By Shannon Sarna
LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Persian culture makes up an important part of the Jewish community in New York, Israel and especially Southern California, where some 45,000 Persian Jews reside.
The cuisine of this strong, close-knit community is not unlike that of Persian cuisine in general: colorful rice dishes, rich and complex meat stews, and liberal use of flavors like saffron, rosewater and pistachio.
There are a handful of kosher Persian markets in the Pico Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles. They’re close together and range from tiny to full-fledged supermarket size.
I recently had the chance to tour one of the markets for some schooling on Persian ingredients and cuisine from the best source: a PersianJewish grandmother and mother.
The first thing to know is that like the shuk in Israel, the Persian market is as much a gathering place as it is a grocery store. Soon after walking through the door we ran into a cousin — and then, of course, another cousin.
There is a dizzying array of products in English, Farsi and Hebrew to choose from, so I was grateful to have two experienced tour guides to translate the diverse products and their uses.
Prior to my trip, I was familiar with Persian cucumbers, which are pretty common in supermarkets like Fairway or Trader Joe’s. But what my tour guides Natalie and Minoo shared with me is that the cucumber bin — much like the proverbial water cooler — is where gossip and news of the community is exchanged, as women pick through the barrel to find the very best specimens.
Not all the ingredients I encountered were quite as familiar, but there was something interesting and delicious at every turn. Here are nine of my favorites.
Sangar bread is a traditional wheat Persian bread, often eaten for breakfast with butter and jam, or served as an accompaniment to a large meal. You buy this lavash-like bread in enormous rectangle sheets that can be about 5 feet tall.
Dried orange peel is added to rice with raisins, rosewater and saffron for special celebrations — Persian culture emphasizes serving sweet dishes on happy occasions. But take note: Dried orange peel should always be soaked in warm water before it is added to a dish, otherwise it will retain too much bitter flavor.
Saffron rock candy, called nabat, looks like any other rock candy, but it gets its brightly hued color from its saffron flavor. Nabat may be a sweet treat, but it is also used as an herbal remedy — Persian parents give it to their kids to aid digestion. It can also be served after dinner with tea to add extra flavor and sweetness.
Fenugreek is an herb that can be found dried or fresh. It’s an essential ingredient in one of the most widely known Persian stews, ghormeh sabzi, a meat and herb stew that is also made with dehydrated limes.
Dehydrated limes are among the most recognizable flavors of Persian cooking for the savory, sour element they add to stews and dishes. You can buy them whole or powdered.
Rose petal jam is used like any other jam, served with butter for toast or on top of Greek yogurt akin to parfait. It has a distinctive rose scent and a sweet taste.
Rosewater is a sweet, fragrant essence that is made by steeping rose petals in water; it is used in similar ways as orange blossom water. It is added to sweet and savory dishes — but it has a strong flavor and should be added in moderation.
Sugar almond candies are white strips of almond flavored with rosewater. They almost resemble thin, clustered yogurt-covered raisins and are sold by the container. This sweet treat used to be thrown at brides and grooms on their wedding day, but like rice, that is no longer allowed, though it is still traditional to have on hand at engagements and weddings.
Wild esphand can be found in the spice section — but it’s not edible. Not unlike sage, it is traditionally burned for health reasons, to kill germs and to “ward off evil.” Even though the practice may sound a little old fashioned and superstitious, it appears to be fairly common, as wild esphand was sold in abundance at the market I visited. Hey, it can’t hurt.
Recipes to try:
(Recipe by Shannon Sarna)
Yield: 12-16 servings
For the crust:
8 whole graham crackers
1/4 cup ground pistachios plus 1 Tbsp (unsalted)
1 Tbsp sugar
5 Tbsp butter, melted
pinch of salt
For the cheesecake filling:
2 8 oz packages of full fat cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp rosewater
pink food coloring (optional)
additional ground pistachios for topping
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom and sides of a square baking pan with foil or parchment paper so that some hangs over all four sides of the pan.
Place the graham crackers, pistachios, sugar and pinch of salt in a food processor fitted with blade attachment. Pulse until you have fine crumbs. Add melted butter and pulse 2-3 more times until mixed.
Using your fingers, push crumb mixture into the bottom of a square baking pan until bottom is completely covered. Put into fridge while you make the filling.
Beat the cream cheese and sugar together using a hand mixer. Add the egg and rosewater and mix again. Add food coloring if desired.
Pour cheesecake filling into prepared pan. Bake for 25 minutes or until middle is still slightly jiggly.
Refrigerate for several hours until set. Cut into squares and serve still chilled.
Chorosh Sabzi (Ghormeh Sabzi) Stew
(Recipe by Reyna Simnegar)
Yield: 8-10 servings
3 garlic cloves, pressed
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 pounds stew meat
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 bunches fresh parsley
2 bunches fresh cilantro
1 leek, chopped
½ bunch fresh mint
½ cup spinach (optional)
2 stalks celery, finely diced
½ cup lime or lemon juice or the juice of 3 limes/lemons
3 cups water
5 whole dehydrated limes (lemon omani), pierced
1 (15-ounce) can low-sodium red kidney beans, drained and rinsed (optional)
¼ cup gureh (sour grapes) (optional)
In a 6-quart saucepan, sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until the onion starts to become translucent (about 1 minute). Add the meat; cover and cook until meat no longer looks red, stirring occasionally. Add salt and pepper.
Grind fresh herbs in a food processor.
Add to the saucepan ground fresh herbs, celery, lime juice, water, dehydrated limes, kidney beans, and gureh, if using.
Bring to a boil; then simmer, covered, for 1½ hours or until meat is tender. Serve hot in a casserole dish over Basmati rice.