Iran has an amazing geography. With 12 different geographical environments and 5 major climates it’s host to 7500 plants, of which 1800 possess medicinal properties. It would take forever to list them all so here are some of the few which can be easily located where ever you happen to be in the world.
KONDOR or frankincense. Use of this herb goes back to ancient Persia. The most commonly used part is the milky sap or resin which is often used as a salve for skin irritations and wounds. It’s thought to have a rejuvenating effect and is therefore excellent for acne, scars and injuries. Frankincense can also benefit the emotions and those with nervous disorders such as anxiety or generalised nervousness. It’s thought to be an aid to a poor memory and lethargy. And among its other attributes, Frankincense is good for gum disease, indigestion problems, ulcers and as an eye wash.
SANDAL or sandalwood is often thought only to be a pleasant smelling inscense but you might be surprised to know that it is also a disinfectant and helps prevent simple herpes, eg mouth ulcers. The useful part of the sandalwood plant is the oil from the woody part. Other uses include UTI infections like cystitis, skin irritations, and digestive problems.
AZARIYUN or marigold is widely used the globe over and many countries have culinary uses for it. It is also brilliant as a salve for skin conditions such as acne, eczema and general rashes and open wounds. It’s something we can all grow in pots or in our gardens.
To make a salve simply add 2 handfuls of Calendula leaves and flowers to 1 tbsp lanolin, 5 tbsp olive oil and 1 tbsp beeswax and heat gently. Mix together; take off the heat and leave to set. The following morning re-heat the mixture and pour into a sterile jar and leave to harden.
Ahura Mazda the Zoroastrian prophet advocated the beneficial use of the following herbs. Many of the herbs were incorporated into Zoroastrian rituals which can still be found on the ‘Haft sein’ table at new year.
HAOMA or Ephedra . Indigenous to Iran this is a small plant with yellow flowers. It was also found to have an intoxicating effect and then said by Ahura Mazda to be a ‘waste of time’ causing the consumer to be become irrational.
Widely used for muscular and bronchial complaints, headaches, as an antiseptic, aid to digestion and a blood purifier. It’s now thought to have properties close to penicillin and can be used for hay fever, asthma, and for colds and fevers.Interestingly enough it is thought to be very useful in loosing weight but before you rush out to find it, there is a recommended limit of 150mg per day. Generally it’s an all round healer as it’s supposed to promote the bodies natural ability of the body to fight invading diseases through a natural antibiotic called interferon.
SEER or GARLIC Most people are aware of the benefits of regularly eating garlic. It’s a natural form of antioxidant and thought to be helpful in preventing general infections and fighting off free radicals.
OOUD or ALOESWOOD. This is fairly rare and expensive so perhaps not so easy to come by these days. although the oil available usually through chinese websites . It used to be grown in Iran and is now generally found in SE Asia . However it was thought to be useful in the treatment of the nervous system and was great for the treatment of anxiety and cardio vascular problems such as rapid heart beat. Yves Saint Lauren uses the oil is some of its perfumes!
CAUTION: ALL OF THE ABOVE HERBAL REMEDIES CAN HAVE SIDE EFFECTS AND SHOULD ONLY BE USED IN CONSULATION WITH YOUR DOCTOR AND A HERBALIST.
In Iran we fully believe in the power of hot and cold foods, much like the chinese do. In fact legend has it that our ancient ancestors shared this food knowledge with the chinese , but we won’t get into that here! Iranians believe that food is fuel and either weakens or strengthens the body and these beliefs go way back to ancient times and originate from the Zoroastrian religion.
THE THINKING BEHIND THE THEORY
The description ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ doesn’t relate to the temperature of the food but rather to the effect the food has on your body. Everything we eat is broken down by enzymes in our stomachs and that has an effect on our cells and ultimately on how we function. Enzymes react to ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ food. For example, ‘cold’ food like cucumber or Salad Olivieh slows down the digestive process, which in turn slows us down, requiring us to expend additional energy to continue digestion and will lead to feeling sluggish or tired. On the other hand, ‘hot’ food speeds up the digestive process, increases our metabolic rate and we are more alert and ready to take up our busy lives.
