Sassanid Cuisine

hermitage sassanian feastPersian cuisine in the course of four centuries from 224 to 632 AD, under the influence of the Sassanid kings and court traditions is the subject of the present article. Based on available sources we have been able to establish a clear link between strict instructions of Zoroastrianism, and the taste for luxury and refinement in the court, which has come to represent the principle factors impacting the development of cuisine during this period. Zoroastrian food and its related rituals and culture will be dealt with in a separate article devoted solely to the subject. For our purposes here, I will endeavour to cover the elements that make up a cuisine, the ingredients, methods of preparation and cooking and a selection of recipes and dishes.

The range of ingredients, methods of preparation and cooking were considerably wider and more diverse in many ways than we have it now. A few have disappeared from Persian cookery and found a home in regions as far afield as Europe and North Africa. However, we can safely say that the key elements of what we call Persian cuisine can be found in the Sassanid period. Just one example of its lasting influence is the generic name for stews in Persian, khoresh خورش , which dates back to this era.

After the fall of the great Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) in the hands of Alexander the Macedonian, the country gradually became fragmented. The Greco-Persian dynasty, the Selucids ruling over Iran thereafter, were primarily preoccupied with establishing themselves as a foreign occupying power based in city states. Although on the insistence and advice of their late leader, Alexander, a point was made of marrying into Persian noble families, the occupiers remained isolated from the population. This separation between the ruling classes and the rest of the population seems to have continued even under the Sassanid rule. Later on the elusive Parthian dynasty pushed the Greeks out and ruled over parts of the area covered by the Achaemenids. However, they seem to have been eager to avoid confrontations with the Hellenic city states and went as far as describing themselves as ‘Philhellenic’ on their coins and other insignia.  Professor Girshman’s[1] eloquently clear explanation says it all:

There was a gap of five and a half centuries between the end of the Achaemenian empire and the rise of the Sassanid dynasty. During this period the Iranian tribes of the steppes fanned out in all directions: the Sarmatians overran the northern shore of the Black Sea, the Sacae advanced to the Indus estuary, the Parthians pressed forward from the Euphrates, while the Kushans penetrated eastern India. All alike, despite the great variety of lands and races, of climates and environments succeeded in creating a composite civilization wherever they established themselves. While, as we have suggested, their civilization acted as  a centripetal force, the movement which originated in the region to which Rene Grousset has given the name of ‘Outer Iran’ was of a centrifugal nature, In some of its developments it broke through the limits set by the resistance of its neighbours: the Greco-Roman work in the west, India and even China in the east. And in this movement the Parthians played a leading part.[2]

Historical context >

[1] Iran, Parthians and Sassanians
By Roman Girshman
Trans. Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons
Thames and Hudson

[2] Ibid p 17