Yasmin Khan's - The Saffron Tales

In writing The Saffron Tales - published on 7th April - British-Iranian cook Yasmin Khan travelled throughout Iran in search of the country's most delicious recipes. In this exclusive interview Yasmin shares her top tips for cooking Persian dishes, her favourite ingredient and the roles of food and culture.


What are your top tips for people cooking Persian food for the first time?

Season your food well! And don’t forget to taste your food at the end of the cooking process and make any adjustments. No two sets of ingredients will ever behave the same in the kitchen, so you have to be confident to make tweaks. Sometimes all that is needed is just an extra pinch of salt, a small squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of olive oil to elevate an average dish into an extraordinary one.

Don't forget to taste your food - no two sets of ingredients will ever behave the same in the kitchen

Persian ingredients are diverse and exciting. What are your store cupboard favourites and why?

I love the delicate fragrances of Iranian cooking, nothing is bold or over-powering but rather subtle and enticing. I have a real sweet tooth so I love date syrup, it has such a rich, treacle like flavour and I use it in everything from marinades to stir fries to porridge

What is your favourite Persian dish/meal and why?

Fesenjoon, a rich and creamy, sweet and sour stew, made from ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. You can add chicken, aubergine or tempeh to it but the sauce is the real star of the show. It is a firm family favourite and we always make it for guests or for special occasions.

I have a real sweet tooth so I love date syrup, it has such a rich, treacle like flavour

Can you explain briefly the defining characteristics of Persian cuisine?

Persian food is delicate and fragrant, using lots of fresh herbs and always balancing a subtle sweet and sour flavour. The cornerstones of the cuisine are a wide array of slow-cooked stews, flavoured with spices such as dried limes, saffron and cinnamon and adorned with dried fruits and nuts. It is also known for its succulent juicy grilled meat kebabs and elaborate herb and vegetable layered rice dishes.

What role does food play in Persian culture?

Sharing food is an incredibly important custom in Iran and eating a home cooked meal together with families is one of the most important parts of the day.  Sharing food with friends and guests is also revered. As soon as a guest arrives into someone’s home they are immediately showered with offerings of fresh fruits, sweet pastries, tea, dried fruit and nuts. That’s before they’ve often had the chance to even sit down! Sharing food is an important custom and a key part of Iranian culture’s inbuilt hospitality.

Why do you think Persian cuisine is gaining popularity in the West?

I think Iranian ingredients have become more accessible to buy and also people are interested in fresh, light, healthy, flavours of which Iranian food has plenty of.

Sharing food is an important custom and a key part of Iranian culture’s inbuilt hospitality.

Are there any Persian dishes that are only made at certain times of the year? (equivalent to the West’s roast turkey with all the trimmings in the winter holiday season perhaps)

Iran’s main festival is Nowruz, the Iranian New Year that takes place on the Spring Equinox and marks the end of winter and beginning of spring.  All over the country, the first meal of Nowruz is traditionally a mixed herb rice dish, layered with fresh dill, coriander, chives and parsley and served with grilled or fried fish. We always eat lots of greens on the first meal of the New Year as they symbolise rebirth and renewal.

Browse Middle Eastern & Persian ingredients here


Did you know that saffron is also known as 'vegetable gold' or 'red gold', and is priced higher than some metals!


100 comments

  • Middle Eastern food is my favourite cuisine. However, my favourite dish is Iranian vegetable stew (even though I am a meat eater). The combination of the spices (turmeric and cumin) with the herbs (tarragon and coriander) and dried Iranian limes and barberries is delicious!

    Simon Ambrose on

  • We particularly enjoy the fish dishes, using pomegranate. Other cuisines are bland and boring when cooking cod or monkfish

    Derrin stock on

  • Favourite Middle Eastern dish is probably grilled haloumi. Simple, but so very tasty!

    Victoria Wren on

  • Yasmin and I are kindred spirits for we both have a deep affect you for Fesenjan. I grew up in Pakistan and was introduced to Iranian food by my father. We would go to Omar Khayyam for a fix of koobideh with mounds of rice with saffron and barberries. The Fesenjan appeared from time to time. My young self loved the flavour of sweet, savoury and a delicate sourness from the molasses. The chicken was so tender it would fall from the bone. I have been enamoured since and would love to learn how to make it.

