Louisa Shafia's 5 Essential Persian Ingredients

June 20, 2013

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.

More: Just a couple drops of rose water perfumes a pistachio meringue stack

Rose Water and Rose Petals, golab and barg-e gol

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, zafaran

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.

More: Adding a sprinkling of sumac to an heirloom tomato and mango lassi boosts the mango flavor. 

Sumac, somagh

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.

Now that you know what ingredients you'll need, try Louisa's favorite recipes:
Lamb Kebabs in Pomegrante Walnut Marinade
Sweet Rice with Carrots and Nuts
Sweet and Smoky Beet Burgers
Vinegar Carrots with Toasted Sesame Seeds

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Robin
  • clintonhillbilly
  • Count Mockula
    Count Mockula
  • Louisa Shafia
    Louisa Shafia
My cookbook The New Persian Kitchen is a winner of Food52's Piglet award. I love cooking Iranian rice and hearing people crunch on the crispy tahdig from the bottom of the pot. I'm passionate about sharing the ingredients and techniques for making Persian food in my writing, cooking classes, and online store, Feast By Louisa where you can find my Persian Spice Set, Tahdig Kit, and other goodies.


Robin March 22, 2014
Thank you for mentioning rose water and rose petals. Euell Gibbon had a recipe for rose petal jelly in one of his books (Stalking the Wild Asparagus or Healthful Herbs.) I made it for a classroom full of culinary students. Not all were open minded.
I'd like to think it grew on them.
What can you tell me about a spice mixture that is sold as a rub for shwarma (roasted lamb on a rotisserie?)
clintonhillbilly June 21, 2013
Thank you Louisa. Would you write
an article about freekeh? I found it in an Armenian grocery store here on Los Angeles and have fallen in love with its smoky, chewy texture. Is it correct that freekeh is used in Persian cuisine?
Louisa S. June 21, 2013
Hey clintonhillbilly, I tried so hard to include a freekeh recipe in my cookbook, it's such a delicious grain, but there wasn't space. I make it all the time - I throw it together with lentils and make a really hearty soup seasoned with sumac, turmeric, and cumin, and garlic. I haven't actually seen a Persain recipe that uses freekeh. I do know that it's used in Iraq, because of my friend Annia Ciezadlo's wonderful book, Day of Honey: http://www.anniaciezadlo.com/day-of-honey. She includes some great, authentic freekeh recipes, and also explains its ancient history in Iraqi cuisine.
Count M. June 20, 2013
Thanks for this week's recipes and posts. I love Persian food since meeting (and eventually marrying) a Persian man. These ingredients are in some of my favorite dishes, like khoresht ghehmeh* (a tomatoey legume stew) and the lovely rice dishes. My favorite dish of my sister-in-law's in lubia polow (a tomato, green bean, and rice dish) and my favorite dish of my mother-in-law's is albalu polo, sour cherry rice. And I make a mean tah dig, the crunchy, salty rice from the bottom of the pot. Persian food strikes me as being very different from what my expectations were -- not at all spicy, but often tart instead. Oh, and the yogurt dishes, like mast-o-khiar and mast-o-musir are amazing. Just don't dry doogh. It's like a lassi, but gross and salty. =) Cheers, and I'm planning to buy the book.

*Please excuse the spelling throughout -- I've found that there are about 20 variations on any spelling of a Persian dish.
Louisa S. June 21, 2013
Yes, Persian food is surprising! Tart accents, tons of fruits and veggies, interesting textures like tahdig. Sounds like you've gotten to know all its quirks. Cheers to your tahdig! And yes, the translating of dishes can be absolutely confounding at times! Thanks, so glad you're enjoying this week's posts and recipes.