice in summer. Deserts, unsurprisingly, are very sweet. Rose
water or saffron flavoured ice creams, pistachio nougat, almond
and honey pastries and even a very fragrant candy floss are
busy rotting teeth all over Iran.
Family meal etiquette
Unfortunately the Iranians keep these amazing flavours in
their homes - a huge incentive to make friends and angle for
dinner invitations! Most restaurants, even the big ones, offer
little more than a couple of different kebabs with rice, and
visitors to Iran get bored quickly.
Alcohol is strictly banned, and you are unlikely to find it
even in the bigger hotels. There is non-alcoholic beer available,
but it is pretty grim. Rumour has it that thirsty Iranians
add sugar to it and keep it for a few weeks, making their
own home brew, but few will admit it. As a visitor, you may
be allowed to take a small amount of alcohol into the country
but it isn't really worth the hassle at customs.
If you do manage to find your way to an Iranian dinner table
there are a few rules of etiquette it might be useful to bear
- Always remove your shoes before entering a private home,
and keep your head bowed after knocking in case an uncovered
woman answers the door.
- You shouldn't shake hands or sit next to anyone of the opposite
sex, apart from your own spouse, or close relative.
- It is the custom to exchange presents when arriving or leaving,
but never accept a present without first refusing at least
- If there is business to be discussed, never get straight
to the point - always drink three cups of tea before getting
- In case it is that time of day, take care never to walk
in front of anyone praying to Mecca.
- Excuse yourself from any bad manners by saying bebakhshid,
but don't expect your hosts to point out your mistakes. It
is always wise to explain that you are learning the rules,
and invite them to keep an eye on you!