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May 19, 2008 12:32 AM

Difference between Persian and Middle East Food

Wondering if any 'Hounds can elaborate on the differences between Persian and Arabic cuisine? I realize they are entirely different cultures, but it's difficult to learn much about middle east food matters simply by going to restaurants. It seems to me Persians use more saffron-based dishes, whereas Arabic kebabs are more often flavored with mint and coriander, but I could be WAY off base. A few words or a pointer to an informative web site would be welcome. TIA-

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  1. Persian and Arabic are kind of totally different to each other. Persian traditional dishes are predominately herb and vegetable based with a little nit of meat (apart from main meat dishes!), while Arabic ones are rely mainly on meats. Also Persian dishes do not use hot-spices like chili or pepper - nor they use much oil - in contrast to Arabic, which are hot and oily. To my experience Persian food is much healthier option than the Arabic.


    15 Replies
    1. re: Vizzini

      Arabic cuisine is hot and oily? Where are you eating?

      What i've learned about persian cuisine is that it's more close to India's and Pakistan's cuisine than it is to middle eastern, as it uses similar spices and herbs and its reliance on rice (a persian friend of mine said that one of the tell-tale signs of a mariagable woman was her ability to make good rice.).
      Prior to being a trade thoroughfare during the spice years, Persia also conqured most of Pakistan and N. india, bringing its spices, herbs, and rice (think basamati: think biyriani) to the region.

      Saffron, and other spices (think cumin, fenugreek, coriander) are halmarks of persian food, as is its use of the ubiquitious herb platter served with every meal that contains Cilantro, Mint, Parsley, feta-like cheese and Walnuts.
      More of the fat is from butter/ghee than from oils.

      Middle eastern food relies on a few choice spices, though not in excess. Allspice is a hallmark of lebanese cuisine, as is cinnamon and sumac, though in my belief there is a greater reliance on herbs like parsley, mint, and Zatar (a wild thyme herb blend) than any one or two spices. Rice is used, but not to the extent of persia, bulgar is common throughout the cuisine.

      Contrary to Vizzini's belief, middle eastern food is not greasy, but it does use more olive oil than butter. Spiceynesss is more common in Turkey (a region i don't consider the middleeast) than I find in the rest of the region. As for healthiness: it's a butter vs. olive oil debate...I'll take the latter.

      1. re: sixelagogo

        Middle Eastern cuisine is tough to lump together considering it stretches from the Atlantic (Morrocco) across North Africa to the border of Iran (Iraq).......many dishes common to an area are unknown elsewhere......

        1. re: Saddleoflamb

          The Maghrebi countries are not usually considered part of the Middle East, which traditionally starts where the desert reaches the sea (it does include Egypt, also an African country, but not Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco).

          The "Arab world" (which includes several other peoples, including Berbers, Kurds, Armenians etc) is divided into two parts, the Maghreb (North Africa) and the Machrek (Middle East.

        2. re: sixelagogo

          " (a persian friend of mine said that one of the tell-tale signs of a mariagable woman was her ability to make good rice.). "

          Funny, I have heard that quote from an Egyptian friend of mine working and living in Saudi Arabia. I think rice is as important in Middle Eastern cuisines. As Saddleoflamb points out, it is hard to lump all Middle Eastern cuisine together...

          1. re: moh

            "one of the tell-tale signs of a mariagable woman was her ability to make good rice"

            In Lebanon and Syria it's the ability to make good fried kibbeh

            1. re: scubadoo97

              In Turkey, it's the ability to make really good Turkish coffee that marks a marriagable woman. Different strokes!

              When I was preparing to move to Iran (but never got there), one of the things I was told distinguishes Iranian/Persian food is no use of garlic. In some provincial parts of Turkey it's peeled and served as an hors d'ouvre. And in Saudi, a sheik may serve you sheep's eyeballs raw. I always found it useful to try to explore the menu before accepting the invitation.

              Traditional Iranian/Persian food is, as someone has already stated, milder than the food of its neighbors. But I would be surprised if that's still true today. Thanks to fusion cooking, the foods of the world are becoming homogenized and Iranian food is probably no exception.

              1. re: Caroline1

                No garlic? Northern Iranian cuisine is all about garlic.

                1. re: kkak97

                  kibbeh-neyeh (the raw stuff) is certainly the way to my heart

                  1. re: sixelagogo

                    I'll second that motion! Some raw sweet onion and good pocket bread; ther's nothing finer!!!!!