    Mehrunnisa Yusuf on

  • I really enjoy a classic tender rich lamb tagine , the delicious fragrance of rose petals , fruit , and harissa spices gives me the simple unctuous enjoyment of this style of cuisine .
    I particularly enjoy the use of pickled lemons in grills also.

    adrian webb on

  • Imam Bayaldi is my favourite middle eastern dish. A wonderfully healthy way to eat aubergines and one of my summer regular dishes. Bliss.

    Rosalind Oakes on

  • I love a lamb tagine with syrupy dates and colourful apricots, brought up to temperature in the tagine pot in the oven, cooked long and slow to provide a melting feast. Adorned with little jewels of pomegranate, chopped pistachios for crunch and a green herb for colour.
    Served with freshly made flatbread to scoop up all the juices.

    Jenny on

  • Has to be felafel for me the fresh herbs, lush colour and mix of spices provides a gorgeous light meal in a pitta with a touch of tahini and salad.

    Andy French on

  • Looks fantastic I cant wait to see it and try some ricipes

    John Humphris on

  • I love the evocative flavours of middle eastern dishes and one of my favourite dishes is Persian rice as it goes so well with many meats. The aroma of the spices just takes you away to somewhere warm and exotic

    Teresa Palmer on

  • Coming from a French family, North African and Lebanese food were a big treat, the equivalent of going out for a curry in the UK. I love the prominence of fruit and vegetables, and the striking but delicate flavours of cumin, coriander, allspice and saffron, to name but a few.

    I use recipes from Comptoir Libanais and Carrier’s Taste of Morocco, but our all time favourite is a family recipes for a lamb tagine with apricots and prunes and raw el hangout. It melts in the mouth and has lovely fresh flavours.

    I would love to make Fesenjoon.

    Jill Reed on

  • My favourite Middle Eastern dish is Muhammara. Fabulous flavours.

    Chris Grundy on

  • I adore Persian food – I love Ottolenghi’s recipes, and my current favourite book is Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour. Her preserved lemon and harissa roasted poussins are to die for – served up with a green leaf salad and her bejewelled rice with a crusty bottom (!) – it’s the perfect relaxed dinner party dish. Beautiful flavours of the Middle East! I’m very excited about The Saffron Tales, as I’m always looking out for new ideas and flavour combinations, particularly using the warmth of spices that I love to cook with – saffron, cumin, cinnamon, coriander etc – yum!!

    Alex Hutchings on

  • My favourite recipie is Majuddarah vegetarian rice and lentil dish topped with slow caramelised onions. Traditionally we have this on Good Friday when no meat should be eaten, and it always reminds me of family and my mother, we all still make in our own homes across the country and in the States, which kind of unites us even though we are apart, exactly what a food memory and recipe should do. What is incredible about the dish is how the sum of three basic ingredients can be transformed into something so tasty, basically rice lentils and onions.

    mark Arnold on

  • Love Persian cooking but never been able to cook it at home until now?

    Kerryn Newton-Edward on

  • Anything with harissa! Then baklava for pudding :)

    Victoria Brown on

  • My favourite dish is a lamb and rhubarb tagine, the rhubarb does so much to improve the flavour of the lamb and the tomato based sauce. All I can say is move over apricots.

    Viv W. on

  • Hi, I lived in the Middle East for many years and so many smells take me back there. The smell of freshy baked flatbread, ozzing with zaatar and olive oil, some stuffed with cheese. Then of course the street food, especially falafals. But then they also make the most delicious deserts, dripping with rose water, nuts and honey. We used to go into the shops and taste everything before buying – amazing. Then of course the spices that go into so many Middle Eastern dishes – the smell of the spice souq. I fell a visit is needed after writing this.

    Sindy Shields on

  • I have fond memories of time spent with my Iranian friends who taught me their wonderful culinary skills with delicate use of fruits, flowers and their extracts.. Pistachio & rose water m’hencha has to be a favourite…

    Bex on

  • There are few dishes where I enjoy sweet and savoury together, but Pastilla is something I will order when travelling. The sugar brings out the savoury intensity of the slow cooked pigeon and when you can detect the other spices, beyond just cinnamon, it’s an true delight.

    Antony Rathbone on

  • We have discovered Tahdig which is our favorite thing at the moment. My son is autistic and cooking is his passion, he found the recipe for this and has been cooking it for us a lot !

    Kim Vincent on

  • My favorite middle eastern dish is a Persian dish called “Loobia Polo”. You could say it’s a Persian version of a biriyani by how it looks, but it tastes completely different. You combine minced meat, long beans, and rice with a hint of tomato and let it slow-cook until the delicious aroma fills the kitchen.
    It reminds me of when I was younger, I used to visit Iran with my family during the summer. We would spend time at the Caspian sea and spend time with my lovely relatives. My aunt would make such a delicious “Loobia Polo”.

