Let it be spring! Nowruz, or “new day” in Persian, falls on the spring equinox and is celebrated for the thirteen following days. This year it fell on March 20th, and now we’re in the Persian year of 1393. While Nowruz is a major festival in Iran, the holiday is also celebrated in other countries, where ancient Persian culture left its mark, such as Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Albania, India, and Turkey. The festivities came into our family with my Azeri stepmother, and along with Easter, Nowruz is one of my favorite holidays for its rich symbolism of renewal and hope. It’s also a reminder that winter’s grasp is weakening and that warm days are around the corner.
In every home, the centerpiece of Nowruz celebrations would be a table decorated with seven items, haftseen or the seven S’s. Seven is considered a lucky number, and each item on the table beginning with the letter seen (s) in Persian has its unique meaning. For instance, seeb (apple) represents beauty, seer (garlic)–good health, serkeh (vinegar)–patience, and sekeh (coins)–prosperity. The arrangement is ornate and colorful, and people make rounds admiring each other’s haftseen tables, sharing good wishes and delicious food.
The mouthwatering delicacies prepared during this time are one of the reasons why I am always keen to partake in the celebrations. We would enjoy meat stews with herbs and spices, cakes filled with walnuts and cardamom, and buttery pilafs. This year my Nowruz celebrations were relatively modest. From the haftseen spread, I’ve kept Sonbol (hyacinth) to represent spring, and out of the elaborate menu–a rose perfumed sherbet.
Persian sherbet, or sharbat, is a soft drink made with a flavored syrup mixed with water. Fruit, floral waters and spices are combined to make the syrup, and the interesting combinations are endless: rose and saffron, almond and orange blossom water, quince and lime, and bitter orange. When I was growing up in Ukraine, access to exotic foodstuffs was limited, so we used commonly available ingredients such as sour cherries, plums, and rhubarb for an equally delicious result.
Rhubarb is a quintessential spring treat, and rhubarb sharbat tastes bright, tangy and floral. The latter nuance can be amplified with rose, which as you’ll discover, marries perfectly with any tart fruit. This is the same reason why many perfumers pair the two in their compositions. Just consider Hermès Rose Ikebana, Comme des Garçons Series 5 Sherbet: Rhubarb, Jo Malone White Lilac and Rhubarb, and Yves Saint Laurent Baby Doll. Or Guerlain Homme that blends the sharpness of rhubarb with a rose-like geranium for a sparkling, refreshing effect.
Sherbets are easy to make–just boil the ingredients with sugar and strain. They keep well in the fridge, and you can make a selection of different syrups with seasonal fruit to enjoy throughout the year. The jewel colored syrups are also great for drizzling over cakes, crepes and ice cream. Diluted with water, they can be frozen and turned into granitas. But the simplest way is just to mix 1 part of syrup to 3 parts of water for a soft drink. Take a rose perfumed sip and will for the spring to arrive faster.
Rhubarb Rose Sherbet
You can also vary the syrup by substituting other flavorings, such as vanilla, orange blossom water or a couple of crushed cardamom pods. Cook spices with rhubarb in the beginning, but if you’re using vanilla extract or floral waters, add them at the very end.
The color of your rhubarb will determine the hue of the finished syrup. You can also add a handful of strawberries or raspberries for a brighter pink color and a rich flavor. Sometimes sherbet is colored artificially, especially if the rhubarb is pale, but I would rather keep it all natural and enjoy the pale blush drink.
Adding on: don’t throw away the strained fruit! It’s full of flavor and can be eaten as a sweet compote is with fresh cream and cookies. Or you can cook it down for 5 minutes to make a quick jam.
1lb (500g) rhubarb
1lb (500g) sugar (can be reduced to 2 cups, 400g)
1 cup (250ml) water
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 Tablespoon rosewater, or to taste
Chop rhubarb into medium sized pieces, cover with sugar and let macerate for 2 hours or overnight. Add water and simmer over medium fire for 15 minutes until the rhubarb starts falling apart. Remove from heat and strain through a fine-mesh colander.
Put the syrup back on medium-low heat, cook for 5-10 minutes to concentrate the flavors. Add lemon juice. Skim any foam rising to the surface. Take off the heat. Add rosewater (or other flavorings of your choice, see the headnote) and chill.
Stored in clean, sterilized bottles, the flavored syrup can last for several months in the refrigerator. To make the drink, mix 1 part of syrup to 3 parts of water, add ice and enjoy. Traditionally, sherbet is served very sweet, but I prefer more water and a lighter, brighter flavor and sometimes increase the proportion of water to 4 parts.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin, the pale green syrup is made with lime