“After dinner sit a while, and after supper walk a mile”. -Iranian Proverb
Iran is generally a semi arid and desert country with the exception of the north and parts of the south which are subtropical rainforest. This means that throughout Iran there is a vivid variety of different types of agricultural environment and wildlife and with this- diverse types of food. Throughout the ancient era, namely the 7th century BC Iran was divided into diverse states/tribes, Parsa (Persia), Mādai (Media) and Parthava (Parthia) this meant that different cultures and cuisines flourished. However with the conquest and the unification of Iran under Cyrus the great (559-530BC) and with it the cultures and cuisines of these city states became one. As Iran began to expand its empire its cuisine was influenced by other nations and states. By the Sassanian Empire (224-651AD) Iran’s cuisine was possibly the most diverse in the known world. This article focuses on ancient Iranian cuisine from the Achaemenid Empire (559BC-332BC) subsequently on to the Parthian Empire (250BC-224AD) and ultimately on to the Sassanian Empire (224-651AD) and its impact on modern and ancient world alike.
Cuisine of the Achaemenid Empire (559-332BC)
Cyrus the Great of Persia (559-530BC), had taken over the largest empire on earth, stretching from modern day Pakistan in the east to western Turkey (known as Ionia). Before Cyrus, Iran was made up of a collect of tribes and states. The diets of these people in Persia were very simple made up of bread, cheese and some forms of vegetables and fruit. By the early 6th century BC under Darius I, Iranian people’s diet was varied namely the nobles and kings. This included all sorts of meats, vegetables (imported from India and the banks of the Nile) nuts (from the hills of central Iran) and complex dishes. According to Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the nobles would have vast feasts during their birthdays the servants would bake a large piece of bread and slaughter two types of animals, these were adult goats and camels, and then they would be slow roasted and served to the family.
The Iranians of the Achaemenid Empire were lovers of feasts and apparently very fussy eaters, every Nowrūz the Persians would have feasts of gigantic proportions and were the “men would be intoxicated with every type of food known to them”. Vast vineyards would have been grown throughout southern Iran especially around were modern Shiraz as it provides the finest conditions for growing grapes. Even now days people grow grapes to sell on as wine the famed “Shiraz” brand is very popular amongst the western world.
Strabo describes enormous vines of grapes in Margiana (Marv) and the rich wines of Aria (Herat) and Hyrcania (Golestān, Māzandarān and Gilān). Ancient Persians were great lovers of wine and consumed it in large quantities. Best vintage-wines, from Persia and other parts of the Empire such as Syria, were served at the royal table; the office of cup-bearer in the palace was of particular importance.
In the Avesta there are a number of references to food and its preparation. Milk from cows, sheep, goats, mares, and asses could be boiled or not, skimmed or not; the term gauu- is used especially in the common phrase haoma-gauua “haoma [a drink] that is with milk” butter and cheese are also mentioned. Meat, especially beef as well as other foods, could be xasta or axast, a word of uncertain derivation and origin, which according to the Pahlavi translations meant “cooked, uncooked”; it is said that the mythical hero Karasaspa cooked a .Young Iranian boys went through rigorous training According to Strabo, had to be able to withstand hardship, and so they had to learn to live on wild fruits such as pistachio, acorns and wild pears. These were fruits that the king always expected to be served on his table. In the sixth century BC when Cyrus the Great was about to defeat the Median forces, the last Median ruler, Astyages, looked over the vast Persian force and exclaimed: “Woe, how brave are these pistachio-eating Persians!” (Strabo xv.iii.18).
Cheese or panīr was common amongst all of society from the poorest peasants to the King of Kings himself. A feta type of cheese made from either cow or goat’s milk was developed, and would have been eaten with bread and herbs such as mint and basil (in the same manner as modern panīr is eaten). Cheese however, was not a new invention it is referred to have had its place in society as early as 8000BC. Interestingly, a letter of Epicurus to his patron requests a wheel of hard cheese, so that he may make a feast whenever he wishes. Pliny recorded the tradition at Rome that Zoroaster had lived on a diet of cheese.
Honey was used as a sweetener for cakes, biscuits and other dishes during the Achaemenid era, and is referred to have been imported from the finest honey producers “of the country of Ionia and the Nile ”according to the inscriptions found on Persepolis, the Ionians brought the Kings honeycombs and beehives during the Nowrūz celebration, this may have been used to develop a sort of “royal honey farm” possibly developed in the surrounding regions of Persepolis such as Fars and central the Iranian plains for the Kings own personal use. Honey was a delicacy for urban dwellers of cities but was frequently used by the aristocracy and occasionally used by honey producers themselves but in very small quantities because of the vast expense and value of honey.