    Aida Golghazi on

  • I love falafel with tabbouleh, flat bread, hummus, and halloumi.

    Afton on

  • Manoushe. As a regular bread-maker it is great to be able to produce something different, but simple. Guaranteed to put a smile on the face, in anticipation, as the flour dusts the kitchen, the dough is kneaded, and the toppings waiting. Life before za’tar – dull, dull, dull.

    Keith Roberts on

  • My favourite dish is saffron curry with herbed rice. My mother was given the recipe as a young women and she handed it down to me. I’m not sure how authentic it was by the time my Italian mother tweaked it to her liking (!) but I loved the yellow curry on top of the green-flecked rice, even as a small child. As an adult, I worked with a young man who was an Iranian refugee and one time, to say thank you for a work-related favour, he gifted me with three “rounds” of Iranian saffron his family, most of whom still lived in Iran, had sent him. Each round was just over a gram, and these were worth their weight in gold, as there was an embargo against Iranian goods at that time in the US. This dish remains not only one of my favourite Iranian-based dishes, but one of my top-ten favourite recipes of all time. Many memories of family and friends, and such a beautiful, fragrant flavour — Absolutely the best!

    Mrs_MG on

  • My favourite dish is Maqluba – I first tasted it in Edinburgh in 1980, made for us by a Jordanian friend who was staying with us for a couple of months. He was missing his family and was welcome in ours.
    We didn’t have the full array of flavours as not everything was easily available, but it’s still my best memory, as it was made for us, and shared, in friendship (also love only having one pot to wash!).

    Elizabeth O'Connor on

  • Slow cooked lamb with harissa, or a spice rub. and anything with pomegranate in!

    Hannah on

  • Tadiq! A persian friend’s niece lived here in Paris for a year and made the most extraordinary dishes. She would serve various meats like chicken and lamb over rice with the wonderful tadiq crust in pieces on top. The combinations of rice and meat with little gems of sour barberries bursting in your mouth harmonising with the rice, saffron and spices was wonderful but the best part was crunching on the tadiq, the spicy crust of rice from the bottom of the pot.

    Nina C. Melis on

  • I love pistachio baklava, a mouth watering delicacy made of wispy, thin sheets of Philo dough soaked in syrup and layered with pistachios. It can take hours to prepare it but it is worth it, it is a real treat.

    Luminita Papaloukas on

  • I’m with Chris – Muhammara is my favourite, but I love the way that dinner guests can be greeted by a table laden with a plethora of both hot and cold Levantine dishes that have been (largely) prepared in advance.

    Conrad Hills on

  • I really like citrus spices salmon with a quinoa lentil salad with lots of herbs. The salmon is covered with orange and lime zest, dried lime powder, sumac, ground rose petals, cumin and olive oil… Lovely flavours!

    Cordula Bellin on

  • After getting hooked on Ottenghi and his amazing cook books the biggest transformation for my house has been creating exciting salads and tabbouleh.

    Previously my mum would just have an iceberg, tomatoes, celery and grated carrot – no dressing!

    Now with pomegranes, lemons, limes, figs, harissa and bulgar wheat we’re excited about salads and how theres so many options to choose from.

    I’m an absolute convert

    Adele on

  • Not a Middle Eastern dish as such, but the Mixed Plate, beloved of Australian Lebanese restaurants, has a special place in my heart. A little mound of megadarra, some tabbouleh, some hummus, a couple of dolmades, a couple of falafel and, if you are really lucky, a freshly fried kibbeh. It’s the perfect meal and I could eat it every day for weeks.

    Alicia Fourie on

  • My favourite middle eastern recipe is baba ganoush, because it helps use up my aubergines each autumn, and visitors always love it, whether with flat-bread or crusty French bread.

    Jane Le Maux on

  • My favourite has to be Baklava, the ultimate end to any delicious Middle Eastern feast.
    The look totally sums up the areas of its origin – golden tempting layers of beauty, and the taste just takes you to a land of sweet aromatic sunshine. A perfect dessert enjoyed all over the world.

    Claire Slattery on

  • My favourite food is Iranian Jewelled Rice as it is so beautifully coloured and fragrant – like a jeweller’s treasure box of precious gems. My Polish mother was a refugee in Iran after the second world war and her memories of Iranian cookery inspired my interest in this cuisine. This has to be a firm favourite for our family as we eat this whilst listening to my mother’s memories of the warmth and welcome received by Iranian people. I would love to visit Iran to experience this cuisine first hand. In the meantime, I shall cook the recipes.

