|Finely crafted gold bowl from Hamadan (?) at the British Museum. It has a cuneiform inscription around the neck written in Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite, and records 'Xerxes the king'.|
The Persian state provided their workers and employees meals as partial payment of salaries and distributed food as well (Heraclides/Heracleides of Cumae/Cyme , 4th cent. BCE, Persica fragment FGrH 689F2). Modern employers such as the military employ this practice as well. As a result, these dining events at the Persian capital were large. Ctesias (405–397 BCE) states that 15,000 men dined three times daily at the court of the Achaemenid emperor. Heraclides states that the King’s dinner may sound imposing, but if examined closely, the dinners turn out to be economically organized events and not wasteful. Especially during Cyrus' time, the Persians ate only what they needed for work and exercise. The meals were nevertheless well prepared and by all accounts tasty.
Classical Greek writer Xenophon notes in his account of the life of Cyrus, the Cyropaedia, "For just as all other arts are developed to superior excellence in large cities, in that same way the food at the king's palace is also elaborately prepared with superior excellence." (8.2.5.) Even though the meals at Cyrus' table were of "superior excellence", they were nevertheless not ostentatious, grandiose or wasteful. The character of the meals at the King's Table would however change during the rule of subsequent kings. They became opulent.
Describing this later opulence, the British Museum states that "Dining in Achaemenid Persia must have been a spectacular affair. Gold and silver vessels seem to have been plentiful, although only a small number - mostly found in burials - have survived to the present day. The craftsmen who made them were highly skilled and came from as far away as Egypt and India."
The British Museum states, "Ancient Persian cuisine was highly developed, with speciality cooks, armies of servants and elaborate dining etiquette. Seating plans were complicated and banquets were typically composed of several different courses.
In his Deipnosophistae (Dinner of the Sophisticates) Athenaeus mentions that cleanliness at the king’s table was paramount when he says, "All who attend upon the Persian kings when they dine first bathe themselves and then serve in white clothes, and spend nearly half the day on preparations for the dinner."
From Aelian’s Varia Historia (2.17) the vision of the method of dining we have is that the main cutlery item used in dining was a knife which held in the right hand. A piece of bread was held in the left hand. The piece was food was cut with the knife and then placed on the piece of bread. The combination was then placed in the mouth. Silver duck-headed spoons have been found at Pasargadae and Ikiztepe (evidence of forks dates to Sassanian times, five hundred to a thousand years later).
According to the British Museum, "Fruit, nuts and saffron are among the classic Iranian ingredients which originated in the Achaemenid period and are still used today."
Greek writer Athenaeus of Naucratis in Letter of Parmenion (8.8.16) mentions cooks who specialized in diary dishes.
An account by Macedonian writer Polyaenus (second century CE) lists the ingredients for the king's dinner as “sweet grape jelly, candied turnips and radishes prepared with salt, candied capers with salt, from which delicious stuffings are made, terebinth (from pistachio nuts) oil, Ethiopian cumin and Median saffron.” (Strategemata 4.3.32). In this and other references mentioning the use of dates, pomegranates, figs, apples, raisins, and almonds, as well as the planting and use of quince and pear in Persepolis’ inscriptions, we see that fruit and nuts are classic ingredients in Persian cuisine and the list of ingredients are long and varied.
Polyaenus (Strategemata 4.3.32) recounts that the list and amounts of ingredients for the court lunch, dinner and distribution were engraved by (the fictive & unlikely authority of) Cyrus a bronze column. The list discussed by Athenaeus of Naucratis, included large quantities of three grades of wheat and barley flour, corn, rye, minced cress, parsley, livestock of sheep, goats, lamb, cattle, horses, gazelles, geese, goslings, pigeons, small wild birds, poultry, milk, whey, onions, garlic, pickled radishes, beetroots, cured capers, juice of sweet apples, conserve of sour pomegranates, honey, oils of almond, terebinth*, sesame, almonds, and acanthus; dark and light raisins, nuts, almonds, sweetened seeds, vinegar, seeds of arum, corn cockle, parsley, sesame, mustard, anise, celery, and safflower plants; saffron, cardamom, cumin, dill flower and wine. Strabo adds acorns and pears to the list. (*It is possible that by terebinth, the Greeks meant pistachio nuts unknown in Greece at that time. Terebinth would have been the closest Greek equivalent.) Some authors such as Pierre Briant believe the source of this list might have been Ctesias who Athenaeus at 2.67a notes was directly familiar with customs at the Achaemenian court and had described everything served at the King’s dinner, or Heraclides.
