How to Eat at a Persian Restaurant

There is no way this man is going to let a lady pay for the meal

My cousin Rudine was in town this week. His parents are Iranian but he grew up in Paris. Let’s just say that with this background, the man knows from good food. Like any good Persians, we got together and went out for —wait for it — Persian food. To my surprise, Rudine taught me a few things I didn’t know about the right way to go about our meal.

Ravagh restaurant, Manhattan

There are only a handful of Persian restaurants in New York, so the choices are slim. After some discussion, we decided on Ravagh, an affordable, unassuming establishment on East 30th Street favored by Iranian rug merchants in the area. The menu at Ravagh is big, with lots of khoreshes, the Farsi word for stew, to choose from. Rudine had a plan:

“We’ll start with small plates of stew so we can taste a lot of things.”

Doogh beverage, yogurt mixed with water, mint, salt, and ice.

The food arrived and our table was crowded with plates of khoresh, dips, and salad in bright red, orange, and yellow. Rudine requested that the stews be served on top of a layer of tah-dig, the crispy disc of golden rice at the bottom of the pot. Making tah-dig is an art, and they’re an essential part of a family meal.

Ghourmeh sabzi
Khoresh Gheymeh

We ordered the classic stew Ghourmeh Sabzi, parsley and scallions simmered with chunks of beef, red kidney beans, and limoo omani, tangy dried Persian limes. This is probably the only way I have ever enjoyed kidney beans. Our other stew was Khoresh Gheymeh, beef, yellow split peas, and limoo omani in tomato sauce.

Mirza Ghasemi

Also on the table were Mirza Ghasemi, a charred eggplant blended with eggs in tomato and garlic sauce, and Kashk-Bademjan, cooked eggplant in tomato sauce topped with yogurt. Kashk is a thick, creamy fermented whey, a beloved Persian ingredient with a taste somewhere between yogurt and sour cream. It can be found at Middle Eastern food stores.

Salad Olivieh

We ate something I’d never had before, Salad Olivieh, a salad with Russian origins that was so popular it spread all throughout eastern Europe and into Central Asia along with Russian immigrants. The Iranian version mixes diced chicken with eggs, peas, carrots, and lots of mayonnaise.

“Everyone has a different way of making these classic dishes. It varies depending on the family and the region, so you can’t order a dish and expect it to look the same as what you had growing up,”

my cousin explained. We agreed that everything in the first course was really good, with subtle flavors and fresh ingredients.

Meat, the most important part of the meal

Although I was already full, Rudine announced that it was time to order kebobs.

“But what about all the food that’s still left?” I asked.

“You can take it home in those things you have here, doggie bags,” Rudine replied with disdain.

“I never take doggie bags!” I said, which is true, unless I happen to be carrying my own tupperware container. It’s the excess packaging that I hate, and frankly, I almost never leave leftovers when I go out to eat.

“Let’s move on. I’m a big meat guy, the kebob is my favorite part. Everyone makes stews at home, but what you really go out for is the kebobs.”

Bring it on!

Chicken shish kebob

Rudine ordered a sampling for my benefit, one Chicken Shish Kebob, one Khoobideh Kebob of chopped beef, and one Lamb Shish Kebob. Along with the kebobs was a pile of saffron rice. Of course, we couldn’t eat the meat without something crunchy and green, so we also got a Shirazi salad, of diced cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, and parsley, pretty much exactly like what most people know as “Israeli salad.” Accompanying all of this was a jar of sour Persian pickle is a salsa style, known as torshi, and mast-o-khiar, or yogurt with mint and cucumbers. We had all the elements of a Persian feast.

Too much food? No such thing! Kebobs, rice, and Shirazi salad

Seeing only one lime wedge with the meat, I requested more, and when it came I squeezed lime juice all over the kebobs, along with a few tablespoons of sumac, the dried red berries that taste like lime.

“Uh, the lime is just for the chicken, not for the meat. You put the sumac on the meat, not the chicken,” Rudine explained patiently.

Well, there’s where those different interpretations come in. Najmieh Batmanglij, the renowned Persian cookbook author who lives in D.C., makes a basting sauce for kebobs with lime juice and melted butter, so I’m sticking with it. Unfortunately, not all the lime juice in the world could save the alternately tough and bland meat, although the chicken was excellent.

A true gentleman

When the check came, I offered to pay, as it’s my hometown, and I’m older.

“No, I’ll pay. I would never let a woman pay, but thanks for the offer.”

The taarof hit me like a pot of khoresh. Taarof is the Persian cultural custom of putting others above oneself. It’s a subtle and complicated system of manners that’s often confusing to Westerners. I knew I was out of my league here, so I surrendered.  Oh yeah, right, this guy is not just my younger cousin, he’s a full grown man of the world with Persian customs, and there is no way in hell that he would let a woman pay for a meal.

“What if my husband James were here, would you let him pay?” I asked.

“No, I would fight with him over the check.”

I wonder if he knows that an American man wouldn’t fight very hard, and he’d probably end up paying anyway.

We rolled toward the door, stuffed and happy. We ran into another Iranian friend of Rudine’s near the door, who confirmed that Ravagh is his favorite Persian restaurant in the city, and that most of the food is good, but that you don’t come there for the kebobs.

“London. That’s the place to get good Persian food.”

Rudine agreed, and even though it’s my town, he escorted me the twenty blocks to my subway stop.

14 thoughts on “How to Eat at a Persian Restaurant

  1. OMG! I'm planning a trip to NYC and must visit this restaurant! Thank you for the tip! And tweet me if you ever make it to AZ because I'm not too far from the La Posada and the yummy Turquoise Room! I highly recommend it.

    Eating my way across the country,

    Amy in AZ

  2. Hi Amy,

    Nice to see you here! Please let me know if I can give you other restaurant recommendations for NYC! Although Ravagh is good, Shalezeh Persian restaurant on the Upper East Side is Michelin-rated, and their sister restaurant Persepolis, also on the UES, is well regarded. I do hope to make it to the Turquoise Room at La Posada one day, will keep you posted!

  3. I am so glad to see Persian food in New York – thank you for sharing! I moved here from L.A. a couple of years ago, and I miss good, home-cooked Persian food more than any other cuisine (most of my best friends in L.A. are Persian, and their mothers cooked up a storm). How as the Ghourmeh Sabzi? That is probably my favorite dish!

  4. Hi Radina, thanks for stopping by! I, too, love Ghourmeh Sabzi. It's such a great combo of ingredients. My cous and I both really liked Ravagh's version. Lucky you with Persian friends in LA! I'm hoping to spend some time there soon to research Persian cuisine. Let me know if you want to grab coffee in NYC some time!

  5. Hi Louisa, I'm glad you thought it was tasty – I can't wait to go there! If you need any Persian restaurant recommendations in L.A., please let me know – though I'm sure your friends are well-informed. And it would be lovely to grab a cuppa' in NYC! I go to law school in White Plains but visit the city on weekends, so I will definitely let you know when I'm down there next. (Sorry I couldn't reply to your message directly – there's something wrong with my browser).

  6. excellent coverage of our food ( as usual) plus a bonus explanation of the mandatory persian  TAROF . You're a  veritable Star Louisa – Arusak !

  7. Hey Nini aziz! I thought of you at Ravagh! I tried to do justice to tarof, but as you know, it's pretty complex, and a lot easier to understand once you've experienced its subtle and confusing ways.

  8. The superb rite up thanks for sharing such a great info with know what i do with it .i was that a print of it and give to my children to learn who to eat in Persian restaurant because my family is from Iran but we live in Canada from many years my children never go to Iran and i want to teach them about our traditions and origin.thanks once again.

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