Persia is one of the oldest civilisations on the planet and is now where modern-day Iran stands. While its borders fluctuated through history, at its most expansive - around 2500 years ago - the Persian Empire extended to Egypt, Greece and Turkey.
With its geographical position and changing boundaries, Persian cooking draws upon a multitude of influences including Russian, Greek, Asian and Armenian.
Persian cuisine is many things - colourful, rich and full of flavour. But it is also simple, healthy and very comforting, with recipes that are centuries-old. Incorporating a cornucopia of ingredients including rose petals, dried fruits and green pistachios, this food draws on the land’s rich natural culinary resources and is a feast for the senses.
And in the treasure box of Persian ingredients, the spices are the glittering jewels. From the sweetness of cinnamon to the luxury of saffron, the lemony zing of sumac to the warm versatility of ginger – the spices liberally drenched in and on Persian food are dynamic, flavourful and aromatic.
The versatility of Persian food
Persian food is brilliant for gluten-free diets, vegetarians and vegans. While there is an emphasis on meat, there is an equal amount of attention paid on delicious vegetable dishes accompanied by nuts, fruit and rice.
However, herbs and spices are the backbone of Persian cuisine and give incredible and distinct flavours to this style of cooking.
Unlike other countries, Persian spices are used to give warmth and flavour to a meal, rather than heat, which makes this food ideal for anyone sensitive to chilli.
If you’re planning a Persian-style dinner party, you have to start with a good spice collection. With most spices, we recommend grinding them in the kitchen, rather than buying them already ground. Spices provide more punch and fragrance when you grind them at home, so it’s a good idea to invest in a good quality spice blender or pestle and mortar.
The most popular Persian spices
While there is a whole gamut of spices to be enjoyed in Persian cooking, the following are some of the most popular:
Saffron– despite being expensive, a tiny bit of saffron goes a long way. This spice comes from the stigma of the crocus flower, where 150,000 flowers are used to make up one kilo of saffron. However, a tiny pot in the kitchen cupboard will last a while, and a minute pinch gives a delicately fragrant taste to cooking as well as lending an orange/yellow colour to food.
Dried lime– Add to stews for a smoky sour taste, dried limes can be used whole or crushed. Lime powder gives a far stronger taste and is a great way of cutting through the richness of a lot of Persian one-pot cooking.
Sumac- this is a pungent spice which combines flavours of citrus and saltiness to give a really moreish taste. The spice comes from the ground-up fruit of the sumac plant which grows in the Middle East and Asia. Persian cookery uses sumac where lemon juice would normally be used – so on meats, salads and soups. But is also a fantastic meat tenderiser as well as a garnish to hummus and other mezze dishes.
Ginger– While ginger is used throughout the whole of Asia, it’s a key part of Persian cooking. Used dried, ginger loses it fresh fieriness and takes on a comforting warmth that permeates chicken, aubergine and lentil dishes.
Coriander seeds– Toasted and crushed, coriander seeds provide a lemony and slightly nutty taste to Persian food, especially meat dishes.
Cinnamon– used in puddings and also on meats, this spice can be fierce and brash but also mellow and floral depending on how it is used and how much of it is used. Cinnamon is one of the most versatile of all the spices.
Turmeric– related to the ginger family, turmeric is the boiled, dried and ground up root of the curcuma longa. Aside from its incredible health benefits, turmeric is also used to give an earthiness and mustardy taste to dishes, as well as a bright yellow hue that can be used to colour rice and soups.
Persian spice blends
If you’re getting into Persian cooking, it’s also important to be familiar with the spice blends. These blends are unique to this type of cuisine and give Persian dishes their distinctive flavour. These Persian spice mixes can be bought off the shelf or can just as easily be concocted at home.
Za’atar– this is a popular spice mix containing thyme, sesame seeds, sumac, oregano, cumin and marjoram. It’s a key ingredient to so many Persian dishes, from chicken to dips, eggs to cheese. A favourite family snack is to tear up some fresh bread, and dip the morsels into olive oil and a pile of za’atar.
Advieh– like garam masala to Indian cooking and ras el-hanout in Moroccan cuisine, all Persian kitchens will have advieh in their cupboards. A mixture of cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cumin, caraway, coriander, cloves and cardamom. This blend is equally good on savoury meat dishes as it is on sweet Persian rice puddings.
Baharat– this spice mix is used across the Middle East, with each area having a little twist on the basic mix of paprika, nutmeg, pepper, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin. In Persian cooking, dried black lime, or loomi, is often added to Baharat.
Other Persian ingredients to look out for...
Aside from spices, a good Persian kitchen cupboard will also have some essential staples which include dried limes, dried rose petals and a host of fresh green herbs which should include parsley, coriander, mint, tarragon, mint, dill and fenugreek.