    Karen Stringer on

  • Any Tagine dish. Has such rich and deep flavours, unlike anything else.

    Mia Lovatt on

  • Mujadarrah – the most humble ingredients transformed into the most addictive comfort food

    Janet on

  • Chicken Shwarma, easy basic recipe and made in 20 minutes. Serve with pitta or a large tortilla wrap with salad and a nice mint yoghurt sauce. Who needs a takeaway.

    Nigel on

  • Chicken Fatteh. A glorious, layered dish with many flavours and textures. Takes time to put together the different elements but with a cold beer or glass of wine it’s a pleasurable way to spend an afternoon.

    Leigh on

  • I think Persia has mastered the art of cooking perfect rice even though rice probably originated in South Asia and migrated to Persia. The south Asian preparations do not put the emphasis on cooking the rice as perfectly as the Persian cuisine does. It’s sublime in its flavour, simplicity and beauty of each grain, that stands out.
    Accompanying the rice, the barbecued meats especially chicken and lamb, cooked simply, with minimal additions, sing praises of the ingredient.
    It’s the overall simplicity, uncomplicated and clean flavours of Persian food, that speaks of each ingredient beautifully, which set it apart from any other cuisine. It’s earthy and links the eater to our shared ancient food history. As one goes east from Persia, (on a culinary journey), it’s the same general preparation of ingredients, which gets added to, spiced up. Remove the layers and the base is Persian.

    Anuradha Bhatt on

  • Fish tagine and spicy liver

    Barbara on

  • I first ate couscous made in a couscousier in Africa. there was goat chicken lamb and beef in it with a variety of hot sauces and fruity sauces. for a big outdoor party it beats a barbecue hollow. So I would choose a real home made couscous like the one made by my Lebanese friend and which I have tried fairly successfully to emulate on hot summer days for my family and friends

    Helen on

  • As a young chef I havent had the chance to taste much middle eastern cooking, however on my trip to Turkey I don’t think I tried anything better than simple walnut baklava with its syrupy goodNess oozing with every bite of the beautifu nutty thing. Not only my favourite middle eastern dish but my favourite pastry all together

    Louis Chisholm on

  • I absolutely love Ghormeh Sabzi – it is such a wonderfully fragrant and unusual dish. Easy to make too, and so delicious with saffron rice studded with jewel-like barberries.

    Henry T on

  • I am a baker and a personal chef, although I am Italian my culinary love is with persian and middle eastern cuisine. I follow a Food52 blog and some of my favourite recipes to cook and eat are the amazing roasted eggplant dip called Kashke bademjan, then the jewel rice with some lamb shank cooked in pomegranate and quince sauce and to end I always bake the persian love cake…pistachios, rose, cardamom…mmm yummy!!! now I want to cook a feast.

    nuvola bianca tivoli on

  • It has to be Cauliflower and chickpea tagine, I believe it is a Moroccan recipe, I had it from a friend so not sure of its origin.

    Gillian Sathanandan on

  • Mézès. Imagine a table in Beirut. White linen ground showing between medallions of colourful mézès. In the heart of the old Ottoman Empire, a Byzantine array of dishes from Persia, Kurdistan, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia.
    Colours of carpets from Tabriz, Isfahan, the designs and style, Selendi and Cairene, woven into a pattern of plates overfull of hummus, dishes of labeneh lit with bright mint, chickpeas with lemon, chickpeas with garlic, coriander falafel, lamb sausages, and lamb skewered with red pepper in hot sauce.
    Many, many mézès. Pita bread to dip in muhammara, baba ganoush with a touch of tahini. A warp and weft of colour. A magic carpet. Taste the fairy food and fly. You’ll forget all for a moment, an hour. Transported to the divan of the Emir. Who passes the door, glimpsed from the corner of an eye? Haroun al Raschid, incognito in the night. You smile and your fingers hover over a tapestry lovingly woven by an unseen hand, panoply of viands, sorcery of sauces, hot with the breath of adventure.
    Jawaneh eat some? Oh, yes.

    (Glossary: Jawaneh – Scots for “would you like to?”)

    Andrew Paterson on

  • I adore Persian lamb with Chilau rice. Best dish my Mum makes :)

    Rebecca Clulow on

  • Mejadra – comfort food at its best. Plus it has soft fried onions. Yum.

    Anna Schilling on

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