What to CookIce Cream & Frozen DessertsIngredientsMiddle-Eastern Cooking

The Surprising Middle Eastern Origin of A Very American Dessert

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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.

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Ice cream in Shiraz, Iran.
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.

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.)

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How to Make Tiny, Adorable Ice Cream Cones from Tuile Coo... by Alice Medrich

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Origami Ice Cream Cone Sleeves

Origami Ice Cream Cone Sleeves by Anna Hezel

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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.

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Faludeh, or rice noodle and rosewater sorbet. Photos 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

Bastani Akbar Mashti by 729 Layers

Persian Saffron Ice Cream

Persian Saffron Ice Cream by bastani

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.

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.

Tags: persian, iranian, shiraz