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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.


    14 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. 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 is.....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?

                          2. In general, I prefer Middle Eastern food to Persian, but what I have recently discovered in Persian restaurants is an appetizer that consists of a plate of various herbs, with a chunk of feta and walnuts. I forget what they call it, but it is delicious. I have never seen this at a Middle Eastern restaurant.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: omotosando

                              I know exactly what you mean—I've just seen it listed as "persian appetizer." Often, there are raw onions too, if you can handle them:)

                            2. It alll seems pretty similar to me.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: filth

                                I loved the short-lived Whoopi Goldberg sitcom, about 10 yrs ago.
                                Her character was the owner of a small NYC hotel, with a small, immigrant staff. The handyman, Nasim, was from Iran. He insisted on referring to it as Persia. If someone referred to him as Arab, he'd correct them with a blustering, "I'm Persian, not Arab. It's SO obvious!!!"

                              2. Nothing wrong with kebabs, but Persian food is much, much more than that! As with many ethnic cuisines in the US, Persian restaurants will, ahem, simplify their offerings to appeal to the masses. Hence the prominence of meat-on-a-stick!

                                My favorite Persian dishes use combos of fruits, vegetables and meats - fesenjan (poultry with pomegranate/walnut sauce), holu (poultry in a peach sauce), albaloo (sour cherry and meat sauce), etc. Palaus are rice + spices + almost any F/V/M = delicious. Note that the range of climates in Persia/Iran accomodates a much larger variety of foods than much of the middle east.

                                To the OP, your profile says that you're from LA; search the LA board for some recos and maybe find a Persian cookbook or three in the library for some prep. Walk around Westwood and chat up some Persian immigrant store keepers :-).
                                The Tess Mallos cookbook 'The Complete Middle East' includes Persian cuisine; the recipes and great pictures will get your mouth watering.

                                Good hunting!

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: DiveFan

                                  Thanks Divefan. There used to be a great little storefront Italian place in Long Beach which had a "secret" Persian menu. They made a variety of interesting dishes including a wonderful plate of dill-flavored rice with lima beans surrounding a roasted lamb shank. Man, that was good.

                                2. I've grown up in a Persian household, so I know about Persian cooking. Persia and the Arab countries have very different climates. Persia is a temperate climate, more like Europe. They use a lot of vegetables and herbs in Persian cooking. Persians are culturally really still Zoroastrians. They recite old Persian poetry that talks about fruit-tree flowers and stuff and believe in tons of stupid herbal remedy stuff - every herb heals something or every food is good for something, without any real explanation. My grandfather always recites this poem that goes something like "My girlfriend's cheek is red like the radish and the white of her eye is white likes it flesh" The best analogy I can come up with is medieval Europe.

                                  So their food is based on this reverance for temperate herbs, fruits, and vegetables, but with a complete lack of any cooking skill or logic. They just take a bunch of vegetables and whatever they have lying around and throw it into a pot. They also add this dried lime thing that makes everything taste horrible, and they add it to like half their dishes. I really doubt if there are any Iranian cooks who know barely anything about cooking, the most they ever know is how to make good kebab. For example, whenever my father roasts hazelnuts, he coats them with lemon and salt, but he roasts them IN THE SHELL, so I try to explain to him that none of that flavor will actually go onto the actual nut, but he just insists this is the way they did it back in Iran. I've asked if maybe this is so that you can suck the shell sometimes to get the salty tart flavor, but sometimes he says yes, sometimes he says no, and either way he doesn't suck the shell, so it's still pointless. The only way he can answer is that this is what they did back in Iran. Iranians truly don't know how to cook other than direct copying. My mother spends who knows how much on authentic Iranian saffron, and everyday uses it on rice that she makes undercooked, dry and mealy. They'll regularly have no idea what it even is they're putting into a dish - they'll just buy the herb/spice mix package - they know that it's the right mix for the dish, but if it weren't pre-packaged, they wouldn't know what ingredients to buy to make it from scratch. They either severly undersalt the food, or don't salt it at all, because they honestly don't understand that they need to. Every dessert has the same pistachio-rosewater-saffron taste, no matter how different they look. In short, Iranians are like the opposite of the French or Thai when it comes to the kitchen.

                                  I understand that when you go to a Persian restaurant, it usually tastes good, but you have to understand these are catered to American tastes, and everybody only really kebab there anyway. Plus they're running a restaurant, so they HAVE to make it taste good or they'll go out of business. Outside of the restaurant industry, Iranians are horrible cooks, as described above.

                                  The only real part of Iranian cuisine that would taste good is the fruit. The fruit in Iran is probably amazing, since they have a good climate there for temperate fruits, and they probably have good-tasting, old varieties. They also have a wider variety of fruits there - they still eat Medlars, which the West hasn't eaten since like medieval times, and they eat other fruits that have been lost to time for us (cornelian cherries, hawthorn, jujubes, etc.)

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: peanuttree

                                    peanuttree, thanks for confirming some of my observations (above) about Persian cuisine. I'm surprised to hear your opinion of modern Iranian cooks - probably due to the large, relatively well educated local immigrant population I must be lucky. If you've visited SoCal, do you think our restaurants are noticeably different?

