Food in Shahnameh

W.692.ABy Nasser Zarrabi

Shahnameh or The Book of Kings, written by Abul-Qasem Ferdowsi between 997 and 1010 AD, is in rhyming couplets and of epic proportions, 50,000 to 60,000 verses long according to different sources. Shahnameh is a compilation of Persian mythology and history divided in effectively three parts each neatly leading into the next. The first is a succession of stories about man’s life on earth. The second is a collection of mythological tales of heroism, chivalry, loyalty and treason. The third deals with Persian history from Alexander’s invasion to the end of the Sassanid reign and the invasion of Islam. The book represents, above all, the notion of Iranian mythology. Although there were other renditions of the same stories of Persian epics by earlier poets and writers, Ferdowsi’s version has proven to be the more popular and enduring. Written in New Persian, it has lasted for one thousand years and it is still as accessible to the reader as it was at the time of writing.

There are a few points to be noted at the start. In this article, the author will not enter into the details of the stories but make references to those relevant to the topic whilst respecting the chronological order as given in the Book of Kings, Shahnameh. To begin with, as it comes from its name, this book is concerned with the lives of kings and heroes so we learn very little (and even that little is general points rather than detail) about the food and dishes cooked and eaten by ordinary people. Secondly, even for the kings and heroes there are not many direct references to food unless one reads between the lines. The third point to mention is that there are no recipes in Shahnameh.

Strikingly and indeed in keeping with Persian traditions of ancient times, throughout the Book of Kings a lot is made of wine and wine drinking. Whenever there is a celebration or a feast wine is served and almost always after the meal. Its consumption in Shahnameh is associated with happiness and making merry. There is more description regarding the colour, age and strength of wine provided in every instance whilst anything to do with food is only referred to in passing.

The first time we see a reference to what the people ate is in the story of Houshang, where we understand that until his reign, their diet was limited to fruit and nuts. He taught people to make fire, to cultivate the lands and to bake bread. He also domesticated cattle, sheep, and donkeys, although there is no explicit reference to eating their meat. After Houshang, in the story about his son, Tahmoures, we see that he taught the people to breed poultry. Here again, there is no direct mention of eating chicken, but one does not breed poultry just for the eggs.

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