Our bodies need a balance of both ‘hot and ‘cold’ food to function at their best. So for example when I make salad Olivieh, I decorate it with a ‘hot’ food, like walnuts or add carrots . Another example is Khoresht e Feseenjun where the two main ingredients are pomegranate ( cold) and walnuts (hot). Salad is made more balanced by adding herbs, which are hot. Rice is ‘cold’ which is why we eat our khoreshts or stews spiced with saffron and turmeric, cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon, salt and pepper. And you thought it was just to make it taste delicious! Rose-water is ‘hot’ and sugar is cold, which is why our sweet dishes like Nan e Berenji use rose-water. Yoghurt is cold which is why we add mint! Lamb and chicken kebab with rice …. Get the idea! It’s about creating a balance, or making what we eat neutral.
There are times when we need to eat ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ food like when we have colds and illness. I’ll save that for another post.
- All herbs except coriander
- All spices except sumac
- Chicken and lamb
- Dairy is generally cold, except goats cheese which is neutral, Kashk which is hot and ghee.
- Most nuts
- Wheat flour
- chick peas, yellow split peas.
- Most vegetables except: carrots, radish, okra, onions, garlic, red and green peppers,
- Most fruit except apples, dates, quince.
- kidney beans, lentils
- Goats cheese
Love life, eat well and cook Persian!
Turmeric is such an under valued spice. We use it everyday in Persian cooking but forget all the magical healing qualities of this wonderful spice. It has a rich and vibrant colour and smells great but beyond that there are numerous health benefits.
Turmeric comes from the ginger family of plants. It’s often known as ‘poor man’s saffron’ because it’s less expensive than zafaran. It has a slightly earthy, bitter mustardy taste. The root is cultivated, dried and then powdered and that is what we end with in our supermarkets.
Here are just some of the healing benefits to gained from Turmeric:
1. It is a natural antiseptic and antibacterial agent, useful in disinfecting cuts and burns.
2. When combined with cauliflower, it has shown to prevent prostate cancer and stop the growth of existing prostate cancer.
3. Thought to be helpful in preventing lung cancer
4. May prevent melanoma and cause existing melanoma cells to die
5. Reduces the risk of childhood leukemia.
6. Is a natural liver detoxifier.
7. Thought to be helpful in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease .
8. Thought tobe helpful in the prevention of many different forms of cancer.
9. It is a natural anti-inflammatory that works as well as many anti-inflammatory drugs but without the side effects.
10. Has been helpful in slowing the progression of multiple sclerosis
11. Is a natural painkiller.
12. May aid in fat metabolism and help in weight management.
13. Has long been used in Chinese medicine as a treatment for depression.
14. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, it is a natural treatment for arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
18. Has been shown to stop the growth of new blood vessels in tumors.
19. Speeds up wound healing
And here are a few quirky facts about turmeric that I came across! Bet you didn’t know these:
- A spoonful of turmeric added to the water in water-cooled radiators will stop leaks.
- Use turmeric to get rid of ants in your garden…. It might leave the garden a nice colour too!
- Turmeric paste is a home remedy for sunburn and it is also an ingredient in many commercial sunscreens.
It’s that time of year again. The start of spring, March 21st, Norooz the Persian New Year is nearly with us and it’s time to start preparing for the ‘haft seen’ table. I love this time of year when we know it marks the end of the dark winter months and the coming of light and life again. The time of rebirth and good things to come. Norooz literally translated means ‘new day’.
The traditions of Norooz have their roots in the ancient times of the Zoroastrian religion when people would offer the god Ahura Mazda trays of symbolic gifts representing the principles of their faith: good thoughts, truth, justice, virtue, prosperity, good deeds and generosity. Today this tradition continues through the setting of the ‘haft seen’ table.
