Persia on the Pacific

Exploring Culture through Food

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What defines a culture? On the surface it’s an easy question to answer: music, art, language, architecture, modes of dress and food. A culture’s food (with the exception, perhaps, of a shared language) is the most common component for all the people who share that culture. Not everyone can write poetry, play a musical instrument, paint or design a magnificent building. But everyone eats.

 What we eat, the amount we provide, the variety we serve, the utensils we use, who sits at the table, and who eats first, all communicate something about the culture.

In an article for asiasociety.org, author K.C. Chang says the value of food in understanding human culture lie in its endless variety, adding that it has nothing to do with our survival needs. For that, we could all eat the same food, measured only in calories, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and vitamins. But people from different backgrounds eat differently. Everything having to do with food, its capture, cultivation, preparation, and consumption represent a cultural act. Nowhere is this truer than in Persian cuisine.

Growing up within such a culture we may not always recognize how important food and the traditions associated with everyday meals, holidays or religious feasts, is to our socialization and culturalization.

zIn Persian culture, food is not just for sustenance. Food is an important part of family celebrations, festivities, and days of mourning. The rituals and practices centering around these feasts are passed down from generation to generation. The description of Persian food and meals comes from this very important aspect of modern Iranian life: hospitality, which is almost synonymous with Persian culture. In ancient times, a host would not eat with guests and would remain standing to ensure the guests were well served and well fed. In modern Iran, meals always include more food than is needed, in case additional guests drop by and the more the guests, the more the hospitality. Adults and children share the meal and the conversation and hence, the culture is passed down.

While those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern foods may think that the cuisine is about the same in all regional countries, Persian meals differ from others because it is prepared and served with contrasting flavors, such as a combination of sweet and sour or mild and spicy. The natural resources available to a nation naturally determine its food style. Rice, saffron, and yogurt have a place of honor in Persian cuisine. Lamb and chicken are served as kebabs, or mixed into stews called khoresht which are flavored with fruit or sour ingredients such as lime or pomegranate juice. Dill, garlic, mint, cinnamon, cardamom, parsley, and pepper are used in great abundance, along with a variety of fresh herbs, relishes and flatbreads which are served at almost every meal. 

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There are certain aspects of Persian food that are sacred to those who are familiar with the cuisine. The aroma of your favorite food when you walk in the door; the manner in which it is decorated and served up with love, almost to an art form for some; three or four people gathered in the kitchen laughing, talking and enjoying each other’s company, each making their specialty to add to the meal (Persians do not have the saying “too many cooks spoil the soup”); and sitting down with family and friends, not just to enjoy the meal, but to enjoy the happiness of sharing it, knowing that this is more part of our culture than anything else we can name.

SAHAR NOOR 2013