            2. re: sixelagogo

              Persian: refined, use of chicken and fish, sweet and sour, delicate and fresh spicing, more reliance on rice. Fruits are used extensively, either on their own or in seasoning (pomegranate molasses). Savory dishes like quail or chicken often contain fruit (sour cherry, pomegranate, prunes) and nuts. Peppery and fresh herbs like cilantro, dill, coriander, cresses are favored. More central Asian flavors abound.

              Middle-Eastern cuisine: Rustic, heavily favors chicken and lamb, warm and tart seasonings, more reliance on grain. Food is often simple in prep: mashing, layering, stewing. Seasonings like cumin, allspice, cinnamon, za'atar give a warm flavor while mint, lemon, sumac, parsley brighten slightly. Bread is the normal accompaniment to a meal, along with an array of pulses. Oils are used with a heavier hand, but more as a flavoring (olive, sesame). Salty foods like olives and feta are enjoyed. More Mediterranean flavors.

              N. Indian and Pakistani Moghul cuisine was heavily influenced by the Persian cookery in the royal courts, largely in elaborate and yogurt-heavy dishes, but its spicing relies heavily on South Asian flavors. And rice did not travel from Persia to India, rather it happened the other way around.

              1. re: JungMann

                I'm a complete neophyte, but had noticed the emphasis on tangy or sour flavors in Persian food. I'm thinking of ghorme sabzi, or some of the marinades for chicken kabobs. Your first paragraph seems to agree with me; what do yo think?

                1. re: WCchopper

                  I'm very much in agreement. That informative chow link posted below also highlights the Persian affinity for tartness via dried limes, sumac and pomegranate, as well as the fresh flavors of herbs like mint, basil and tarragon. Those two flavors really define Persian cuisine for my palate and differentiate it from Middle Eastern (mainly Levantine, Egyptian and Gulf).

              2. re: sixelagogo

                I've lived in Middle-East for well over 11 years, since the age of 7 -- countries including Iran, Saudi, Kuwait and Iraq in 1970s. So my eating experience is not of London or LA restaurants to tell you where did I eat!

                Anyway, as you stated Persian food is closely related to Pakistani or Indian foods, but without 'Hot' and 'oily' stuff. However, Arabs have also adopted many of Persian dishes after the fall of Sasanian Iran in 7th century.

                In Iran number of herbs known as the 'heavenly herbs" which are main ingredients for Persian dishes are: mint, Persian basil, Persian chives, costmary, tarragon, marjoram, radish, watercress, coriander, parsley, dill, fenugreek, bayleaf, oregano, water mint, spinach. There is a dish called Qormeh Sabzi, which the mentioned herbs all mixed together with lamb cubs,cooked for well over two hours. Also raw herbs are placed next to the cooked dishes, known as 'Sabzi Khordan' meaning 'herb bowl' consist of mint, tarragon, marjoram, Persian chives, radishes, spring onions and costmary or alecost.

                In addition to herbs in Persian kitchens dried, salted, pickled or reduced fruits, peas and beans also play major role.


              3. re: Vizzini

                I only registered here to like your comment, I know I'm late,, but you're absolutely right, Persian ppls don't like oily foods,, but Armenian ppls are swimming in oil, I visited Armenia & I couldn't find healthy food here, even if you ordered vegetables they're cooked them in oil,, it has been my last time to visit Armenia! Even there's no McDonald's burger King, pizza Hut & etc... Strange!

              4. I am totally open to being corrected on this - but I wonder if the difference between Persian and Arab cuisine is based on the Persian population being historically sedentary and the Arab population being historically more nomadic?

                However, cooking that is often perceived as "Middle Eastern" I have seen range from Morocco all the way through countries like Uzbekistan and Georgia. You'll have a lot of the kebab dishes and even some of the spices - but there's also a clear Russian influence.

                5 Replies
                1. re: cresyd

                  "However, cooking that is often perceived as "Middle Eastern" I have seen range from Morocco all the way through countries like Uzbekistan and Georgia. You'll have a lot of the kebab dishes and even some of the spices - but there's also a clear Russian influence."...........cresyd

                  It's the last vestiges of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    I wonder how much of the common foodstuff in that region is a result of the Muslim Empire/Spice Trade/Ottoman Empire/Byzantine empire vs stuff originating independently in various regions. I mean, something like tzadiki (Greece/Turkey), raita (India/Pakistan), and chaka (Iran/Afghanistan) is basically the same thing. Yogurt (made from various kinds of milk in different ways), cucumber, a variation of spices that often include mint, and depending on the region - other stuff. This use of yogurt is pervasive through out the "greater Middle East" region, and I just wonder how much of it is the result of simultaneous origin.