The ‘Haft seen’ table is both a tradition and spiritual. I’m always surprised when I hear that so many Iranians in diaspora no longer carry on with this tradition. It’s like christmas without the tree or Easter without chocolate. It’s made up of seven ‘S’s. These are the most popular in these modern times and there are many other things people add. The items in red are the most traditional of the ‘S’s’ and each has a special meaning.
- Sabzeh. Wheat, barley or oats sprouts grown in a small dish to symbolise growth, new beginnings.
- Sir or garlic one of the worlds most natural medicines.
- Sib or an apple which represents beauty
- Sanjed is the dry fruit from the lotus tree which symbolises love.
- samaq or sumac, dried berries powder red in colour to represent the warmth of the sun
- serkeh or vinegar symbolises age, patience and wisdom.
- Sonbol or a hyacinth a sign of spring
- sekanjabin a sweet mint syrup
- sekkeh or coins reflecting wealth
- A mirror to smile into and wish for a happy year ahead.
- 2 Candles to represent fire
- decorated eggs, one for each member of the family to represent fertility
- Goldfish in a bowl to symbolise life itself
- A bowl of rose-water for it’s cleansing properties.
- samanu a sweet desert to symbolise affluence.
You will need some wheat grass seeds and about a week to 10 days to grow the seeds. You can buy the seeds from almost any nursery, garden centre, health food shops and even sometimes from your local supermarket. They usually cost around £1.50 per packet.
1. Place the seeds in a flat bottomed bowl or dish. Soak in water for about 2 days to soften them. They absorb water pretty quickly so you need to keep them moist by spraying water them regularly. After 2 days you should begin to see little white sprouts emerging. If you want to force the seeds on, cover with damp kitchen towel / paper and place in a warm dark environment, an airing cupboard is perfect. You will see results within 24 hours. Small white shoots will begin to emerge.
2. Monitor the seeds, spray when needed and keep them warm.
3. After 2 days or 3 days when the seeds have some growth, remove the damp cover and place into the light. A kitchen windowsill is perfect. Somewhere warm and sunny. Continue to keep them moist but don’t drown them.
After the 13 days of Seezdah Bedar (the 13 days celebration of norooz) the sabzeh is said to have collected all the illness and bad luck of the previous year is now thrown into running water which it is believed will help rid the house and family of evil or bad luck. Another old custom would be for single women in the family to tie the sabzeh into knots in the hope that they will find marriage before the new year is out.
First boil the eggs and allow them to cool off and then be as creative as you are in the mood for.
TRADITIONAL NOROOZ FOOD
Sabzi Polou ba mahi or Herb rice with fish and Reshteh polou or Persian Noodle Rice .
- Basmati rice 1 cup per serving
- 1 handful of reshteh per three servings For coeliacs use rice noodles or gluten-free spaghetti.
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- 1 tablespoon of oil
- 1 small onion
- Follow the recipe for making Persian rice to step 3 and then place to one side.
- Break the noodles into pieces. It doesn’t matter what size
- Chop and gently fry the onion in the butter and oil and add the noodles until golden
- Combine the rice and noodles in one pan as from step 4 and continue through the rest of the instructions to step 14.
- Some people like to add cinnamon and raisins which is delicious and you can sprinkle these on just before serving.
- Sabzi for polou is usually shivid or dill and tareh or leek chives. You can use fresh herbs or dried.
- 1 cup of rice per serving
- Follow the recipe for making Persian Rice
- If you use dried herbs add them at step 5 or if you are using fresh herbs add them about 20 minutes before serving and mix in gently.
- Follow the rest of the instructions to step 14.
