Cooking and Baking

How I Learned To Love My Persian Culinary Heritage

Tanya Shelvester November 9, 2017

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Growing up as a Persian Jew in Brooklyn among Ashkenazi high school classmates, I admit that I wasn’t always the most well-adjusted to the culture clash situation. To say I stuck out like a sore thumb would be an understatement.


My friends had kugel, my family had pilaf and raisins. They had gefilte fish, we had salmon smothered in sumac and chunks of garlic. Our cholent was more like curry lamb hamin, laden with enough spices to shut down the fire department in Canarsie!


On many days, I naïvely envied their simple tuna sandwiches with the crust cut off as I sat at the end of the lunch table, hoping no one would catch a whiff of my meatballs in tamarind. When my friends came over, I prepared myself for the grimaces they would display as I opened the door and they inhaled a tornado of meat stirring in cumin and dried lemons. “What is that smell?” they’d ask, and I’d wince.


Spending Shabbat at the homes of Ashkenazi friends was a treat because I had the chance to enjoy Ashkenazi sweets that my family didn’t understand my need for.


“Mamamaa, why can’t we just have pasta?” I would beg.


“AY JAN, pasta is so boring,” Mom would respond. “We carried these recipes and traditions for generations from Tehran and Tabriz. It’s something to be proud of!”


Yet I wasn’t deterred from my embarrassment, despite my mother’s constant assurances that my friends would grow to appreciate the flavors. To my surprise, though, she turned out to be right, but I myself would take even longer to finally embrace and appreciate my culinary heritage.


As I got older (and wiser), I started to delve into my Persian heritage — and for the first time, I discovered I loved it! The food, the music, the beautiful Persian rugs that in my youth I had forced my mom to store in the attic — and, oh, did I mention the food?!


When preparing to cook a meal for my Mom’s birthday, I read that Martha Stewart only uses saffron in her rice. So of course, I put aside Adobo, and decided to give it a try. One trip to Williams Sonoma later, minus precious hours’ worth of babysitting money, I was clutching a tiny glass of precious scarlet stems — 8 stems to be exact!


Back at home, I awkwardly stirred and simmered in the kitchen as my mom patiently waited on nearby with the fire extinguisher, every few minutes renewing an offer to help me. “No, I can do this,” I told her with my newfound confidence, and I pulled out my precious commodity, beaming.


“Oh, saffron,” she said casually, whipping out a large bottle with decorative Arabic letters, “why did you buy saffron? I have a full bottle here.”


“Oh, you use saffron?” I asked, hiding the pain of unnecessarily spending my small fortune.


“Of course!” She smiled and pulled out her stores of coriander, cumin, sumac, curry, and more.


It wasn’t long before I embraced it all and started to truly love Persian cooking. In fact, it was my late-blooming love for Persian food that inspired me to open and run my own catering company.


I’d like to invite you to join me on my Persian culinary journey! You, too can become a great Persian cook. Here are a few things I learned that you should know.


Tanya’s Top 7 Persian Cooking Tips



  1. Warm spices are not only delicious but also healthful. Turmeric adds a deep yellow color to any dish, perfect for chicken and rice or even fish, and studies have shown that it is a wonderful way to counteract inflammation.

  2. Dried lemons or limes are a huge staple in our crowded spice cabinets. They add a spicy-sweet-sour flavor to stews and soups. Mom once mentioned that growing up back home, lemons were vey expensive and rotted easily as her family did not have a fridge. Lemons were therefore dried for cooking with when they were out of season.

    Years later, lemons are found in abundance year round, but the tradition stayed with cooking them in a dried form. It’s hard to believe a small, hard, dried fruit sitting on the bottom of the pot swells to a treat so flavorful, but it simply can’t be replicated any other way. Cooking with fresh lemons will absolutely not have the same result.

  3. Cardamom is the seed of the cilantro herb. Dried, roasted, and ground up, it perfects kebabs. Add a dash of curry, and they will be coming back for more.
  4. Speaking of curry, this spice mix is an absolute staple. Curry is a blend of different spices that may include, cumin, black pepper, bay leaves, red pepper, fenugreek, and ginger.  It gets its yellow color from one of its most prominent ingredients: turmeric. Some curries may also include cinnamon, cardamom, and clove. Curry is used in lamb, beef, poultry, and some vegetarian dishes for that smoky, warm flavor.
  5. A summer’s day drink with a dash of rose water is as charming as it is delicious. Persian rose petals are fermented and added to water. A few tablespoons in your tea, water, or dessert add sweetness and a fragrant aroma. This ingredient is also used in cosmetics and perfumes today.
  6. For those intimidated by using unfamiliar spices, I would suggest starting out with pomegranate seeds. They’re the perfect addition to your Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot or other holiday meals.
    Add the seeds raw into meat stews or on top of fish. Pomegranate seeds add color, flavor, and festivity to any dish.

  7. Starting simple is the key to learning new Persian recipes. Rice is incorporated into a majority of our dishes. Basmati is preferred. Tadiq (crunchy rice, also spelled Tahdig) is the quintessential Persian dish. 

    Some families line the pot with potatoes and others with lavash, a flat, thin, yeast-free bread. The result is the same: hot steamed rice lined with a crunchy crust. It’s best to use a well-loved, well-seasoned cast iron pot for this one.


I inherited my own cast-iron pot from my grandmother. I was told that it was her wedding gift from her mother. I can’t share the pot with all of you, but I can share the recipes.


 Here are some Persian recipes you can try for yourself.


Persian Halvah

Persian Rice (Chelo) with Tahdig Crust

Gondy, the Persian Matzo Ball

Persian Roulade Cake


Leave a comment letting us know if you’re going to try it, or if you have a favorite Persian recipe of your own!