Essential ingredients for Persian dishes
Although I have been learning to cook traditional Iranian dishes by osmosis through my Maman (mother) since I was a child, my formal journey began following my entry into the realm of motherhood. Becoming a mother fuelled my need to connect to my Middle-Eastern roots, particularly as my daughter is mixed race. This, coupled with the era of Covid-19 and the disconnection from my wider, loud, loving and crazy Iranian family, has made me focus on teaching my daughter about her heritage.
I cannot rely on the ‘village’ to help spread the message to my daughter for the foreseeable so the responsibility lies with me: from teaching her the language (God help her as my Farsi speaking skills are the equivalent of a 5 year old’s – actually I think that may be insulting to a 5 year old Iranian kid) to introducing her to the dishes synonymous with my upbringing as a second generation Iranian in the UK.
Before I threw myself into my new role as a Persian Maman, I knew that I had to stock up my cupboards and spice racks with the essentials. So, to assist you on your journey to mastering the art of Persian cooking I set out below a list of essential ingredients.
Saffron is a delicate spice harvested from crocus flowers. Sometimes it is referred to as ‘Red Gold’ as it is the most expensive of spices. Harvesting is labour intensive as each crocus flower yields just three stigmas, which are picked by hand and then dried to create the saffron strands. Apparently it takes up to 200,000 individual flowers to yield about half a kilogram of saffron.
The resulting saffron strands are deep red with orange tips. The flavour profile is a mixture of floral, musty and bitter. Saffron is used so regularly in Persian cuisine that even some desserts list it as an ingredient, therefore it is an essential to stock up on. I recommend Iranian saffron, which can be bought from Iranian food shops or online. The saffron strands will need to be ground so get a pestle and mortar (unless you have a spice grinder) and grind to a fine powder. Grinding the saffron makes it go further. Alternatively, if you have an Iranian friend then ask them if they have any spare – the generosity of Iranians is well known particularly when it comes to food!
Store your saffron in an airtight container in the fridge to keep it fresh.
Turmeric (Zard Chubeh)
Turmeric is a member of the ginger family. Its root is used in cooking and is commonly found in powdered form, although the fresh root is becoming more available in the UK. The British love for curry has seen ground turmeric made available in all local supermarkets.
It is a bright orange powder which stains fingers, clothes and work surfaces easily! It has a flavour profile that is earthy, musky and bitter.
The health benefits of turmeric have been well documented with a focus on its anti-inflammatory properties. It is a superfood and it features heavily in Persian cuisine, particularly in the meat dishes. Turmeric flavours the meat and helps to extinguish the pungent meat smell when cooked with onions.
Basmati Long Grain White Rice (Berenj)
There is no substitute for this type of rice. It is an absolute must if you want to recreate the many delicious and unique rice dishes.
Long grain white rice, when cooked the Persian way, creates beautiful separate strands of fluffy rice. It involves a four-step process: washing, soaking, boiling and steaming.
Most UK supermarkets stock it, but you can buy in bulk (10kg bags) and for cheaper if you pop into your local Middle-Eastern or Asian supermarket.
Some rice brands are now offering extra-long grain rice, which results in an even more sophisticated looking rice dish, so if you can get your hands on this type of rice, then please do.
I recommend that you always soak the rice before cooking. Not all consider this stage is necessary anymore in light of the quality of long grain basmati rice available, however it is of note that some famous brands recommend soaking their rice for 30 minutes pre cooking. Soaking the rice promotes more thorough cooking by allowing moisture to reach the center of the rice grain, it further improves its final texture, makes the grain less brittle and assists the rice to become more digestible.
Persian mixed spice (Advieh)
Advieh is the Persian equivalent of mixed spice. It is used in many dishes with the combination of spices varying from region to region in Iran.
It is a fragrant mix of spices and can be compared in use to garam masala in Indian cooking, whereby the addition of advieh seasons the dish and adds a further layer of aroma. It can simply be sprinkled on a plain rice dish, added to stews and marinades for meat.
The one I use is a mixture of nutmeg, rose petals, cumin, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon and black pepper. I buy it online from a supplier on Etsy; however, this can also be picked up from most Iranian or Middle-Eastern food shops.
Dried Mint (Nanaa)
Like turmeric, this is an easy to source ingredient, with most local supermarkets stocking it in their herbs and spices aisles.
From being used in dips and salads to being included in some of our hero dishes like Ash-e-Reshteh (a herb, lentil and noodle soup) and Khask-e-Bademjan (an aubergine and caramelised onion dip), it is definitely an essential store cupboard item.
Mint is a hardy plant and grows abundantly in the UK so feel free to skip the shop bought stuff and make your own. Just dry the leaves in your airing cupboard and grind them.