Other Norooz Traditions
In preparation for Norooz it’s traditional to thoroughly ‘shake’ the house clean, ”Khane tekani’ . The walls are freshly painted, floors, furniture, curtains and other soft furnishings are all cleaned and scented with rose-water. Flowers are brought in from the garden and decorate the tables. This is a very symbolic ritual which comes from the Zoroastrian’s and is about purification and ridding the house of negativity.
Tips for shiny, sweet smelling houses:
- White vinegar . It’s cheap and goes a long way. Pour a little on some kitchen towel and clean your windows and mirrors squeaky clean. The great thing about this is there are no smears! Pour into toilets, in bathtubs, hand basins and use on the kitchen work surfaces. Great for cleaning tiled floors and walls and even laminate flooring.
- Lemon juice is great for cleaning soap scum, fantastic for brass and copper. Mix with baking soda to make an abrasive paste and use for more ground in stains.
- Also put lemon peel in the garbage bin, it will help neutralise those nasty smells. You can also use orange or lime peel in the same way.
- If you can’t repaint walls, wash them down in a solution of vinegar and lemon juice to wash the walls down. Place in a spray bottle and it’s easy.
- Pour some rose water into a spray bottle and spray your furniture, curtains, beds etc for a lovely sweet smelling home. Keep it nearby and spray just before guests arrive.
- In keeping with old traditions, place some Rose water in a small dish or jug and invite arriving guests to rinse their hands. This is a Zoroastrian Norooz tradition and is thought to wash away any illness.
- If you can find some scented rose petals place in small pots around the house.
Beans are a high source of protein, fibre and are low in calories and are used widely in Persian cuisine. All beans are collectively callled ‘lubia’ in farsi. Unlike animal protein sources (meat and dairy), beans do not have any ‘bad ‘ fat in them. Beans are also extremely high in antioxidants and therefore good to prevent ageing. In fact, a half a cup of dried red, kidney or pinto beans contain some of the highest amounts of antioxidants in any food.
Here you will find a small list of the most used beans, how to, their uses and nutritional information. You can find all of these beans in tins from your local supermarket but they will most likely be preserved in sugared or salty water. My preference would be those preserved in salt. Be sure to rinse them thoroughly before using. You can buy the beans uncooked and soak them over night to soften them. They will probably need to be cooked separately before you use them. All beans are gluten-free and be sure to cook them thoroughly. Kidney beans for example can cause severe stomach ache if not thoroughly cooked.
Adas or lentilLentils are a power house of nutrients high in B vitamins and therefore said to protect against heart disease, they are also high in fiber, protein and minerals such as iron and immune boosters copper, manganese and zinc. Lentils used in a number of khoreshts such as and in rice dishes like Adas polou or dolmeh.
Nokhod or chickpea : Are an important source of macro nutrients, good source of protein, containing almost twice the amount of protein compared to cereal grains, as well as minerals such as iron, magnesium, copper, and zinc. furthermore for Coeliacs the chickpeas are an excellent source of fibre which helps lower cholestoral.Medicinal applications of the acid from chickpeas include use as an aphrodisiac, chest infections, catarrh, cholera, constipation, diarrhea, dyspepsia, flatulence, sunstroke, and warts. Seeds are considered antibilious. And apparently helpful if you ever get bitten by a snake!
Lubia sefid or white beans: Aka navy beans or cannelloni beans are a good source of fibre, low in fat and actually block fat absorption so great for dieters, their inexpensive and recommended for people with Diabetes.
split yellow peas or lapeh:A great source of fibre, packed with protein and help to remove cholesterol form your body. They also contain two B-vitamins, and several important minerals. Split yellow peas also include isoflavones, which are helpful in reducing the risk of breast and prostate cancer. Lapeh are used in Khoresht e Ghraimeh, Khoresht e Ghraimeh budamjuun, in dolmeh, in abgusht
Nokhod chi or chickpea flour: As above for Nokhod. Chickpea flour is also helpful in easing bruising when made into a paste. And as it’s completely gluten-free the flour can be used to make bread, or to coat food for which you would normally use wheat flour such as kotlets or meat patties. Also use it to thicken soups. Chickpea flour is more yellowish in colour than wheat flour and you can buy nokhod chi in almost all supermarkets.
