Middle Eastern

The Surprising Middle Eastern Origin of A Very American Dessert

February 13, 2017

In the southern city of Shiraz, Iran—home of the famous 13th century poet Hafiz—I found the ice cream parlor of my dreams.

It served the most incredible pistachio-studded, chewy, stretchy ice cream, a style known as bastani. Add saffron, and it becomes Akbar Mashti, named after the first man to open an ice cream shop in Tehran, the nation’s capital. It gets its texture from salaab, an extract from a wild orchid that thickens like cornstarch. Salaab gives the ice cream bend and pull, almost like gluten, and it has a faint floral taste. Persian ice cream gets an extra dose of richness and texture from frozen chunks of heavy cream that are swirled into the base.

Ice cream in Shiraz, Iran. Photo by Louisa Shafia

While it's no surprise to me or my fellow Iranians, it may seem odd to associate one of America’s favorite treats with the Middle East. But, it turns out, that ice cream came to Europe (and then America) by way of the Arab invasion of Sicily in the 8th century. The Arabs, who had already conquered the Persian Empire, took the age-old Persian refreshment known as sharbat, a mix of fruit syrup and honey chilled with snow, and had the brilliant instinct to add milk and sugar. Thus, you have modern-day granita and gelato. Both icy sharbat and velvety ice cream are still universally loved in Iran (and, obviously, the U.S.). On a warm evening, everyone from grandparents to young couples can be seen strolling and sitting in parks enjoying their cones and cups. Ice cream parlors abound, from the hole-in-the-wall take-out joint to the elegant café.

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The White House’s proposed immigration ban has sparked a counter-dialogue of all the wonderful things that immigrants have brought to the United States—pizza, guacamole, ramen, and countless other foods that hardly seem exotic anymore. And ice cream, as well as the ice cream cone, are two more to add to that list. (A Syrian immigrant named Ernest Hamwi is credited with crafting the cone on the fly at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, when he rolled his Middle Eastern zalabia pastries into cones to hold that year’s wildly popular confection, ice cream.)

Over millennia, Iranians have made frozen treats into an art form, the upside of necessity in a country where summer brings extreme heat. When I visited Bandar Abbas, in the tropical Persian Gulf, the temperature was in the nineties before it reached noon, so my hosts took me for refreshing faludeh, the rice noodle and rosewater sorbet that Iranians like to brighten with a spritz of lemon juice. In the shomal, the wet, green, and fertile north that cradles the Caspian Sea, I tried juicy, red popsicles made of whole fruits with their pits still inside—my best guess is that the fruits are something called dogberries.

Faludeh, or rice noodle and rosewater sorbet. Photo by Louisa Shafia

You can find Persian ice cream in the U.S, especially in Los Angeles, home to the world’s largest Iranian expat community. The two best known places are Mashti Malone’s, and my favorite, Saffron and Rose, where the delectable, handmade flavors range from orange blossom to white rose to pomegranate. At Café Glacé, another Iranian establishment, you can slurp down a majoon, an ice cream shake blended with dates and bananas and topped with nuts. You’ll also find bastani-e nooni, the Persian ice cream sandwich: two thin, crisp wafers sandwiched around bastani. These can be found in the freezer section of Iranian markets in different flavors, and if you’re lucky enough to go to an Iranian home for a meal, at dessert you may see a quart of ice cream and a box of wafers so you can make your own.

Bastani Akbar Mashti by 729 Layers

If you’re feeling ambitious, you can make Persian ice cream from scratch. The website 729 Layers has an eloquent explanation along with a detailed recipe and gorgeous photos. But rest assured, there’s an easy way to whip up Persian-style ice cream without using any gadgets or dirtying up a bunch of dishes. My Iranian relatives and friends recommend buying good quality vanilla ice cream, letting it get a little soft at room temperature, and then folding in pistachios and a teaspoon of ground saffron steeped in a tablespoon of hot water or cream. You can add a dash of rosewater and frozen chunks of cream if you want. Refreeze and voila, “authentic” Persian ice cream.

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Top Comment:
“Start cooking Persian foods and reading Persian poetry and you will see why Iran and Iranians, among other people, should be protected.”
— Mozhgan S.
Comment

In response to the recent proposed immigration ban, Louisa will be holding Persian dinners in February and March to benefit immigrant and refugee rights non-profit organizations. For details on the dinners, visit lucidfood.com.

Louisa Shafia is our Writer in Residence this month—stay tuned for more from her on the site, and read how writing her cookbook brought her closer to her Iranian heritage.

8 Comments

Nima S. February 16, 2017
Hi Louisa - what a terrific article, thanks for this. I thought you might enjoy my song "Sour Cherries", about a family who opens an Ice Cream parlor in Westwood. https://youtu.be/844Bj-oTINk
 
Author Comment
Louisa S. February 16, 2017
Well I was not expecting to cry right in the middle of my workday, but thus is the power of your song. Just beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
 
Nima S. February 17, 2017
That's awfully sweet. Thanks for the kind words, Louisa! Nice to be in touch, I love your work.
 
Mary D. February 22, 2017
I also was very touched by the song. I shared it on my Facebook so others could hear. The article is wonderful. I look forward to trying out the recipe for easy Persian ice cream.
 
Mozhgan S. February 15, 2017
Thank you Louisa for this colorful and warm article. It humanizes Iran and Iranians. In that way it helps protect us all. Iranians (and other people of the Middle East) have been vilified by western media for long. It is time for Americans to taste a little bit of Iranian culture and food to see just how much good stuff they have been missing. Start cooking Persian foods and reading Persian poetry and you will see why Iran and Iranians, among other people, should be protected.
 
Author Comment
Louisa S. February 16, 2017
Hi Mozhgan, I am so glad this story resonates with you. Persian poetry is so beautiful, and always oriented toward peace and love.
 
Azora Z. February 13, 2017
Love this! I'm partial to the persian cucumber and rosewater flavors at Saffron and Rose.
 
Author Comment
Louisa S. February 16, 2017
Yes, I love both of those! Cannot wait to get back there.