Saffron ('Hausknechtii') and other spices were cultivated across Iran especially around modern day Isfahan for rich yellow dyes, perfumes, teas and medicine as well as sweeteners of a variety of dishes.
We are given some kind of idea as to what food was provided by ambassadors to the Kings from across the Empire during Nowrūz time, this is thanks to the carvings and inscriptions depicted on the walls of Persepolis. For example ambassadors of Ionia (in western Turkey) brought the King honeycombs and the people of Kandahara brought large animals which seem to be live herds of oxen (possibly slaughtered and served to the King and the royal family).
During Xerxes campaign in Greece (480BC-479BC), Herodotus reports that the Persian army moved out from Sardis to Greece. Although no references as such are made to specific food eaten by the soldiers, there is a strong possibly that the Persians would have been supplied food from the near by regions of Greece and Macedon. The Macedonians and northern Greece would have probably provided the massive army with food and supplies. There are also references to the fact that Xerxes sent ambassadors to the cities of Greece demanding tribute and “entertainment” for when the Persians would arrive at the individual cities. Interestingly, it is said that soldiers of King Darius the Great baked flat bread on their shields and then covered it with cheese and dates in the same manner as modern pizzas.
The Achaemenid king Artaxerxes III of Persia (358-338BC) is reported to have had banquets on massive scales while in his capital of Persepolis, these would have included dishes such as early forms of khoresht’s like Fesenjān made up of pomegranates, chicken (or duck) and walnuts. Another type dish included fresh grilled fish (sea bass), saffron and rice from India. Desserts are mentioned as being (not surprisingly) made up of fruits such as dates, walnuts, watermelons, grapes, prunes, cherries, apricots, plums, figs, pomegranates, olives, cucumbers, and of course pistachio nuts which would have been lightly salted.
Also rose water or golâb was added (or poured over) different types of sweets and fruits in the same manner of as modern sweeteners and additives; however rose water was also drank in small quantities and used as perfumes (known as “rose perfume”).
The general term for cold meat dishes was afsard; halām (potted meat) was one of the categories of such dishes. It was recommended that afsard be prepared from the meat of the following animals: ox (gāw), wild ass (gor), deer (gawazn), wild boar (warāz), baby camel (ustar-kawādag), yearling calf (gōdar), buffalo (gaw-mes), domesticated wild ass (gor-i-kadagig), and domestic pig (xug). The preferred afsard was made with the meat of a male calf fed on clover (aspast) and barley; it was prepared with vinegar and seasoned “properly” (ewenihā).
The luxurious style of the Persian kings was illustrated by Xenophon with a story that people sought throughout the country for drinks and dishes to please the king at dinner. In the same vein Dinon reported that “at the king’s table there were served all the delicacies produced by the country over which the king ruled, and each of the finest grades.” The great king thus had special bread made of wheat from Assus in the Aeolis (or Troad) and Chalybonian wine from Syria, the grapes for which were grown in the vineyards around Damascus. He drank only the water of the EulaeusRiver (near Susa), the lightest water of all, or of the Choaspes, which flows by Susa.
In contrast to this royal luxury, Strabo reported that the highlanders of northern Media lived on the fruits of trees, made cakes out of sliced and dried apples and bread from roasted almonds, squeezed wine from certain roots, and ate the meat of wild animals.
Parthian Empire (250BC-224)
The Parthians were originally a tribe from northern Iran, who came to dominate much of the Middle East and central Asia by the 1st century BC. Cuisine would not have changed much expect for the fact the new cultures had entwined with that of Parthia, especially that of Greece and so would have gone mostly unchanged since the Achaemenid era.
The Parthians in the late 3rd century BC seemed to have been nomads relying on the land and for food for them and grazing their horses. They were masters of hunting and foraging. According to some historians of the times the Parthians had a very in-depth knowledge of herbs, spices, vegetables and teas of the regions of Greater Khorasan, Turkmenistan and Hyrcania (which comprised of modern day Golestān, Māzandarān and Gilān) .The Parthians used this to their advantage and used herbs to create new, forms of exquisite, unique and flowerily dishes.
Most information on Parthian cuisine was written by the Romans, principally De Re Coquinaria by Marcus Gavius Apicius. In addition, there are a number of other sources containing classical Roman recipes with references to Parthia, the most important being De Agricultura by Marcus Porcius Cato.