In this post you will find a list of all the sabzi or Persian herbs (in farsi and english) you will need for each dish. You will find the recipes for these dishes in the ‘recipe’ section.
The sabzi should all be stemmed and roughly chopped. Use fresh herbs when possible but it’s fine to use a mixture of both fresh and dried sabzi. Always use the same measure of each unless otherwise stated. Herbs can bought fresh when in season, be prepared and then frozen for use later.
For more information about the different herbs used in Persian cooking follow this link
- 1 bunch of spinach or esfenaj
- 1 bunch of coriander or gheshniz
- 1 bunch of dill or shivid
- 1 bunch of parsley or jafari
- 1 bunch of fennugreek or shanbalileh
- 1 bunch of leek chives or tareh
Khoresht e Karafs:
- 1 bunch of mint or nanar
- 1 bunch of parsley or jafari
- 1 bunch of parsley or jafari
- 1 bunch of spinach or esfenaj
- 1 bunch of corriander or gheshniz
- 1 bunch of leek chives or tareh
- 1 bunch of dill weed or shivid
- 1 cup of sweet basil or reyhan
- 1 cup of parsley or jafari
- 1 cup of leek chives or tareh
- 1 cup of dill weed or shivid
- 1 cup of corriander or gheshniz
- 2 cups of spinach or esfenaj
Drinking tea is a national past time in Iran. It’s traditional to drink tea which part of Iran, whatever the occasion. Tea is always on offer where ever you go be it visiting friends and family, in the bazaar, at work … almost everything stops for tea! I even get offered tea when I visit my favourite Iranian grocery store in London! I remember my mother visiting us when I lived in Tehran and we took a trip to the Bazaar and how surprised she was that tea was offered to us at every stall we stopped at. Can you imagine being offered tea at your local market!
Iran is full of Tea shops or chai khaneh whether you’re in a city or a village or crossing the mountains, you are sure to come across a chai khaneh sooner or later.
What you need to know about making persian Tea or Chai.
You’d think making tea was easy.. it is provided you know what you’re doing and you have the right mix of tea leaves. There are 1,500 different types of tea to choose from and within those there are several grades of tea leaves from Orange pekoe aka pecco, the highest grade, to what’s known as ‘fannings’ or tea dust the poorest grade and that’s what you would usually find in an average tea bag.
Persian tea is always black, without milk and has its own distinctive taste . Here are a few tips on how to make it. It’s always best to buy loose tea leaves, mix them and store in a container within easy reach. Never use tea bags !
- 1 part earl grey
- 2 parts Darjeeling
- A teaspoon of orange pekoe
- filter the water before you use it
I often add a pinch of za’faran and a small limu ormani to a pot of brewing tea, alternatively a few cardamom pips. They do say that too much limu ormani causes impotence… so perhaps stick to the cardamom seeds as they are known to have the opposite effect!
How to make Persian chai
- loose tea leaves
- a samovar
- a strainer
- Boiling water
- Place water in your samovar and bring it to the boil.
- Warm your tea-pot with a little hot water and place 2 teaspoons of tea leaves in it.
- Place on the top of your samovar and leave to soak.
- The water in the kettle can boil but your tea should not.
- If you want to add anything such as cardamom seeds now is the time to do it.
- Leave to brew for about 10-15 mins
- When the colour of the tea is dark enough it is ready to serve. It should be rich.
- Poor a little tea into a cup and then top up with water from the kettle.
Serve tea with ghand or raw sugar cubes. Persians usually drink the tea through the sugar cube itself and dont place the sugar in the tea. You can also use nabat or candied sugar pieces or on a small stick which you place in the tea cup itself.
