Features & guest posts | The exotic, cooling drinks of Persia

Features & guest posts

The exotic, cooling drinks of Persia

Sally Butcher of Persepolis, shares the secrets of Iran's delicious non-alcoholic drinks, in time for the Persian new year.

A book of verses Underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou...

So wrote Omar Khayyam in one of the most quoted couplets of Persian poetry.

The Middle East of course ‘invented’ both poetry and wine (c/o Iran), along with spirits, beer (via either Mesopotamia or Egypt), cordial, drinking yoghurt, coffee (from Saudi Arabia) and tea (although that came via China, before you all write in). The West, conversely, gave the region... fizzy pop. Doesn’t seem an entirely fair swap, now does it?

Anyway, there are pages of paeans to wine and the consumption thereof. The biggest lush was probably Hafez: nearly every page of his ‘Divan’ refers to the ruby nectar and elsewhere he wrote thus:

Now that I have raised the glass of pure wine to my lips,
The nightingale starts to sing!*

There’s more . . .

It is not important whether we drink Gallo or Mouton Cadet: drink up!
And be happy, for whatever our Winebringer brings, it is the essence of grace!*

Heady stuff, eh? So you can imagine the somewhat dramatic impact Islam had when it effectively put the kybosh on alcoholic consumption. Fortunately for the West, the Iranians are nothing if not creative, and just as poets found other topics to exalt, so the nation’s citizens had soon devised a range of truly lavish bevvies to replace the old vino. Necessity, invention and all that.

The most outstanding are the sharbat (sherbets), a range of tongue titillating cordials and syrups which are diluted (with water or milk) and enjoyed over ice. Many of them are rated for their health giving properties: they are, after all, derived from fruit and herbs.

But they present a simply ace option for those who are for one reason or another not drinking alcohol.

They are also a practical way of preserving the pick of any one season to enjoy throughout the year, although you don’t have to rush off foraging as they are readily available in most Middle Eastern stores**

Favourites include sour cherry, quince with lemon, peppermint, anise, mulberry, rose, pomegranate (aka grenadine), orange and hibiscus. Perhaps the most curious is sekanjebin, a vinegar and mint syrup which is made into a terrific summer drink (as well as being my secret ingredient in any number of salads: ssshh, don’t tell...).

It is very easy to prepare at home, thus:

Ingredients:

250ml water

350g sugar

4 tablespoons white vinegar

a dozen sprigs mint

Place the water in a pan, add the sugar and bring to the boil. Bubble for ten minutes, remove from the heat and add the vinegar. When it is a bit cooler, add the mint, pour into sterilised bottles and chill until needed. Serve frappé style with cucumber and extra sprigs of mint for a virgin cocktail.

When it comes to keeping cool, Middle Easterners are even more inventive. They have effectively been making ‘smoothies’ for centuries: especially popular is melon of any variety blended with ice and rose water. There are whole towns in Iran that spend the month of May gorging on melons in the belief that it will counteract the feverish heat of the summer.

Yoghurt is similarly cooling, although bizarrely it is consumed with salt: yoghurt is blended with water or soda water, salt and (sometimes) penny royal and enjoyed on the very hottest days of the year. It is also the classic accompaniment to kebab.

The idea is that the drink slakes the thirst as the yoghurt cools the body and the salt replaces that lost through sweating (or glowing or whatever it is that you do). It is, admittedly, an acquired taste: the first time my best beloved gave me some to drink I did briefly wonder if he was trying to poison me....

Iranians also use certain seeds to great effect. Both flixweed (a type of hedge mustard, known as khakshir, or ‘earthmilk’, in Farsi) and mountain basil seeds: torkhmeh sharbati (chia seeds may be substituted) can be steeped in syrup with lime and rose water to make a strangely moreish mucilaginous drink. Whilst the resulting gloop looks like mercury suspended in craft glue, it is in both cases super-cooling, highly nutritious and very satisfying.

Finally there is ‘arak’, which literally means ‘distillate’. It does of course refer to the anise-like spirit of the same name, but it is also used for anything that has been distilled.

I remember being highly impressed - if surprised - when my good Muslim mother-in-law told me she wanted some ‘arak’ for her iron (in this case distilled water – but my Farsi wasn’t up to much at that stage so I assumed she ironed with alcohol, natch).

The word arak, incidentally, also refers to human sweat, which has led to some colourful translations over the years. We once imported a few pallets of distilled salix egyptia (pussy willow water): we were somewhat concerned when we opened the first case to see the label bearing the words ‘Pussy Sweat’ in large letters...

Anyway these non-alcoholic ‘araks’ – which include rose water, orange blossom water and mint water - are great for flavouring drinks and are often consumed in water as a tonic.

So there you go. There’s a whole world of non-alcoholic drinks out there. It's almost worth giving up alcohol . . .

*Ghazals translated by T.R.Crowe

** Including Sally's own, the brilliant Persepolis in Peckham which also supplies by mail order.

Sally Butcher is the author of Persia in Peckham and Veggiestan.

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