One example is “Parthian bread” and historian Pliny the elder claimed that it would keep for centuries. Parthian bread was a very hard, barely risen biscuit. This must be the same hard tack or biscuit that was the staple food of soldiers and sailors for millennium. Another Romanized traditional Parthian dish was Agnum Pasticum made from primarily lamb with white wine and “garlic and garnishes”.
Seafood seems to have been important part of Parthian cuisine, especially amongst the southern strips of the Parthian Empire. The easiest way to find what most Parthians ate in these regions is to look at the province of Khūzestān. This is because the Parthians heavily influenced the province and unlike most other provinces of the Empire, imposed full control over it. Dishes included what modern people Khūzestān eat; fish including sturgeon (yielding its roe for caviar), bream, whitefish, salmon, mullet, carp, catfish, perch, and roach. More than 200 species of fish are found in the Persian Gulf, 150 of which are edible, including shrimps and prawns.
Sassanian Empire (224AD-651AD)
The Sassanians led by their leader Ardeshir I of Persia conquered all of the old Parthian Empire and became “Rome’s only equal in antiquity” the Sassanians were an efficient and organized hyper-power along with the Roman Empire.
What we learn when we read out Sassanian cuisine is that they had a certain sweet tooth not found in Iran, or the Middle East in late antiquity. It is also odd that inhabitants of a semi arid country would want or have the need to eat sugary foods. Nevertheless we are provided with a vivid and rich idea of the sugary world of the Sassanian Emperors when they were not at war with the Romans:
“The coconut with sugar they eat it, in Indian they call itanārgīl and in Persian goz-i-hindug (Indian nut), and the Hyrcanian pistachio nut, when in saltwater they roast it, and tender chickpeas, when they eat them roasted in ābkāmag [and] the date of Hīra which is stuffed with walnut, fresh pistachio nuts and the Armenian peach and chestnuts with solid sugar.” (Monchi-Zadeh, op. cit., p. 74.)
As referred in the text above most of these products would have been imported from India and the eastern provinces of the Sassanian Empire. As distant as the fertile foot hills of Imaus (Himalayas) mountain range, as well as being imported from parts of China.
The most common word for all kinds of sweets was rogen-xarardig (Draxt-i-Asurig; Pahlavi Texts). In Khosrow ud Redag the following types were recommended for summer lozenag (almond sweetmeat); gozenag and goz-afrosag (two kinds of walnut sweetmeat); carb-afrosag, made with the fat of the carz (bustard) or deer and fried in walnut oil. For winter lozenag, siftenag (milk pudding), wafrenag, and labara were recommended, but a kind of jelly made from the juices of apples and silver quince was preferred to all others.
Gaz or Nougat was also a sweet dish created during the mid Sassanian period, the name gaz is associated with gaz-angebin which translates to "sap of angebin"; a desert plant member of the Tamarisk family and native to the Zagros mountain range located in western Iran. The sweet, milky sap of the angebin plant is associated with manna, a food mentioned in the religious texts of the Abrahamic religions. This sap is collected annually and is combined with other ingredients including pistachio or almond kernels, rosewater and egg white. These combinations of ingredients give gaz its distinctive flavour, rendering it unique when compared to European nougats.
The general term for jams was ambag, literally “mango,” which came by extension to mean jam. The following types were recommended in Khosrow ud Redag singibel (ginger), hailag (myrobalan), goz (walnut), and. The favorite was, however, of Chinese ginger and myrobalan, possibly sweetened with saffron, sugar or honey.
The Romans knew that certain fruits that had entered the Mediterranean world were Persian in origin or came via Persia. The most famous of these was the peach, known to the Romans as Amygdalus Persica, and its tree was known as Melea Persike or simply Persike. In fact, most European languages associate the peach with Persia. And not only did the Mediterranean world associate the peach with Persia, but so did the Chinese. Golden peaches sent to China from Samarkand were considered the proxies of all exotic goods in medieval China.
Note: this next section of the Bundahisn is found in both the Iranian and the Indian Bundahisn which was the sixteenth chapter of Anklesaria’s translation, followed by J.P. Asmussen’s English M. Bahar and R. Behzādi’s Persian translations:
“There are 30 kinds of principal fruits, ten kinds of which the inside and outside are edible: fig and apple and quince and Citrus Medica and grapes and mulberry and pear and now other 10 are edible outside but not edible inside: date and peach and white Chinese apricot and lote and plum and wild plum and 10 are edible inside and not outside: walnut and almond and pomegranate and coconut and hazelnut and chestnut and the Hyrcanian tree which is also called pistachio.” (R. Behzādī, Bundahisn-e Hindi, Tehran, 1368, pp. 59-60, 112.)