The process of extracting oil from Damask rose petals was first practiced in Iran mainly for its perfume and then from rose petal oil came rose-water or golab. Both rose petal oil and rose-water are now used the world over for cooking, beauty preparations and for the relief of medical conditions .
Rose water or golab has a very distinctive smell and flavour is used extensively in Persian deserts, such as ‘shir berenge’ or rice pudding, in jams and ice creams such as bastani ba faloodeh ( my personal favourite) , pastries such as ‘ baamiah’ and ‘halva’ and in cookies such as ‘naan berenji ‘ the list is endless.
Rose water also has symbolic meanings within Iranian traditions and culture. It represents cleansing and as such is often placed on the ‘haft sein’ table at new year or Naw rooz ( a table containing 7 traditional items beginning with the letter S). The Rose water is for collection all sickness be it in mind, thought, deed, or in the physical body and/or it’s sprinkled into the air. Rose water is symbolistic within the Zoroastrian religion and in ancient Iran newly arrived guests are greeted with sweets made with rose-water and sprinkled with rose-water as they entered the house. Some Zoroastrians still keep a ‘golabaz’, a traditionally shaped vase with rose-water in it and greet their guests in the traditional ways. I also have memories of using rose-water to lightly cleanse and freshen up furniture and draperies before receiving guests and especially at Norooz. In Avestan, the language of the Persian prophet Zoroaster, “rose” is varəda.
Originally rose-water was used for cosmetic purposes, as a scent or dropped in bath water and as the cosmetics market expanded so did the demand for rose oil. Today it remains one of the leading base scents within the perfume industry and it’s used for many other beauty products including creams and astringents.
Spraying rose-water on the face is thought to be good for anxiety and to strengthen the immune system and bathing in it is said to relieve rheumatism and aching joints. Drinking rose petal tea is reported as helpful for those with renal problems, coughs,colds and general health complaints. Extensively used in aromatherapy where it has claimed the grand title of the ‘queen’ of the botanical world rose-water is used to alleviate general malaise, depression, eczema, frigidity, mature skin, menopause and stress
Dried Rose petals or Gol Mohamadi
Dried rose petals are used extensively across Persian cuisine for taste and decoration. You can buy this already prepared from an Iranian grocery store. Be sure to keep them in an air tight container in a cool dark cupboard or the colour will fade. Rose petals are used for sweet dishes mainly such as Ice cream, jams, sweet pastries and as a cordial. Ground they can used to decorate rice for example and it is an ingredient of advieh used in preparation of meat dishes.
The pomegranate is the fruit of tree or shrub native to Iran and other parts of the Middle East and Asia and is usually harvested between March and May in the southern hemisphere. It’s also now grown in many parts of the US and in Europe. However there is none better than the Iranian pomegranate which is large and juicy compared to those grown elsewhere. There are over 750 varieties in Iran alone and they come in many different sizes and colours with ‘black’ pomegranates being the most expensive.
In latter years the pomegranate has become renown for its health giving properties and is now known as a ‘super fruit’ in the west. Pomegranate juice provides around 16% of our daily required vitamin C intake, is high in vitamin B and potassium and eating the arils or seeds of the pomegranate will provide you with a good source of fibre. The ruby jewel is also thought to be effective in warding off heart disease. Here is a link to a video about some of the many health benefits attributed to the pomegranate.
Pomegranates are at the best when ripe. A good pomegranate will be heavy with red or dark pink arils and juice and have less pith ( the white fleshy part). It’s easy to tell if a pomegranate is ripe through it’s colour which should be red, and it’s feel. Ripe pomegranates are heavy and soft to touch but not too soft. Iranians prefer sweet, thin skinned pomegranates and many will add a little salt and/or pepper to the seeds or arils. Even though it sounds quite weird, it’s actually so delicious you will never want to eat them without again.
There are many ways to open and eat a pomegranate and everyone has their preferred methods. Some like to bite into it and suck the juice out and others prefer to cut it open and scoop out the arils. Some emerse them in water to avoid mess and prevent staining of clothes.