                    I often feel the same way about "Middle Eastern" food as I do about "American" food. Sure there are common bonds - but to describe where the region starts and stops isn't entirely clear and there's a lot of borrowing and modifying.

                    1. re: cresyd

                      Ever looked at the maps? Here's one of the Byzantine Empire:
                      The red line outlines it's area circa 656CE, when Justinian was Emperor. It started shrinking after his death.

                      And here's the Ottoman Empire, circa 1580, under Suleiman the Magnificent.

                      To my mind, the borders of either of these empires leaves little room to entertain thoughts of parallel cooking developments. Official court languages never leave as lasting a mark on a conquered territory as delicious new ways of preparing food.

                      When I lived in Greece, I already knew how to make "tzatziki." And for the record, Greek was the official language of the Byzantine court, and of course, tzatziki is the Greek name. But I had already learned to make it when I lived in Turkey, and Turkish (albeit written in Arabic script) was the official language of the Ottoman Empire. In turkey it is called "cacik.". Same dish; yogurt, garlic, grated cucumbers, olive oil and salt to taste. And it doesn't much matter whether you order souvlaki or shish kebab (or shashlik, for that matter), you're going to be served the same thing.

                      Yup. The last vestiges of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires are still to be found today in the food of a large part of the Mediterannean region, but especially in what we call the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and North Africa.

                      1. re: Caroline1

                        I have looked at those maps, and am aware that there was a lot of cross government - and food can move that way. However, that doesn't entirely explain raita or where it started first. Also - as tasty as it's not exactly the most enlightened/complicated concoction.

                        I'm just thinking that if something as complicated as agriculture managed to simultaneously start in three different areas, I'm not going to write off yogurt and cucumber as being specific to one region that then spread through empires.

                  2. The town I live in (a suburb just north of Toronto) has had a influx of Persian restaurants in the last two years. In a spirit of adventure, we tried a few. What a disappointment.The meats are either kebabs, or ground meat in various shapes. If I were charitable, I would say the spicing is subtle; being blunt, I'll say it's non-existent. All the meat is over-cooked to the point where "well done" is just a sign in the rear-view mirror. No sauces, no relishes, and the sides are a few paltry vegetables with little or no apparent flavour, and a ton of white rice, which I can't eat.

                    Middle eastern food is much more interesting, IMHO. Great appetizers like hummus, tzaziki, baba ganoush, and great salads like tabouleh, fatoush, and ezme. Mains are usually chicken, beef or lamb, prepared in various ways - roasted, fried, or grilled. Chicken shawarma, roast lamb, beef balls - all are served with interesting vegetables, and complementary sauces. I lived in Detroit for a while, and enjoyed visiting Dearborn, which has a huge middle Eastern population, for dinner, as did my family. And don't get me started on their delicious desserts, which sadly I cannot indulge in anymore.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: KevinB

                      Sounds like bad Persian restaurants. (The tons of white rice is right, but it should be deliciously flavored.) Keep an eye out for homestyle stews--lots of vegetables, a little meat, amazing flavors.

                      1. re: KevinB

                        That is a specific type of Persian restaurant, (here in Montréal, those are mostly patronized by taxi drivers). I'm sure there are also good Persian restaurants in Toronto, with the many lovely vegetable dishes.

                      2. What informative replies, thanks all. I definitely see how difficult it is to learn much of an ethnic cuisine from restaurants, which tend to modify originals for local ingredients and tastes.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: BobtheBigPig

                          I was searching around a bit---you got my interested peaked- and found this feature on Persian cuisine in Chow...It's really informative and includes history of cuisine, typical ingredients, and recipes...definately worth checking out


                        2. the first Persian restaurant I went to was in Ealing, west London and I was disappointed to find it was more like Indian and I was expecting something different. They had lots of biryanis.
                          Here's a question though. What is the difference between Persian and Iranian? I have been to an Iranian restaurant in NW London (West Hampstead) and that menu included kebabs and stewed lamb but I didn't consider it to be so Indian at all.

                          I now live in S Florida so there is nothing comparable here.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: smartie

                            I think the best Persian restaurants in London are Behesht in NW and Alunak or Alounak in Kensington.


                            1. re: smartie

                              "What is the difference between Persian and Iranian?"

                              uhh more than a few centuries and a gradual shrinkage of geographic boundaries?