Wine (just like during the Achaemenid era) was popular in the Sassanian Empire. The best were Babylonian wine and Bādag Vazrangīg (probably from Vāzrang in Fārs province). Among types of food eaten with wines were dānēnag, myrobalan, xāmiz, and bazm awurd (a sort of canapé).
But food in Sassanian Iran was not all covered in a thick coating of sugar, a diverse variety of savories and main courses began to emerge. Early forms of kabābs began to be created; this was enjoyed by the Emperors to the lowest soldiers who used their swords to grill meat over open-field fires.
Although a simple form of kabāb (obeliskos) is mentioned in Ancient Greece these Greek kebabs’ would not have been remotely similar to the modern ones, instead cooked with pieces of cheese and ash. Sassanian kebabs’ would have probably been made from pieces of meat (mainly lamb, chicken and cow) skewered and grilled or fried. Then it is possible that it had been eaten with flat bread (naan) and (or) vegetables. One of the kabāb dishes popular amongst the royal family was the best quality fresh chicken that was marinated overnight in a mixture of finely chopped onions, salt and saffron; it was then barbecued with green peppers and garlic. Rice and saffron was added and finally butter and powdered sumac and fresh basil was mixed in. This was the medieval equivalent of Jūjeh-kabāb. However funnily enough this so called first kabābs has little sources to back it up. Another common meal type was chicken or duck marinated with torshi.
Under Khosrow I or Anushiravan the Just, vast quantities of rice, nuts, spices and fruits were imported from India and China. Caviar the luxurious delicacy of the Caspian Sea also seems to have been commonly eaten by the aristocracy.Beluga caviar was the most prized, Roman visitors tell us that caviar and red wine was prized by the “Emperors of Persia”. According to tradition it was wrong to plunge ones hand into food and eat and without permission and burp at the table one of the traits of the tribal Arabs that the Persians despised.
Khoresht’s were also developed; these included what seems to be described as a form of Ghormeh sabzi, however it is regarded as highly dubious once again due to lack of evidence and is probably just another “Persian story”. It seems to achieve a balanced taste; the Sassanian used flavorings such as saffron and sumac in their dishes.
Hunting also played a part in the diet of the Emperor, animals such as boars and birds would have been feasted on. A young Bahram Gur is said to have killed both a lion and a zebra in one shot during a hunting trip in Arabia. According to Middle Persian texts, the Sassanian nobles would have eaten a lavish and exotic variety of meat, including boar, deer, peacock (although it peacocks were probably their simply for its magnificent array of colors and beauty rather than its taste), gazelle and pheasant. Animals that would have never been eaten were carnivorous animals like lions and tigers, but some herbivorous such as elephants, this was because the elephant was seen as an “evil animal” according to Zoroastrian and Middle Persian texts.
It would have been rare for peasants and the lower class to have had meat in their diet; they would have commonly eaten vegetables, fruits and bread (naan). We have sources that tell us that peasants would have grown their own fruits and nuts such as pomegranates, grapes, pistachios and vegetables such as cucumbers. According to modern archeological evidence from villages and towns in Iran, peasants would have cured what meat or vegetables they could gather, just as they did in northern Europe during the medieval period. This also included an early version of gherkin (khiyarshur) that was pickled to be eaten throughout the year as well as lamb that were pickled in vinegar and eaten with naan. Peasant’s diets would have been simple and they would have probably lived on a diet of fruits and nuts from trees and vines, pulses and vegetables. Milk and cheese from goats and cows and occasionally meat from wild animals like deer or boar.
Farmers from provinces such as Yazd in the central Iran would have had to injure hardship due to the heat, and had to grow tough hardy vegetables. Farmers would have based their profit and income more on livestock, rather than agriculture. Animals such as sheep, cows, chickens, pigs and possibly camel. These livestock would have been domesticated and probably grazed in the hills and plains. During winter however their owners would forage the land for substances to feed their livestock.
In the north, however (provinces such as day Golestān, Māzandarān and Gilān) would contain agriculture; this would have flourished in the fertile wet lands and woodlands of northern Iran. Vegetables and fruits were grown; this included small privately owned paddy fields, growing rice. The merchants of Iran may have travelled to India and brought back rice seeds to be grown throughout Ērānshahr.
With the emergence of Islam in Arabia, the once mighty Sassanian Empire fell after several fierce and epic battles including the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah, Battle of Jalula and Battle of Nahāvand and so on. By 651AD with the death of the final Sassanian Emperor Yazdgerd III the once great Sassanian Empire ceased to exist.