Sumac is derived from the dried and ground berries of the wild sumac flower.
It is a tangy spice with a sour and acidic flavour reminiscent of lemon juice.
It is used in Persian cooking as a seasoning for a number of dishes including kababs, rice and salads.
Sumac is very easy to get your hands on and can be found in your local supermarket. I recommend buying sumac from your local Iranian or Middle-Eastern food store if you have one near you.
Dried Limes (Limoo Amani)
Limoo Amani are limes which have been dried in the sun to lose water content.
Originating in Oman – hence the Iranian name Limoo (lime) Amani (Oman) – they are used whole, sliced, or ground, as a spice in many Middle-Eastern dishes.
They are used in Persian cooking to flavour the stews of Ghormeh Sabzi (herb and lamb stew) and Gheymeh (yellow split pea and lamb stew). The limes are pierced and left in the stew to simmer to release their unique and distinct flavour profile of sour, citrusy, earthy, smoky and bitter.
They can be purchased from an Iranian or other Middle-Eastern food store. Alternatively, they can be bought online.
Rose Water (Gol Ab)
Rose water is water made by steeping rose petals in purified water.
Since ancient times it has been used nutritionally, medicinally and as an ingredient for perfume. Many Middle-Eastern women still use rose water as a facial toner, a natural product and a lot cheaper then modern cosmetic brands.
It is used in Persian, other Middle-Eastern and Indian cuisine, particularly desserts such as ice cream, cakes and biscuits. It is also used in savoury dishes, in particular for scenting rice dishes, adding a unique floral note.
For those of you who may not be familiar with rose water as an ingredient, if you have ever eaten Turkish Delight then you know the effect of adding rose water as an ingredient.
You can buy rose water from most Iranian or other Middle-Eastern or Asian food store. You may also find it in your local supermarket. Again, if you can get your hands on Iranian rose water then all the better.
Pomegranate Molasses (Rob-e-Anar)
Pomegranate molasses is a thick syrup with a dark grape colour made from reducing pomegranate juice. The juice is obtained from a tart variety of pomegranate.
The flavour profile is intensely sweet and sour and it is primarily used in a Persian stew made with walnuts, called Fesenjoon. It can also be used for salad dressings and desserts.
The Northern Province of Iran uses pomegranate molasses for a number of their recipes including Kal Kabab (a smoke aubergine dip); Zeytoon Parvardeh (marinated olives); and kabab Torsh (meat marinated in a paste made of pomegranate molasses, garlic and crushed walnuts and then cooked on a charcoal fire).
You can pick it up at some local supermarkets. You can also buy it online or from your local Iranian or other Middle-Eastern food store.
Pistachios are a member of the cashew family, growing on small trees originating from Central Asia and the Middle East.
Whether in their shells, oven dried and salted, in bowls as nibbles at family parties, or used as fresh bright green kernels in Persian dishes such as Shirin Polo (a sweet and savoury rice served with chicken), pistachios are synonymous with the Persian culture.
For the purposes of cooking some of the dishes on this site you will need fresh pistachio kernels, which are a vivid green with no skin on them, which you can buy it from your local Iranian or other Middle-Eastern food store.
Fenugreek is an aromatic Mediterranean plant that produces long pods containing light brown seeds which have a slightly bitter taste. Roasted and ground, they are used as a flavouring in curries. The leaves from the plant (often sold as methi) can be used in salads, and both fresh and dried leaves are used in Persian and Indian cookery.
The seeds and the leaves have a strong aroma and the smell is instantly recognisable if you have had your fair share of curries or eaten everyone’s favourite Iranian stew – Ghormeh Sabzi (herb stew with lamb).
For the purposes of Persian cooking you will need fresh fenugreek leaves for the famous Ghormeh Sabzi and dried leaves for Meygoo Polo (prawn rice) and Eshkeneh (onion soup). I source my fresh fenugreek / methi from my local Asian supermarket and dry the surplus leaves I haven’t used for my Ghormeh Sabzi.
Persian kashk (other Middle-Eastern countries have their own versions of kashk) is made from fermented sour milk or yoghurt. It also used to describe dried buttermilk.
It comes in liquid or dried form. The dried form is often found in balls which are soaked in water to create the liquid kashk used in Persian dishes. I prefer the liquid form as it is quicker and easier to cook with.
It has a unique flavour profile that is sour and a little cheesy. I’m probably not selling this to you right now but it is a truly delightful addition to some of our famous dishes: Kashkeh Bademjan (the kashk is mixed in to an aubergine dish made with caramelised onions, garlic and mint); and Asheh Reshteh (the kashk is mixed into a delicious herb, lentil and noodle soup). You can buy kashk from Middle-Eastern food stores.