What Iranians Know About Breakfast That Americans Don't
Since his days on the campaign trail, President Donald Trump has been clear in his intent to drastically limit—or even fully ban—immigration from many Muslim-majority countries, going so far as to also threaten to bar Muslim Americans abroad. In the past two months, he’s twice signed executive orders specifically banning people from entering from Iran. That’s bad news for dozens of reasons—the attack on human rights for starters—but one important reason is that without Iranian immigrants, Americans will be missing out on one of the best things about the country: its breakfast.
Iranian cuisine is vibrant and delicious—with dishes like rice and kabob, rice with pomegranate and walnut stew, rice with barberries, rice with eggplant and split pea stew, and tahdig, the coveted crispy rice at the bottom of the pot. But Iranian breakfast is incredibly simple, likely so you can prepare yourself to eat all the rice in the world later in the day.
The best thing about breakfast in Iran is there’s very little fuss. You can make some eggs, but there’s nothing else for you to do at the stove. Instead, the meal revolves around the bread, and anything you can put on it.
One of the most common things to eat at breakfast is feta cheese and sabzi, a bunch of fresh greens like cilantro, watercress, mint, and spring onions. The combination—called noon panir sabzi—is such a staple that it is incorporated into songs and elementary school rhymes, and even found dressed up at weddings. The way Iranians manage to shape bread into peacocks, paisleys, and roses for their weddings will always be beyond me.
You can eat good bread and cheese with anything, like butter, watermelon, tomato, or cucumbers. When my siblings and I were young diaspora babies trying to understand our connection to the motherland, we bridged two worlds by taking our own peanut butter from the States and smearing it on sangak for breakfast.
No one else ate the peanut butter though, because they had something better: jam. On an Iranian table at breakfast, you can find jams of sour cherry, fig, quince, orange, strawberry, apricot, barberry, peach, carrot—the list goes on. Regardless of the flavor, it is always homemade.
Breakfast in Iran is usually eaten at home, where you can linger with your tea, sugar cube tucked in your cheek, and try to figure out whether seeing a moon in your dream is a good sign or a bad sign. “Never tell anyone when you dream about a moon,” your mom will say and throw a piece of cucumber at you, not actually answering the question.
There is one reason to go out for breakfast though, and that reason is kaleh pacheh, a breakfast soup that can be found in some other parts of the Middle East as well as the South Caucasus.
In Iran, Kaleh pacheh, which literally translates to “head leg” in Persian, is made with sheep’s head—brains, eyes, and tongue included—and feet and eaten with freshly baked bread. It is high in fat and guaranteed to sustain you throughout the day. While Iranian breakfasts are usually marked by their simplicity, this one is an entirely different production.
Everyone makes kaleh pacheh differently, but it usually involves anywhere from 8 to 14 hours of simmering the meat in water with onions, chickpeas, garlic, turmeric, bay leaves, and cinnamon. Typically, it is only served early in the morning, as early as 3 a.m. to just after dawn. A few cafes have opened up in recent years that serve kaleh pacheh for longer periods of time; in Mashhad, Toloo on Vakil Abad serves the dish from 4 a.m. to midnight, and I’ve been told that kaleh pacheh at midnight hits the spot. But for the most part, you better plan in advance and make sure to wake up early enough to get the whole gang out of bed and out the door while it’s still dark outside.
Still, my biggest love in an Iranian breakfast is the bread. The history of bread in Iran could be its own PhD dissertation. Always bought from the corner bakery—where you always complain about the price having increased since last time thanks to sanctions and inflation—bread in Iran can be anything you want it to be. It can be sweet (shirmal), flat and leavened (taftoon), flat and unleavened (lavash), a thick flatbread (barbari), plain, or filled with herbs and topped with sesame seeds. My favorite bread is sangak, which is baked on small stones that leave tiny indentations, and which when you are 10 years old and done with swimming practice you believe you can eat at least twenty of. (Sadly, you cannot, despite your best efforts.)
A little while ago, I walked by the river near my house and gathered tiny stones I found, hoping to make some sangak bread in my oven at home. Maybe if more people ate Iranian breakfast, we could finally break bread together.