If you happen to come across a good batch of pomegranates buy several. You can open them and store the arils in the fridge for several days.
Pomegranate juice is delicious and refreshing and can be used in a variety of ways from cocktails to syrup or robe anar . The pomegranate syrup or concenrate is essential in a particular recipes Khoreshte feseenjun and Aash e Anar. The arils can be used in numerous ways too: sprinkle on salads, add to fruit salads, and many other deserts. The arils are also dried and ground and used in a variety of ways too. This is called Anar dana and in this powdered form it can be added to soups, khoresht and cookies.
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)
Before you begin to think about cooking any Persian rice dish, there are a few essential things you need to know about rice.
Polou or Chello?
- In it’s uncooked form rice is called berenge.
- Chello is rice that has been soaked in salted water and par boiled. Polou is rice that has been through the previous stage of boiling and is then steamed. Polou ( if you get it right) is fluffy separate grains of rice and is not sticky.
- Kateh is rice that has been cooked in boiling water until the water has disappeared. This is a little wetter and can be a little sticky.
- Dami is like kateh but has other ingredients added like Estamboli Polou or Addas polou.
- Taadig is the crust which forms at the bottom of the pan if you cook the rice long enough over a low heat.
- There are many different grades of rice and you need a medium to good quality. You can buy many cheaper grades of rice but you will need to experiment with the amount of time you soak it and boil it for.
- Always, always wash the rice in water under a running tap until you see the water run clear. It carries a lot of dust and sometimes other things! Although with good quality rice the ‘other’ things shouldn’t be an issue.
- With most recipes you will need to pre soak the rice. There are a few exceptions. The soak time will depend on the quality of the rice you use. You can experiment with other brands.
- I recommend ‘Mahan’ or ‘Safar’ which is available in most Iranian grocery stores but there are some good alternatives such as ‘Tilda’.
Dont worry if the uncooked rice isn’t brilliant white. Larger commercial companies sometimes bleach the rice to make it look more attractive. Usually though it’s a little yellowish in colour but it will turn white when cooked.
Rice cooker V traditional method?
A rice cooker is a free-standing electrical appliance for cooking rice. The traditional method of cooking rice is time-consuming and requires your focused attention throughout the whole process. A rice cooker simplifies the process by automatically adjusting the temperature and timing and leaves you free to do other things. Once you have added the correct amount of water, it will need no further attention.
It’s not an essential to have a rice cooker but it sure is handy. If you practice, the rice you produce from your rice cooker can be every bit as delicious as the results you get from the traditional long method. It’s even possible to make polou with additional ingredients in it.
I can’t personally recommend any particular brand and I’ve owned many rice cookers. They come in a range of sizes and that is probably the most important consideration to think about. In the UK rice cookers cost roughly from £25 upwards. They are easily found in electrical stores, some supermarkets and any good Iranian Grocery store will stock them.
My personal preference is the traditional method when possible. I use my rice cooker when I’m tired or feeling lazy, need space on my cooker or when I havent got enough time.
Persian food is diverse, each corner of Iran having its own culinary preferences, culture and tradition.
Mealtimes provide the main structure of life : breakfast ( sobhaneh) lunch( nahar) and dinner ( shaam) . The Persian diet is healthy, nutritious and largely gluten-free so great for me as a coeliac. It uses a huge variety of fruits , nuts, lentils, vegetables, herbs and spices and many of the ingredients have medicinal values. Each meal is accompanied by a variety of herbs, Tarragon, coriander, flat leave parsley and usually naan ( flat unleavened bread) and must (natural yoghurt). There is a tendency to use a lot of butter or ghee and oil but I have adapted my recipes for a healthier version, omitting unhealthy amounts of both. It stills works well and tastes delicious.
