Among the foods from my fatherland vying for the imaginary “national dish” title, ghormeh sabzi makes most lists. The choice seems right, because it’s a food beloved by Iranians. It’s always been my favorite, since before I was even old enough to go to school.

I don’t consider myself an authority on much, but looking back at a lifetime of encounters with this quintessential Iranian creation—sometimes in places I least expected to find it—my point of view might be worth considering.

Iran’s food reflects a civilization at the epicenter of the Silk Road. Its awareness of a national identity goes back thousands of years.

For a country with 80 million inhabitants, who speak multiple languages, practice different faiths, and represent a wider range of tribal and racial ethnicities than most people realize, Iran’s traditional cuisine has its share of greatest hits.

In light of a growing diaspora, estimated to be at least 5 million Iranians living outside the homeland, wherever you are, our food is most likely coming to you—and sooner than you think.

The flavors in Iranian food are often unexpected combinations, employing a unique mix of herbs and spices, but they are rarely spicy in the hot sense. Fruits and nuts are an integral part of many recipes. Our complex rices, called polows, mix ingredients that can include meat, vegetables, fruit, herbs, and legumes. Grilled meats are an obsession. And saffron, too expensive in most countries, always looms.

But it’s in the slow-cooked stews, with bold flavors blending into and permeating one another, that one tastes Iran’s accent: something like a unified voice. The eater can’t mistake our stews for any other kind of food. Each is thick, soft, and mild, yet uniquely itself. And each is substantial. Isn’t that the right way to define a comfort food?

(Photo by Eric Palozzolo)
(Photo by Eric Palozzolo)

Ghormeh sabzi is the stew that provides the strongest culinary embodiment of Iran’s national identity. No matter where I’ve eaten it, the stew’s essence has been surprisingly consistent. Its core elements show off just how distinctive Iranian food can be on the flavor spectrum.

There are minor riffs to be found, of course, but when I sat down as a guest on the living room floor of some working-class friends in Tehran and saw a mound of shredded processed mozzarella —“pizza cheese,” as it is officially known in Iran—atop my bowl of otherwise glorious green stew, I knew my hosts were trying a little too hard to appear cosmopolitan.

“This is how we do it in the north of Iran,” the husband announced, thinking they were doing their best to please my outsider’s palate. His wife watched for a reaction, knowing very well that she should have just stuck to tradition.

I quickly scooped up all the cheese with my spoon, before it had time to melt and contaminate the stew, and threw it back in a single bite. “This is how we do it in America,” I replied, my mouth half full of smoldering goo. Cultural crisis and culinary high crime averted.

Although variation isn’t always a bad thing, there are really only two possible ways that one cook’s ghormeh sabzi can differ from another’s. One is in the choice of beans: usually kidney, but sometimes pinto or black-eyed peas, or, in the case of my dad’s sister’s, no beans at all. The other is in the meat: not its presence, but the type and cut. Despite the deep green hue, pungent blend of herbs, and sourness of dried lemons, ghormeh sabzi is a dish designed for omnivores.

I’ve had the pleasure of sampling it in Iranian homes and restaurants around the world, prepared by Shiite, Sunni, Jewish, African, atheist, gay, and Kurdish hosts, as well as by both of my sisters-in-law—my Iranian one as well as my Japanese-American one.

They even serve a version of ghormeh sabzi in Iranian prison, but that’s a story for another time.

It can be made in a pot or a slow cooker or as I had it in a tiny village called Hod in central Iran, prepared by a former soldier who had survived the frontlines of Iran’s war with Iraq then traveled for years to every corner of his homeland, only to return home and convert his family’s mud-brick ancestral spread into a rustic desert inn for travelers: He cooked his ghormeh sabzi in a copper cauldron, known as a deeg, over an open fire. With camel shank.

My love of ghormeh sabzi far predates my adventures in Iran.

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No matter where in the world I have gone searching for ghormeh sabzi

In my childhood, our Iranian extended family would gather most often in my aunts’ home in Tiburon, California. Mimi, the closest in age to my dad of his eight siblings, was the center of our family’s social world. She had a popular women’s clothing boutique and was stylish, warm, funny, strikingly beautiful, and an incredible cook.

She left us years ago, but when the subject of greatest ghormeh sabzi comes up, anyone who has ever tried Mimi’s agrees that hers was tops.

That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate others. The funky and hard-to-place flavor of this stew of chopped and blended herbs, its lip-puckering dried lemon and tender pieces of meat, lures me like nothing else. The unmistakable smell of fenugreek is always the giveaway. No matter where in the world I have gone searching for ghormeh sabzi, more often than not it found me.

In an alley in Bangkok, I impatiently waited for the sun to go down during Ramadan so the restaurant’s Muslim owner would start serving after the day’s fast. Inside the Dubai Mall, not in the food court but, improbably, right by the entrance of a massive department store, the stew’s smell filled the air. For years, any time I was in Dubai on a layover I stopped in front of that store and lingered just for a minute. I never found what I imagined was a mythical ghormeh fountain, but the odor alone transported me.

Ghormeh sabzi was so close to my heart that I once asked Mimi to teach me how to make it. I must have been in my early 20s, because it was before I had actually ever cooked anything. She walked me through it in her way, without any measurements and using the Farsi words for “pinch” and “dash.” (Her English was great, but it was the first time she had tried to explain a recipe to one of her brother’s kids.)

She chopped and sauteed the fresh herbs and rehydrated the dried lemons. Long before all the ingredients were in the pot she sent me away and told me, “Come back in an hour, when it’s ready.”

I miss her so much.

Ghormeh sabzi is hard to forget, because it doesn’t taste like anything else: pungently sour and a little bitter, but not so much so that it’s off-putting. Thanks to that pesky fenugreek, it has the additional property of staying with whoever eats it, literally coming through their pores. The effect varies from one person to the next, but I know people who will regretfully decline it for this very reason, even though they love the taste.

Not long ago, in a large lecture hall at Harvard, where I was doing a fellowship, an Iranian-American classmate who sat across from me, 40 feet away, came toward me at the end of a lecture.

“You guys had ghormeh sabzi and you didn’t invite me,” she said, feigning mock outrage. “Don’t deny it. I could smell it from over there!”

(Photo by sstrieu via Flickr)
(Photo by sstrieu via Flickr)

Carrying around the odor never bothered me enough to make me resist a plate. I’ve been known to eat it for breakfast if there are leftovers.

My cousin Siamak, who is somewhere between another brother and a best friend, presented me with a custom-made license-plate holder on Christmas one year. It reads “Powered by Ghormeh Sabzi.” I put in on my beat-up, old sky blue Volvo 240DL.

Driving around the San Francisco Bay Area, I often got honks and thumbs-up. Sometimes when I was parked, I’d come back to a note on my windshield from someone who wanted to buy the car just for the license-plate frame. Other people would ask me at stoplights what it meant; in new age NorCal, many of them were sure it was the name of a guru they just hadn’t heard of yet.

When I finally moved up to a more respectable car, the license-plate holder came with me. I would much rather be associated with ghormeh sabzi than a car dealership, a political or religious organization, a bad pun, or any sports team.

What I’m trying to tell you is that I love ghormeh sabzi.