Sugar Talk Sugar Talk
Sugar around the world: Persian cuisine in modern-day Iran
It’s easy to see why the scope of Iranian foods is so vast: Modern day Iran’s place on the map bounds it to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea to the north, to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the east and Turkey and Iraq to the west. Sugar has played a part in Iranian cuisine for over 15 centuries, and every Iranian town has its own traditional recipes that see sugar bringing sweetness and texture to a staggeringly diverse array of local produce.
Iran and the surrounding lands were known in the Western world as Persia prior to 1935 (derived from the ancient kingdom of Parsa and the Persian empire). The Islamic Republic of Iran, with the boundaries in existence today, was founded in 1979 following the revolution.
Generally, when people talk about Persian cuisine, they also mean Iranian cuisine, because the majority of Persia’s original citizens inhabited that land. Modern Iran is comprised of a large number of different ethnic and tribal groups, including the Azeri, Gilaki and Kurdish people, too. While all are citizens of Iran, and many can identify their lineage in Persia, not all can.
Chai Nabat, the sweet cure-all
Iranians have one of the highest per-capita rates of tea consumption in the world and since old times every street has a Chai khane (tea house). Chai khanes are still an important social place where older generations gather with their friends for a chat over a cup of Persian tea, almost always sweetened with ‘rock candy’, known in Iran as ‘nabat’.
Islamic writers in the first half of the 9th century first described the production of nabat as a ‘mixture of sugar and water’. As a result of time and temperature, the ‘rocks’ – or crystals – form. The type of sugar used for nabat isn’t important: crystallisation only requires sucrose, and as both cane and beet sugars are 99.95 percent sucrose, either work. When it was first made over a thousand years ago, it would likely have come from sun-dried dried sugar cane juice, that looked like gravel. The Sanskrit word for sugar (sharkara) also means ‘gravel’ or ‘sand’.
When Iranians have indigestion or stomach pains, they turn to tea with a heavy dose of a special kind of yellow nabat, made with saffron, known since antiquity for its many medicinal properties and quick and effective relief from cramps.
Khoresht-mast: an unconventional Isfahanian dessert
Khoresht-Mast is perhaps the best known dish of Isfahan, a major city on the intersection of Iran’s two principal routes that traverse the country from north to south and east to west. Translated as ‘yogurt stew’, it’s one of the region’s more unusual dishes, but is popular among Iranians both in the country and the diaspora beyond its borders.
In Persian cuisine, the word ‘Khoresht’ mostly refers to stews, served as main meals alongside rice, but here, it’s actually a sweet dessert. Described as ‘one of the most palatable but weird desserts you can find in Iran’ by Kayhan Life, a news website for the global Iranian community, it’s made with braised and shredded lamb neck, yogurt, and a whole cup of sugar. The intense, fragrant flavour of dark cane muscovado sugar dovetails perfectly with aromatic saffron and rosewater, giving it a distinctive yellow colour and exotic taste. Because this meaty dessert is a dish best served cold, it goes in the fridge for a few hours before being garnished with sour barberries and pistachios.
Persian Love Cake: an aromatic tea-time treat
Although the term was coined by Yasmin Khan, an English/Pakistani/Iranian cookbook author, Persian Love Cake – a rich, moist cake flavoured with rose water and citrus – is a truly traditional recipe.
According to legend, a Persian woman was madly in love with a prince. So, for him to succumb to her charms and fall in love with her, she decided to bewitch him by concocting a love potion in the form of a magic cake, and the recipe for Persian Love Cake was born.
The intriguing Middle Eastern scents mean this cake is as much a feast for the eyes as it is the nose and tastebuds. After bakers glaze their masterpiece, they sprinkle rose petals, crushed pistachios, and candied ginger over the top for an ever-so-pretty creation that gives wedding cake a run for its money in the competition for most romantic sweet treat.
To give the delicate, aromatic flavours centre-stage, it’s crucial that the full cup of sugar is light in taste and colour. Light cane muscovado is perfect for letting them sing.
As one of the first regions to benefit from the expansion of sugar from its origins in India, modern Iranian cuisine is a deep and broad exploration of its applications. The almost endless number of Persian sweets, desserts and baked goods are a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of the region’s cooks. Favourites like Shol-e Zard (saffron rice pudding), multiple kinds of halva (flour fried with saffron, rose water and sugar), saffron ice cream, or faloudeh (frozen rice noodles ice cream with rose water) all deserve as much coverage as the recipes above.
From main dishes to desserts, appetizers and drinks, Iranian cuisine is more than a discovery of the rich and ancient traditions of the country: it’s an education on the gifts sugar brings to almost any kind of dish.