This week, Louisa Shafia is serving as a Guest Editor at Food52. She chose a Wildcard winner, answered your questions on the Hotline, and is continuing to share recipes from her new book, The New Persian Kitchen -- because your kitchen deserves a taste of the exotic every once in a while.
Discovering Persian ingredients is a bit like lifting the lid off a treasure box: the dazzling sight of pink rose petals and green cardamom is surpassed only by the heady scent and delicate flavor of red saffron and golden turmeric. Here are five key ingredients in Persian cooking that give this cuisine its unmistakable taste. If you don’t happen to live near an Iranian grocery store, you can find these ingredients online at different outlets including kalamala.com, sadaf.com, and shahrzad.com.
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Dried Limes, limoo omani
These small, dried limes have an intense lime flavor. Like regular limes, they’re simultaneously bitter and sweet, yet they are far more intense because of the combination of the juice and the rind. Dried limes are thrown whole into soups and stews. Unlike whole spices like bay leaves or cinnamon sticks that you would discard after cooking, you can cut up the softened limes and eat them—rind and all—along with the dish.
Green Herbs, sabzi
Fresh and dried green herbs play many roles in Persian food, from flavor component to main ingredient. There is even a whole meal devoted entirely to them at Norooz, the Persian New Year, which falls on the spring equinox in March. The herbs most commonly used in Persian cooking are dill, mint, parsley, cilantro, basil, chives, fenugreek, and tarragon, while marjoram and oregano make occasional appearances. There’s no stigma against using dried herbs, in fact, dried spearmint and dried dill weed are de rigeur in a Persian kitchen.
Think of rose water as the Iranian equivalent of vanilla extract. You’ll encounter its flavor in baklava, rice pudding, cookies, and ice cream. The taste of rose water can be off-putting at first—we’re not used to such flowery flavors in the West—but it can really grow on you. Rose petals lend a surprisingly savory flavor to rice, and they make a graceful garnish for yogurt and salads. In The New Persian Kitchen, I use them in a baked egg frittata and with rice.
Saffron is used everywhere in Persian cooking, flavoring entrées, desserts, and rice with its unmistakable scent. Saffron is infamous for its high price, but fortunately, a little goes a long way. It takes only a teaspoon or less to flavor a whole dish. To prepare saffron for Persian recipes, grind it in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, then steep it in a little hot water for about half an hour before adding it to whatever you’re cooking.
I think of sumac as “Persian MSG.” It’s salty and lemony, and is a wonderful ingredient for setting off other flavors. It’s one of the many ingredients used in Persian cooking to give food a tart flavor, along with pomegranate molasses, rhubarb, barberries, dried limes, and sour cherries. It can be used anywhere you would lemon juice. I use it as a meat tenderizer, as a garnish for my watermelon and cucumber salad, and to jazz up a ho-hum bowl of lentil soup.
I love how food connects us with different times, places, the environment, and each other. I'm the author of two cookbooks: The New Persian Kitchen, and Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life. Magpie Cookshop is my sustainable kitchen goods company.