For the symphonic complexity of Persian cuisine, with all of its rice pilafs bathed in saffron and rosewater, meats flavored with dozens of herbs and desserts made out of nuts and flowers, it’s the simplest dishes that illustrate most fully the imaginative riches of this venerable culinary tradition. It can be said that Persian cuisine is the closest relative to perfumery. It’s based on accords and notes.
One of the most popular accords is walnut and pomegranate. It’s a perfect harmony of sweet and sour, delicately smoky and fruity. You can build plenty on this base, but one of my favorite recipes is a simple blend of green olives in a walnut-pomegranate sauce. The dish is called zeytun parvardeh, which means preserved olives, but with the word “parvardeh” having the secondary meaning of “nourished,” it also makes me think of olives that have been well taken care of before they ended up on my plate. You will be too after tasting this dish.
Zeytun parvardeh originates from the north of Iran, but it’s now popular all over the country. Olives can be left whole or ground up with the rest of the ingredients to make the so-called Persian olive caviar. They can be flavored with fresh pomegranate or bitter orange juice, spices like angelica seeds, and herbs like thyme, pennyroyal or blue eryngo (chuchagh in the local dialect). At the Grand Bazaar of Tehran one olive vendor had me taste a dozen varieties that were all based on the same walnut and pomegranate sauce but ranged dramatically in flavor, from sweet and fruity to spicy and salty.
Since today is Nowruz, the Persian New Year, I’m planning to lay a table with several favorite dishes, including these olives. So I would like to share my approximation of one version of zeytun parvardeh I tasted in Tehran. I prefer to leave the olives whole, because I love their intense salty bite foiled by the sweet and sour sauce.
On Nowruz, a holiday that marks the start of spring and fresh beginnings, I would like to wish all of you good health and much happiness.
P.S. If anyone has any idea where I can find chuchagh or Eryngium planum, also known as blue eryngo or flat sea holly, I’d be grateful. I got addicted to its spicy, bitter flavor in Iran, but I haven’t been able to locate it here in Europe.
Olives in Walnut-Pomegranate Sauce (Zeytun Parvardeh)
If you have bitter orange juice, substitute it for lemon. It will give a more complex flavor and fragrance. Pomegranate molasses are available from the Middle Eastern food stores. Pick the brand that includes nothing but pomegranate. Some brands also add a little bit of salt to their molasses, which is also fine.
1/2 lb (250g) green olives, pitted
1/3 cup (40g) walnuts
1 garlic clove
2-3 Tablespoons pomegranate molasses
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon dried mint
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 Tablespoon fresh or dried pomegranate seeds, to decorate
Mix all ingredients except for olives and pomegranate seeds (if you’re using them for decoration) in a food processor and blend to a thick paste. Adjust the flavors to your taste, aiming for a tart flavor. Mix with olives and decorate with pomegranate seeds. The olives can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week, and they taste even better the next day, once the flavors had a chance to develop.
Extra: here is another version of Zeytun Parvardeh from My Persian Kitchen in which the olives are sliced into small pieces.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin