Wheat and rice are the two main cereal crops grown for human consumption in Iran, and one or both of these provide the staples found at virtually every Iranian meal. In earlier times, the national diet tended to be divided between areas where wheat or rice was produced and eaten exclusively, but today both products are grown and used throughout the country. Grain crops such as wheat or barley are well suited for cultivation in the arable areas of the Iranian plateau and have been grown there since ancient times. Some, such as barley, are used mostly to feed livestock, but wheat is of course produced to make the variety of breads that form an important part of the daily diet. In towns and cities, it is customary to buy bread freshly made from one of the many neighborhood artisanal bakeries. That is why bakeries cook their bread three times a day: in the early morning, at noon, and in the evening. Scenes of crowded bakeries during these times are very common, not only in Iran, but all over the Middle East. Since most people come to purchase bread at the same time, bakeries have long lines at rush hours, and families prefer to send a male member, especially a teenager, to buy bread. Although mass-produced breads like those now found in Europe or the United States are not appealing to Iranian tastes, the fast pace and stretched nature of social life in big cities like Tehran are forcing some families to adjust to products of a number of Westernized bakeries. Bread in general is known as nân, but there are several distinct varieties of bread produced at the bakeries. Two of the most common are tâftun and lavâsh; they are both baked in very thin, fl at sheets pressed against the wall of the oven and differ primarily in the type of wheat (whole wheat or white) used to make them. Lavâsh bread offered in bakeries is usually soft. In rural areas, many families bake their own bread on a weekly basis and produce a hard lavâsh, which is softened at the time of use by sprinkling a little water on it. Another popular fl at bread is sangak, which gets its name from the process of baking it on a bed of heated pebbles instead of the wall of the oven, which gives the bread a very crisp and irregularly surfaced texture. Finally, barbari is a special type of leavened bread that seems to have been introduced to Iran fairly recently and under the influence of European-style bread. It comes in a long, relatively narrow loaf about half an inch thick and 2- to 3-feet long and 8- to 12-inches wide. It is often slightly perforated before baking to give it added crispness and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It needs to be eaten soon after baking as it does not keep well and is often used as a breakfast bread. Each of these breads has its own typical shape: tâftun is round, sangak is oval in shape, barbari and lavâsh are rectangular. Religiously speaking, bread is treated with respect, and Muslims are taught to avoid dropping bread under the feet or dumping it in a disrespectful place. Unused bread is often used as a feed for birds. The types and quantity of bread found at Iranian meals can to some extent be understood as an artifact of traditional dining habits. In earlier times, the custom was to eat sitting on the fl oor. A large cloth, called sofreh, would be spread out, and the bowls and platters containing the various dishes put on it. In the older times, there really weren’t any individual plates or cutlery. Instead, the sheets of thin, fl at bread served both as plates and eating utensils for holding or scooping up morsels of food. (The art and etiquette of dining in this fashion is frequently described in books by early Western travelers to Iran.) More recently, under the influence of European habits, the use of chairs, tables, forks, spoons, and so forth has become more common, especially in urban areas. In rural areas, villages, and among the lower social classes, it is still not unusual to fi nd the traditional practices in use. It might be thought surprising that rice would be a major crop in a country as arid as Iran, but certain areas, especially the relatively warm and humid shores of the Caspian, can support rice production. It is not known exactly when or how rice came to Iran, but it was almost certainly first grown in the Caspian region, and then its production and use spread to other parts of the country. In the plateau areas, rice was a fairly expensive food used mostly for luxury dishes at court and among the wealthy as late as the Safavid period. As production and transportation improved, it became an important element of the ordinary diet throughout the country, so much so in fact that the demand for rice has far outstripped the production capacity and necessitated its import. Long-grain rice is now used in a great variety of ways, from main dishes to breads and puddings and even as a breakfast food in some regions. Well-to-do families like to use an aromatic variety known as bâsmati rice, which is more expensive. The simplest type of rice dish is known as kateh. The rice is washed and cooked until the water (slightly less than twice the volume of the rice) is absorbed. A good deal of butter is then added on top of the rice, which is covered and kept over low heat until done. The result is a fairly sticky kind of rice cake, which can be further compressed and molded if desired. Kateh is used mostly for a quick or a casual meal at home; it would never be served to a guest, because it lacks delicacy. When cooked mixed with other ingredients such as meat or vegetables as a main dish, the rice is called a polow. Such polow s include those made with lentils ( adas-polow ), fava beans ( bâqela-polow ), sour cherries ( âlbâlu-polow ), barberries ( zereshk-polow ), or orange peel ( shirin-polow ), as well as many others. Rice cooked as an accompaniment to another dish such as a stew or grilled meat is called chelow. The preparation of a chelow, however, is not a casual matter and actually requires a good deal of time and effort. The rice has to be washed and sometimes soaked overnight and then partially cooked in boiling water. It is then drained