Believe it or not the cuisine of Iran has in some ways completely changed with the advent of the discovery of new continents (such as the America’s) with the arrival of new ingredients such as tea (from India and China) tomatoes, lemons (which arrived in Iran only half a century after the destruction of the Sassanian Empire) and potatoes. But in others cuisine of Iran has in some ways remained similar to that of ancient Iran, however it has been adapted. Many other cultures and peoples have been influenced (or vice versa) by Iranian cuisine. For example in the Islamic period, particularly under the Abbasid caliphate, the influence of Sassanian Persia was strong the Arabic versions of many Persian names for dishes were cited in a 10th-century cookbook from Baghdad for example, sekbaj (a meat dish with vinegar sauce), faludajiya (a fried-meat dish with sugar, honey, almonds, etc.), and bazmaward (morsels of bread stuffed with roast meat, vegetables, etc.).
Like anything else in history, there are similarities and differences in the topic that is being studied. History has the tendency to repeat itself on several occasions, and according to modern analysis the indigenous people of the Iranian side of Kurdistan culinary traditions are being revived from the late Sassanian periods. In Iran itself it is a different story, the younger generations of Iran enjoy Chinese and Japanese cuisine along side their indigenous ones (and occasionally above), and it has become popular in recent years especially in large centralized cities such as Tehran and Shiraz. As bad as it may seem, this new vide from foreign cuisines is actually good for Iranian cuisine and culture giving it new fresh look on new ideas, ingredients and influences which can be used and borrowed from Chinese and Japanese cuisines to intermingle and to create new recipes for ancient Iranian dishes.
Herodotus Histories “A List of Trades and Crafts in the Sassanian Period,” AMI 7, 1974, pp. 191-96. J. Unvala, The Pahlavi Text “King Khosrow and His Boy,” Paris, n.d. (1921).Rodinson, pp. 148-50 Neue Wege im Altpersischen, Wiesbaden, 1973, pp. 80-89. K. Hoffmann, “Awestisch haoma yō gauua,” MSS 21, 1967, pp. 11-20; repr. in Aufsätze zur Indoiranistik II, Wiesbaden, 1976, pp. 475-82. L. L. (anon.), “Remarks on a Passage of Polyaenus,” The Classical Journal 30, 1827, pp. 370-74. D. M. Lewis, “The King’s Dinner (Polyaenus IV 3, 32),” in H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg and A. Kuhrt, eds., Achaemenid History II. The Greek Sources, Proceedings of the Groningen 1984 Achaemenid History Workshop, Leiden, 1987, pp. 79-87. The Evidence of the Persepolis Tablets,” Cambridge. Hist. Iran II, 1985, pp. 588-609. Encyclopedia Iranica Shadow of the Desert Dr Kaveh Farrokh History of Persian Empire-Olmstead p 289/90 Ctesias M. Brosius, Women in ancient Persia. Āšpazī-e dawra-ye ṣafawī. Matn-e do resāla az ān dawra, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981, pp. 185-256. N. Ramazani, Persian Cooking. A Table of Exotic Delights, Charlottesville, Va., 1982, pp. 71-75. E. Šakūrzāda, Aqāyed o rosūm-e mardom-e Ḵorāsān, Tehran, 1363 Š./1984, pp. 23-76. M. Tehrānī, Ṭabbāḵī-e kadbānū, Tehran, 1346 Š./1967. A. Yāvarī, Moqaddama-ī bar šenāḵt-e kešāvarzī-e sonnatī-e Īrān, Tehran, 1359 Š./1980. Ḥ. Yūsofī, Rāh-e del, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981. “Eat This, It’ll Do You a Power of Good. Food and Commensality among Durrani Pashtuns,” American Ethnologist 13/1, 1986, pp. 62-79. B. Wannell, “Bread Making in Afghanistan,” Afghanistan (London) 10, 1989, pp. 22-23. Textual Sources for the Interpretation of AchaemenidPalace Decorations,” Iran 18, 1980, pp. 55-63. W. Geiger, Ostiranische Kultur im Altertum, Erlangen, 1882; repr. Aalen, Germany, 1979, pp. 228-29. A. C. Gunter, “The Art of Eating and Drinking in Ancient Iran,” Histoire de l’empire perse: De Cyrus à Alexandre, Paris, 1996. Touraj Daryaee “What fruits and nuts to eat in ancient Persia?” Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1.3.8-9
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