                                    Another hint to the OP, follow katkoupai's posts http://www.chow.com/profile/57689 - one of our local Persian 'gurus'.

                                    1. I forgot about the arabic cooking part. I guess the difference is that most of the arabic countries have a MUCH hotter, drier climate, basically dessert. It's not what you'd call a European-type temperate climate. So they don't use all the herbs and fruits and vegetables that Iranians do. Seems it involves more chickpeas and meat. And that description that the other posters gave of having more hot, oily flavors would seem to be true - Iranian food would be the farthest thing from hot and oily.

                                      It's the vegetation thing that makes the biggest difference. You can't grow mint and parsley and apples and quinces and walnuts in a desert. I don't think you get the fresh herbs and vegetables platter in Arabic cooking with every meal that you get with Iranian food, for example.

                                      And yes I understand that not of all the arab countries are deserts, but they're a lot closer to that than Iran is. Like I said, Iran is closer to Europe in climate and subsequent ingredients.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: peanuttree

                                        This may unnecessarily confuse the post - but in Israel, a country that has put a lot of effort in dessert farming and thus has a variety of veggies/herbs, salads are very common with every meal - but many of them involve lightly pickled veggies. Those that don't, most notably the basic "Israeli salad", involve lemon juice. Is this just an Eastern European immigrant import of pickling veggies - or is there any Arab cooking tradition involved with this (the pickling, not lemon juice)?

                                        1. re: cresyd

                                          Probably both; all Levantines eat that wonderful salad, though I'm sure it varies from country to country.

                                          Israel has absorbed a lot of Middle Eastern and Maghrebi cooking not only from the native Palestinians and the neighbouring countries, but also from Jewish immigrants from Yemen, the Levant, Egypt (think Claudia Roden) and the Maghreb. Not to mention Iran and Iraq.

                                          A Maghrebi (mostly Tunisian) food that is very popular in Israel is Chakchouka. (There are many transliterations from Arabic, Hebrew and Ladino).

                                          1. re: lagatta

                                            It's funny to read that post now - as between that post and now, I lived in Jerusalem for 5 years.

                                            Anyways - it's clear now that lots of that food is more a long term swapping of cultures/traditions than anything more recent.

                                          2. re: cresyd

                                            Not to embarrass you for the typo, but when I read "dessert farming", an image of strawberry shortcake plants flashed through my demented brain ;-). Shades of "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

                                        2. If I had to pick one cuisine to live on for the rest of my life it would be Persian food. I think their food is imaginitive, where else could you find fabulous "stews" made with the likes of Rhubarb, or quince? Each Koresht has a humble beginning: bits of stew meat or chicken or lamb. Its all in the way the fruits or vegetables are matched up with the different seasonings and spices. This part is ingenious. The different ways some dishes are sweet/sour, such as Khorest e Karaf, a simple meat and celery dish, but it is artfully flavored with fresh mint, parsely, lime and sugar. or Khorest Badamjan, eggplant with turmeric, a touch of tomato paste and lime, with stew meat is savory and delicious over rice. Fessenjan, which is duck or chicken with ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup, wow.... the different tah diqs or crusty rice, some are made with sliced potatoes crisped on the bottom, some are with pita bread, some made with yogurt combined with saffron and rice to form a crust, each of these depends on what dish will be served with them. There are rice dishes such as basmati layered with lentils, dates, pieces of chicken and a dusting of cinnamon, or sabsi polo, made with a half dozen freshly chopped herbs, or shirin polo, made with dried orange peel that has been sauteed in saffron and butter along with zeresht (small sour berry like barberry), almonds pistashios. I could go on with many more examples. Then there is the concept of combining "hot" foods, such as walnuts or or meats or eggplant, with "cold" foods such as melons, yogurt, etc, for balancing the body. Persian cooking is also visually beautiful and presentation is of utmost importance, so if you are ever lucky enough to be invited to a Persian home, you will be infused with hospitality and delicious, fresh beautiful food.

                                          1. Persian food is generally bland as even salt is hardly even used.

                                            Be careful ever serving food with even a pinch of chilli or pepper to a Persian because many of them consider it intolerable and won't enjoy it. Cooking Asian food for many Persians means omitting all the chilli which results in bland non-Asian food without character, yet Persians will love it because it's all they're capable of handling.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: tiemu

                                              I do not find Persian/Iranian food bland. Certainly there is not a great use of chilli but there is certainly a great use of herbs and spices which makes the food vibrant, fresh and interesting. It makes it sufficiently distinct from the Middle Eastern food to the west and the Afghani & Pakistani food to the east.

                                              1. re: tiemu

                                                Most Middle Eastern palates are similarly averse to chili/heat. With the exception of Yemen - adding is spice is not common and when it is done it's primarily as a condiment.

                                                1. re: tiemu

                                                  Wow, so you consider yourself able to judge the taste buds of a whole nation? (Btw Iran is made up of a large number of ethnicities.. Persian is the dominant one.) what arrogance.

                                                2. As it happens, this week's episode of Splendid Table on American Public Media includes a segment on Persian cooking and some recipes discussion: