Sholeh Zard : An outsiders experience

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Since October last year we have had the pleasure of working with Julia Scott who joined us for her internship from the Anthropology Department at SOAS. Following is her last contribution to our site and we wish her happiness and success in all her future endeavours.

I was knee deep in recipe books seeking the quintessential Persian recipe to recreate in my kitchen in Brixton when I turned the page and came across Sholeh Zard. At first glance the obscure list of ingredients in front of me was so daunting that I almost turned the page, but the pure beauty of the photograph accompanying the recipe calmed my running mind and allured me to begin. While I was sure I could purchase these ingredients around the corner at Tesco, I decided to venture up to Damas Gate market to try and source more traditional ingredients.  I walked around for hours looking and smelling the colourful array of dried fruits and most aromatic spices until I found what I was looking for: saffron, rose water, cardamom pods, almonds, pistachios and rice. It seemed like the shop keepers were as pleased that I was seeking these ingredients as I was in listening to their stories behind the ingredient I was after; anecdotes such as how his mother wiped rose water on her face every morning, a ritual I shortly adopted.

As I walked through the market shops picking up bottles of colourful powder which I could only make out by scent, my mind began to spin back to the cook books in my home. I immediately started connecting spices with recipes, trying to visualise the dishes I had been pouring over. I was brought back to reality by a lady who looked right at home among these ingredients. She reached around me and swiftly picked up a bottle of light brown power among many similar jars. Her sharp intuition reminded of a lesson of cookery I have always relied on; smell, touch and taste.

The magic and inspiration found in this world of grocery ended most abruptly as I stepped outside into bustling London. The aroma, colour and atmosphere ceased, almost like the experience never actually happened, and was replaced by the sounds of traffic zooming by and the sights of children playing after school.

Heading back home to my little apartment with the smell of the market still at my side, my excitement grew as I imagined the flavours I could create with this little bag of treasures. Sitting on the train on my way home, I kept noticing women who looked like the women I saw in the shop, also carrying blue florescent shopping bags, and I wondered if they would also be creating something from my cookery books.

Back at home, I opened the cookbook to the image that had originally enticed me. Something about the experience I had earlier seemed to grow my confidence and I had no trouble diving in. One by one I poured the ingredients into the cast iron sauce-pan brought from my mothers cupboard in California. With every stir of the wooden spoon, the perfume of each element reached my nose and assured me I was on the right path. When it looked right, I took it off the stove, placed the pudding in one of my favourite bowls, added the almonds and pistachios and sat down. The first taste was almost as powerful as the smell of the kitchen, a smell so delicate and simple yet a taste so sweetly complex. While I was sure the taste, look, method and cooking tools were not traditional, (though I tried my best to make it look just like the image) the end product was distinctly mine. Without a Persian rice pudding to compare my creation to, I thoroughly enjoyed what I had made and especially enjoyed the experience earlier that day, an experience which once again reaffirmed my belief in the power of cooking.

Sholeh Zard is a most beautiful Persian treat just like the foundational principles of Persian cooking; the perfect balancing of sardi/garmi or within this context, sardi (rose water, rice) and grami (saffron,sugar) to combine to create such elegant fragrance and comforting sweetness.

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Sholeh Zard