Most lunch and dinner dishes involve a meat dish of either lamb or chicken, however I do include a number of vegetarian options for the less carnivorous. See the recipe for Estamboli polou for example. There are some ingredients and equipment that are essential for your kitchen if you want to cook persian food. Here is a list, it’s not conclusive so please send in any suggestions you think are a must have and things you couldnt manage without.
- ab limu ( lime juice)
- rice (berenge)
- ground limes
- za’faran ( saffron)
- zarchube ( turmeric)
- olive oil
- zareshk ( barbarries)
- tomatoe paste
- a variety of dried herbs known as ‘sabzi’
- advieh a collection of mixed spices
- addas ( lentils)
- A heavy bottomed non stick saucepan with a lid.
- skewers for kebab … these have to be persian skewers which are long, wide and flat and mostly only available in Iranian grocery stores.
- A large mesh sieve so you dont loose your rice through the holes!
- a rice cooker ( some say! I prefer the long method but it comes in handy)
- a pestle and mortar. It only needs to be a small one.
- a good thick tea towel used to absorb the condensation created in the steaming process of cooking rice. This is wrapped and securely fastened around the lid of the pan.
~~SAFFRON AND IT’S MANY USES~~
Saffron or za’ferân is a delicate spice derived from the crocus flower. Widely used in the east it is a much under used spice in the west. It has many medicinal qualities and is said to help ward off depression and make you laugh… that can’t be bad! The ancient Persians were feared by their enemies as they developed a reputation for using it as a drug to sedate and as an aphrodisiac . Alexandra the Great is reputed to have stolen the idea from the Persians and used Persian za’feran in his baths, for his food and as a cure for battle injuries. No doubt he tried it with the ladies too. Other uses include help with child-birth, as a dye and as a cure for headaches.
Saffron is widely available and can be found in most supermarkets. There is a large amount of Spanish saffron on the market but I recommend you buy a high grade saffron such as Iranian za’faran as its colour and scent is much stronger and you will therefore use less of it. Most Iranian grocery stores stock it but I have to warn you, its expensive. If you don’t live within access to an Iranian grocery store, try an indian one.
~STORAGE OF SAFFRON~ What ever you do, you must store it in a cool, dark airtight container otherwise the colour and scent of the za’faran will diminish.Never leave it on the shelf or it will be almost useless and taste less.
~PREPARATION OF SAFFRON~ I usually grind mine in a pestle and mortar as I need it. However many cooks grind it in advance. I don’t think there is any advantage either way. If the meal you are cooking is sweet, such as Khoreshte Fesenjun, use a tiny pinch of sugar to help grind it down but otherwise use a tiny pinch of salt. Once your za’faran is ground to a powdery like substance it is ready for use.
~TO MAKE LIQUID SAFFRON~Take a pinch of za’faran and place it in a small cup. Add a little boiling water and stir and then cover and allow to infuse for at least 30 minutes. The longer you leave it, the richer the color. Once you’ve made liquid zafaran you can keep it in the fridge for about 2-3 days, but cover it with cling film first!
Za’faran is used every day in Iranian cooking not only to enhance the flavour of the food but also for decoration. Its used in a variety of dishes across every meal. I even place a tiny pinch of it when I make chai ( black and flavoured tea) …. a cup of za’faran infused chai everyday can help ward off depressive thinking. It certainly cheers me up as it soooo delicious. You can also use za’faran flavoured ‘nabat’, a sugar candy used to sweeten chai. Nabat can be bought at most Iranian grocery stores. Unfortunately this isn’t widely available and I have not yet seen it in a supermarket in the west.
DECORATIVE USES ~ Most Iranians use za’faran to decorate and flavour rice dishes. I often use it in throughout the cooking process and as for a decorative finish. This is a picture of Zereshk Polou, steamed Iranian rice with zereshk ( barberries and slithers of almonds) and I will feature the recipe soon.
Za’faran has a huge number of uses in an Iranian kitchen. It’s an essential and fundamental feature of Iranian cooking.