Innovation and the Culinary Arts
"Again, whatever sorts of bread and pastry for the table had been discovered before, none of all those have fallen into disuse, but they keep on always inventing something new besides; and it is the same way with meats; for in both branches of cookery they actually have artists to invent new dishes." (Xenophon Cyropaedia 8.8.16.) Here we learn that the king’s kitchen had accomplished cooks and bakers from across the empire constantly engaged in a search for new recipes – while preserving traditional recipes.
This feature of exploring new and exotic cuisine would have greatly advanced Persian cuisine to a level of internationally renowned sophistication. If the Persians imported recipes from around the world, they also began exporting their foods. Greek Diodorus Siculus (first century BCE) notes that Persian cuisine and Persian Gulf fish were exported to Babylon. Several Hellenic writers attest to the Greek amazement at the food served at the Persian king’s table.
Herodotus in his Histories (as translated by George Rawlinson) describes in 1.133, Persians cooking whole animals for the most celebrated day of the year - a person’s birthday. In 1.132, he tells us that boiled meat was prepared by placing it on herbs. Presumably that was another way meat was prepared for eating. Herodotus goes on to state, "They eat little solid food but an abundance of dessert, which is set on the table a few dishes at a time."
We cannot always rely on Herodotus' objectivity. While a birthday might indeed have been an important celebration, it is likely that only the birthdays of kings and royalty were celebrated publicly in this manner. Persian-Zoroastrian custom has always been that seasonal communal feasts especially the feast of the New Year were the most important. Further, the remark about eating little solid food and instead consuming an abundance of dessert does not find support in any other account and is patently absurd. Since Persian food contained fruits and nuts and was served in several courses, we must wonder if Herodotus as translated by Rawlinson called all non-meat dishes, dessert.
The First Pizza? There is another associated story from the sixth-fifth century BCE that links Persians soldiers of Darius the Great with making the first ‘pizza’ using their shields over a fire. The ‘pizza’ was made from flat bread topped with cheese, dates and herbs, all cooked together on a metal shield serving as a stove top pan.
Pasta Originated in Iran, not China: According to chef and author Najmieh Batmanglij, “most food scholars agree that pasta originated in Iran, not in China as the Marco Polo legend has it.” Noodles are a significant ingredient in the traditional aush soup.
Sugar: Anne Wilson, in The Book of Marmalade, theorizes that "the Persians may have been the first people to have employed sugar as a foodstuff."
Boiling Drinking Water: Herodotus also informs us (at 1.188) that when on expedition King Cyrus carried with him, boiled (thereby disinfected) drinking water stored in flagons (jars or containers) of silver carried on four-wheeled carts.
Diet & Exercise: Xenophon says in Cyropaedia 2.16, that the Achaemenian Persians also worked off by exercise what they ate. The reference here probably means that the Persians did not eat gratuitously but rather what they needed to stay fit. Since, they worked off by exercise what they ate; they would have been fit and not fat.
Persian Gardens: Via Xenophon, Spartan General Lysander also tells us that the Persian Achaemenian kings tended to their gardens personally, creating a paradise (paradeisos from pairidaeza) that including fruit trees and presumably health-giving and healing herbs (see note 8).
Rise and Fall of the Persian Standards and Empire
In all we are presented with an image of the Persian Achaemenian Empire’s access to a fairly sophisticated range of cuisine based on exotic herbs, beans, grains, meats and vegetables on the one hand, and the Persian’s own ideals of simplicity on the other hand. The Greek writings such as Xenophon's Cyropaedia leave us with the unmistakable impression that the Persians during the rule of Cyrus the Great were to be admired for their austerity and straightforwardness. The Persian diet was austere and the people were only occasional meat-eaters. According to descriptions of the reigns of later kings, the Persians fell from grace when they succumbed to opulence and over-indulgence – as witnessed by the change in their cuisine and dietary habits. By the time of Alexander of Macedonia’s invasion of the Persian empire, the Greeks point to the ostentatious Persian lifestyle and their conspicuous consumption as a symptom of the decline in the Persian ethic.