and rinsed before being returned to a pot with clarifi ed butter and water to be steamed. The rice is heaped in a cone-shaped mound in the pot, which is covered with a special fabric top to prevent the steam from condensing and dripping back down on the rice, and kept warm until time for serving. This process gives the rice a wonderful taste and fl uffy texture that is not at all sticky. It also creates a crunchy, buttery layer of rice at the bottom of the pot (called tahdig ) that can be served alongside, or broken up over, the rice and is regarded as a choice delicacy. Before serving, some rice is colored and fl avored with saffron and sprinkled on the top of the dish. This gives a beautiful look to the dish and adds a delicious taste to the rice. A chelow served with grilled meat is known as chelow-kabâb. This is virtually the national dish of Iran and is a mainstay of restaurants all over the country. The meat may be a special type of lamb fi llet ( barg ) or ground meat ( kubideh ). It is usually served with grilled tomatoes; butter, an egg yolk, red onion, and sumac can be mixed into the chelow according to one’s taste. A stack of fl at bread and a plate of fresh herbs ( sabzi ) round out this tasty, nutritious—and very fi lling—meal. Fresh herbs are used regularly and may serve the same function as a salad. Chelow served with a stew is known as a chelow-khoresh. Almost all the stews, like the grilled meats, are based on either lamb or poultry (beef is not a common ingredient in Iranian cooking; fi sh may be used in some regions). The most highly regarded khoresh is undoubtedly fesenjân, chicken or duck cooked in a sauce of pomegranate and ground walnuts. A good fesenjân is considered the hallmark of an accomplished Iranian cook. It is but one, however, of a great variety of stews that showcase the many ingredients and considerable ingenuity in Iranian cooking: different stews feature vegetables ( qormeh sabzi ), green beans ( lubiâ ), okra ( bâmyeh ), peaches ( hulu ), quince ( beh ), eggplant ( bâdemjân ), spinach and prunes ( esfenâj o âlu ), split peas ( qaymeh ), or other ingredients. A full Iranian dinner, especially on a social occasion, might include not only chelow, a number of different stews, and a copious amount of bread, but also an assortment of appetizers, soups, salads, side dishes, and desserts. Only a sampling of these can be mentioned here. Typical appetizers include mast o khiâr (a mixture of yogurt and grated cucumber), mâst o mosir (a mixture of yogurt and minced shallot), and varieties of pickles ( torshi ), mostly prepared with vinegar and unlike the salty ones found in the West. A popular side dish might be kuku, a thick, spongy kind of souffl é (there are numerous varieties made with ingredients such as spinach, eggplant, peas, potatoes, herbs, or meat). Special cookies, puddings, candies, or cakes might be offered for dessert, but the fi nest desserts may well be the fresh fruits for which Iran is famous, especially the indescribably sweet and succulent Persian melon. Snack foods constitute another rather important element of Iranian cuisine. These are typically called âjil (a mix of nuts and dried fruits). Iranians love to snack, so they munch on âjil not only before and after meals but also throughout the day, such as when out for a stroll. Ingredients of âjil may vary according to occasions, like âjil-e Chahârshanbeh suri , used during the celebration of the last Wednesday of the calendar year; âjil-e shab-e yaldâ , consumed on the longest night of the year; and âjil-e moshkel-goshâ , literally meaning “problem-solving mixed nuts and dry fruits” consumed during the New Year holidays in the hope of unraveling one’s problems. Some of the more popular elements of âjil include pistachios, abundantly produced in Iran and known as one of the most important Iranian exports; roasted chickpeas ( nokhod ); and roasted seeds of pumpkins, melons, or sunfl owers. Breaking the shell and retrieving the kernel of the seeds by teeth is an art Iranians demonstrate during their pastimes. Soups ( âsh ) are a fundamental part of Iranian cuisine (in fact, the generic term for cooking, âshpazi, literally means “soup making”). Like stews, soups come in a number of varieties, each named for its main ingredient (beans, barley, yogurt, etc.). One of the most common soups is âsh-reshteh, made of vegetables, kidney beans, and thinly made fl at noodles. Another widely used soup, which might also be regarded as a kind of stew, is âb-gusht (“meat broth”). Like many Iranian dishes, it is not prepared according to a fi xed recipe so much as designed to take advantage of ingredients that are in season and readily available and to use them as economically as possible. The meat broth is prepared and then cooked with beans (typically garbanzo beans) and various other vegetables, herbs, or fruits. After preparation, the solid ingredients are typically strained out and mashed to a puree; the broth and puree are served separately along with fl at bread. Âb-gusht may also be prepared and served in an individual pot, in which case it is customary to toss in some pieces of bread and mash it all to a pulp with a pestle. For poor and working class Iranians, âb-gusht is a mainstay of the daily diet. It is also a popular dish with more affl uent classes on outings or picnics; for example, shops specializing in the dish can be found along hiking trails in the mountains north of Tehran. As for beverages, tea can be regarded as the national drink of Iran. It is served hot and plain, usually in small, clear glasses. The traditional custom is to sip the tea through a hard lump of sugar ( qand , or sugar cube) held in the front teeth. Many people now use samovars to keep a pot of brewed tea and hot water to mix with it before serving. Other traditional drinks are made from fruit juices, either freshly squeezed ( afshoreh ) or from prepared syrups ( sharbat ), and served with ice; dugh is a drink made from yogurt, mint, and either still or sparkling water. Dugh is often served with food. In recent years, of course, bottled sodas and similar drinks have also become common.