Sabzi (Persian herbs). Everything you want to know
Sabzi is one of the great characteristics of Persian cuisine. It refers to the leafy part part of the herb and is used both in Khoreshts for flavour and bulk and in sabzi khordan as an accompliment to meals. Some herbs are easy to grow yourself such as mint, and coriander and there’s nothing more satisfying than picking herbs fresh from your own garden. However I haven’t had much luck with tarragon here in the UK. Sabzi is always best fresh but this isn’t always possible and it’s difficult to produce enough to meet all your needs. A great alternative is sabzi khoshk or dried herbs and most of these are easily sourced and available in nearly all supermarkets. When using dried herbs its advisable to soak the herbs before use to ensure maximum flavour. You can buy almost all the dried herbs you need for each dish you want to make from an Iranian Grocery store. If you want to make a persian omelette for example, look for Sabzi Kukoo.
For a list of the herbs you need for Persian recipes follow this link
Parsely or jafari You may know that parsley is native to Mediterranean land and has been used by the ancient Greek and Romans. What you may not know is that Persians have cultivated and used parsley in a wide variety of dishes for thousands of years. Parsley is part of many herb mixes of Persian cooking such as Sabzi polow, Ghormeh sabzi, Aash, Karafs and Kuku herb mixes.
Dill weed or shivid is extremely aromatic and is mainly used for food seasoning in many countries around the world. Persians, however, have used dill weed in a unique way in rice dishes such as shevid polou (Dill and rice mix) and Baghali polou (broad beans and rice). It is also mixed with other herbs as part of preparing other delightful meals like sabzi polou (a rice dish), khoreshte karafs (a stew) and kuku e sabzi (vegetable omlette).
Coriander or Gheshniz. Corriander is native to Iran and easily found in any supermarket across the globe. It’s also easy to grow here in the UK. It has a distinctive musky smell and is used in salads, and for Ghishniz polou and kuku. No persian kitchen would be without it is some form, either fresh or dried.
Fenugreek or shanbalileh is one of the world’s oldest and widely used medicinal herbs. It has a variety of attributes and is used for increasing libido in men and as an aphrodisiac generally. The seeds have to be ground and can be used to make tea, for fevers, to reduce menstrual pain and treat skin infection. The leaf of the fenugreek is high in iron and helps with respiratory and sinus problems. In persian cooking it’s used in Aash ( soup) and in khoreshts such as ghormeeh sabzi.
Tarragon or tarhoon is again heralded for having many health benefits. Its used for the relief of stomach cramps, toothache, menstrual pain and as a cure for bile and high blood pressure. It’s a vital herb in the Persian diet, used on its own or with pickles torshi and in khoreshts. It has a peppery aniseed taste and is grown easily in Iran although I haven’t had much success growing this myself.
Mint or nanar is another vital. This is very easily grown yourself and spreads rapidly so once you start to grow it, you shouldn’t ever have a problem with quantity again. Used in a variety of dishes from must o khiar a yoghurt and cucumber side dish to chai tea. Its eaten with meals on its own, mixed into salads, and as one of the many herbs needed in khoreshts. You can also buy ab nanah or mint water. I always keep a bottle at hand as its great for stomach ailments and indigestion. I have found it really useful if by some accident I have eaten something glutenous…. it helps relieve the cramps.
Sweet Basil or reyhan is widely grown all over the world and a favoured herb of the Italians. However was originally native to Iran and was grown there over 5,000 years ago. It has a sweet pungent taste, is easily grown at home on your kitchen window sill or in the green house during colder months and in your garden during the summer. It can be frozen and kept for several months. Health benefits are numerous: asthma and diabetes and as an antiviral to name a few. Sweet basil is a great compliment to all the peppery herbs in sabzi khordan and is widely used in many recipes.
Cress or shahi in contrast to basil has a peppery taste. High in iron, calcium and folic acid its a great immune booster as well as a stimulant, a diuretic and good for the digestion. In the east it’s often marketed as a sexual stimulant for men .. I can’t verify that! On the minus side, it is known to cause cystitis in some women because of its strong alkaline properties. Cress is fairly widely used in persian cooking for its strong flavour. It makes a great addition to sabzi khordan and can be easily grown at home in pots or in your garden. If you buy cress, please ensure you wash it thoroughly as commercial growers use animal waste to promote its quick growth.
Leek chives or tareh are from the onion family and have a distinct onion garlicy taste. It’s the green hollow stems that are used both in cooking and for sabzi khordan. Leek chives are so easy to grow at home. Once planted they are prolific and will sprout up all over your garden. They require very little attention and can be chopped and frozen to see you through the winter months for cooking with. Health wise they are very similar to garlic but less strong and are thought to be good for the circulation.
Radish or torabeh is a wonderfully colourful addition to sabzi khordan and Salad Olivieh. The skin is bright pink in colour and white inside and it really compliments the range of green herbs both in appearance and texture. The texture is moist and crunchy amidst all the softness of the herbs. Radishes are easily available from your supermarket all year-round. The radish is a root vegetable, easily grown in your garden during the summer months. There are a huge variety to choose from. Persian radishes are also easily grown here in the UK. They are slightly more peppery than european radishes. The only problem I’ve had growing my own is a lack of consistent sunlight, hence the end result is a little smaller than I would expect to have found in Iran. Medicinal benefits include protection against coughs and colds and general infections and as a cure for constipation.
Shallots or musi are from the onion or piaz family and available in most suppermarkets globally. Slightly sweeter, firmer and harder than an onion shallots are smaller in size. shallots are a natural inhabitant of Iran and generally favoured above the onion because of their whiteness and strong taste. They are so hard that they often need to be soaked before the can be used. They are usually eaten with kebab and used to make ma’ast musir.
Sabzi khordan literally means ‘ eating greens’ and refers to a collection of herbs and vegetables that are traditionally served with lunch and dinner. Sabzi khordan is usually made up from the herbs above but it can be whatever you want it to be, what ever is available to you and seasonal.
To go with the herbs it would be traditional to add walnuts or gerdu and feta cheese or panir. The walnuts are usually soaked in water before serving to soften them.
If you are having a dinner party and want to prepare your sabzi khordan dish before hand, you can cover the herbs with a damp paper towel and add the walnuts and feta immediately before serving.
Sabzi khordan offers a light and refreshing side dish to main meals and is rich in nutrients and vitamins. It’s also a colourful addition to your table with the greens and pink radishes.
Iranian restaurants often feature ‘sabzi khordan’ as a starter ( grr… a personal irritation)