Iranian store-cupboard essentials
Here is a short list of classic Iranian ingredients to stock up on at home to Persian-ise any dish in a jiffy. You can find most of these ingredients in your high street supermarket or in any Middle Eastern, Turkish or Indian grocery shop. You can also order many of them online through wonderful shops such as Persepolis in Peckham.
If there is one spice that personifies Iranian cooking, this is it. Grind up saffron stems and soak them in hot water to bring out their flavour, then add this potent saffron liquid to enhance rice and pasta dishes; drizzle it over roasting potatoes, add to stews, use it in marinades for fish and meat or add a few drops to desserts and cakes. Its super versatile – once you start using saffron properly you’re likely to get hooked. Just remember that it is a very strong spice and can be overpowering if you use too much of it, so less is more. Check out my longer post on Saffron for more background on its uses in Iran.
Pomegranate molasses are a thick, sticky syrup made from reducing down fresh pomegranate juice. The other week one of my friends who has been doing some recipe testing for me wrote to me to ask, ‘Is it weird that I am eating neat pomegranate molasses off a spoon?’ ‘Of course it isn’t’, I replied. My gran used to keep a variety of different pomegranate molasses in the fridge, ranging from pucker-your-lips-sour to the sticky-treacle-like-sweet. And I was not adverse to secretly stealing a few spoonfuls on the sly when needing a little pick me up. I admit I’m a bit obsessed with pomegranate molasses and use copious amounts of it in stir-fries, salad dressings, roasted vegetables, marinades, drizzled over ice cream – anywhere I need a slightly fruity sour tang. Think balsamic vinegar without the acidity. The best thing to do with pomegranate molasses though is to cook fesenjoon, hands down my favourite Iranian dish.
I am so grateful that you can get sum’ac everywhere these days. This deep red spice is made by grinding up the tart, dried sum’ac berry and it works fantastically as a final flourish on a salad or grilled meats. Lamb or chicken kebabs are transformed with a simple sprinkling of this spice. It is very tart though, so go easy on any accompanying lemon juice or vinegar when you use it.
Earthy, slightly bitter, pungent and mildly sour, dried limes go well with lamb and fish and when ground up into a powder are an excellent addition to grain-based salads such as quinoa, couscous and bulgur wheat. You can buy them whole to use in soups and stews and then grind them in a spice grinder or coffee grinder to use in salads. You can also buy them in powder form but they lose their intense flavour quickly when ground, so use them sooner rather than later.
Rosewater has been cultivated in Iran for over 2000 years and today is used medicinally, therapeutically, for perfumes and, of course, in food. Rosewater works best when it is enhancing sweet treats to feed your loved ones like ice creams, cakes, pastries (rosewater cream profiteroles are one of my favourite Iranian desserts), puddings, halva or chocolate. You can also use it in more original ways. This winter, in an attempt to diversify my bog-standard morning porridge, I added a teaspoon of rosewater to my oats and cooked them with soya milk and two cardamom pods before adding some dates, almonds, pistachios and honey. Porridge à la Persia if you will. It was a perfect brekkie to warm me up and give me the energy to face another cold, grey, drizzly London day.
Nuts: Almonds, Walnuts, Pistachios
Persians love their nuts and use them in rice dishes, stews and even ground up in soups. These three nuts are used the most widely used but, once you get into the habit of combining your meat, vegetables and grains with them, the possibilities are endless. Next time you think a dish could do with a bit of texture, think about adding a handful of chopped nuts to it.
This is a uniquely Iranian spice and I have yet to taste another cuisine that uses it. Getting a whiff of golpar immediately evokes my childhood, conjuring up memories of sitting down with my cousins to a big bowl of fresh ruby red pomegranate seeds, sprinkling them with golpar and salt, and devouring the whole bowl in about 30 seconds. Iranians use golpar to temper any sour fruit and you’ll regularly see them sprinkling generous amounts of it over kiwis, sour cherries, plums, apples and greengages. They are also used when cooking beans to supposedly, as Julia Child said, stop the ‘rooty toot toot’ problem.
Dried Herbs: Dill, Mint, Parsley, Coriander, Tarragon
Iranians are big on herbs and the abundant use of them is one of Persian cuisine’s most defining features. In Europe we tend not to have access to large amounts of fresh herbs (although Asian shops are fantastic for buying massive, cheap, bunches of them), so I tend to stock up on dried herbs that I can mix half and half with fresh ones when cooking Iranian food.
Fresh Herbs: Dill, Mint, Parsley, Chives, Tarragon, Basil
Iranians often will have a massive plate of fresh green herbs at the table to accompanying meals, regardless of what they are eating. As well as being high in nutrients and great for your digestive system, fresh herbs are also great for the palate – fresh, cleansing and bright. If you are hosting an Iranian dinner party, start the meal as Iranians do – with an assortment of fresh herbs, some flat bread and some feta cheese.
Turmeric, Cinnamon, Coriander, Cumin, Cardamom, Cloves
You are probably familiar with these spices but it is important to note that they are used in much smaller quantities in Iranian cooking than in other eastern cuisines such as Indian or Thai. These warming spices should never overpower an Iranian dish; rather, they are subtly used to enhance the flavours of the meat, vegetables or rice that you are cooking.
Dried Fruit: Apricots, Prunes, Dates, Sour Cherries (Morello Cherries), Barberries, Raisins
Iranians buy copious amounts of fruit by the kilo and as soon as you walk into any Iranian’s house, at any time of the day or night, you will immediately be presented with a huge platter of seasonal fruit. I’m talking about the likes of watermelons, peaches, oranges, apples, cherries, figs, grapes, pomegranates, quinces, plums, persimmon and kiwis, and it is customary to eat at least two of three pieces of fruit at every sitting. This love of fruit spills over into Persian cooking, where dried fruits are frequently added to soups, stews and rice dishes to add depth and a slightly sweet and sour flavour. Some of my favourites Iranian fruit dishes include Chicken with Spinach and Prunes, Sour Cherry Rice with Lamb Meatballs, Barberry and Saffron Chicken, and Date and Spice Lentil Rice. One you start cooking with fruit in savoury food, you open a door to a whole new world of culinary delights. Walk through it.
Yoghurt accompanies all meals in Iran and as well as being an excellent digestive aid, yoghurt adds much-needed cooling properties to Iranian meals, counterbalancing the richness of some of the stews. Keep a big pot of natural yoghurt in the fridge and use it liberally alongside all Iranian dishes, particularly when serving rice pilafs.