Sweet Like a Persian Lemon

A sweet lemon is not an oxymoron. Neither is it a new fancy hybrid. Persian limu shirin, citrus limetta, is one of the oldest cultivated varieties of lemons and it tastes sweet like honey, with no hint of acidity. The first time I bit into a slice was a shock, because I was prepared for tartness and instead my mouth was filled with sweetness.  Even more beautiful was the scent of the peel that lingered on my fingers. It also smelled like no lemon I had tried before.

Persian lemons have a delicate flavor, but their perfume is anything but.  It is strong, bright and sharp. “It smells like flowers,” said one Iranian friend. “Lemon peel mixed with orange blossom,” said another. “And then tossed with jasmine,” she added. Trying to pin down the fragrance of Persian sweet lemon, I kept scratching the peel and rubbing it onto my skin, paper, and fabric.  The scent made me think of citronella and palmarosa, plants that are related to a rose (at least in a perfumer’s palette). Green petals, crushed stems and tightly closed rose buds. The winter fruit smelled of spring at its most vital and rejuvenating.

The best way to enjoy sweet lemons is to make a glass of juice and drink it over ice. No sugar or any other flavorings are needed. The juice has the interesting property of turning pleasantly bitter as it oxidizes, becoming reminiscent of sweetened grapefruit juice.

My favorite way to enjoy it is to add a slice of sweet lemon to a cup of black tea. The lemongrass-rose perfume of the peel adds a deep, lush twist to the familiar taste of English breakfast or Ceylon tea.  The sweet lemon juice also softens the tannins of the tea.

The zest can be used in salads, desserts or sprinkled over a fruit cocktail. I use it marinate salmon, adding the juice of regular tart lemon or lime, shallot, olive oil, pepper, salt, and perhaps, a crushed stalk of lemongrass to emphasize the citronella-like notes in Persian lemon.

You can also use the Persian lemon zest to make my citrus salt.

The season of Persian lemons lasts through the winter months, and in Brussels the store Fresh Med carries Iranian imported varieties. They’re so fragrant that their smell permeates through the plastic packaging. Iranian stores in other parts of the world would have either imported citrus or a locally grown one. In the US, for instance, Persian sweet lemons are grown in California, and their quality is excellent. I used to order them by boxes from the website localharvest.org (search for “Persian lemons” or “sweet lemons”).

P.S. A US reader pointed out that Persian lemons are currently available at Persian Basket, an online grocery store based in California. They ship to the US and Canada.

Sweet lemons can be stored for a couple of months in a cool, dark place, but keep at least one fruit in the living room to scratch its peel and smell the promise of Persian spring.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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46 Comments

  • rosarita: I’ve never tasted one, the rural Midwest US isn’t exactly cosmopolitan although there is a Whole Foods an hour away. A new treasure to search for 🙂

    PS, thanks for the reminder of citrus salt! January 28, 2019 at 9:26am Reply

    • Victoria: You might be able to find Meyer lemons, which also have a wonderful floral scent. They’re not as sweet as Persian lemons, but not as acidic as regular ones. January 28, 2019 at 9:59am Reply

  • Matty: I’ve never tasted one either. They sound delish. January 28, 2019 at 9:35am Reply

  • Vishishta: Thank you so much for this lovely review! I love lemons and often combine them with honey, so these will be perfect! I immediately ordered 6 e Ben though I live in California and might be able to get them from the grocery store. They will also make a nice gift to my friend in snow bound New York! Thanks again, love your column! January 28, 2019 at 9:41am Reply

    • Victoria: So glad to hear it! Hope that you’ll enjoy them. You can cook with them too. They’re delicious grilled, peel and all. January 28, 2019 at 10:00am Reply

  • Sirina: I have tasted these lemons and like them very much, they are called “Shirin lemons” which means: Sweet lemons, would liuif you can you or anyone suggest a perfume close to this sweet lemon aroma! Sometimes “White Linen” from Esteé Lauder resembles these lemons! January 28, 2019 at 9:45am Reply

    • Victoria: I would love a perfume that smells like limu shirin. Something heavy on palmarosa or citronella, I suppose. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. They have such a vibrant and bright scent. January 28, 2019 at 10:04am Reply

      • KatieAnn: What about L’Occitane’s classic Verbena EDT? I see it has notes of lemon and geranium, so you’ve got citrus and a light, rosy scent. It’s really lovely and affordable.

        What an invigorating post, Victoria! The lemons and the dish on which they’re presented are all perfect! January 28, 2019 at 2:01pm Reply

        • Victoria: Verbena is not sweet enough. It’s in the same ballpark, but it’s not the same scent. January 29, 2019 at 4:33am Reply

  • Tami: The post about orange scents from a couple weeks ago put me on a search for another citrusy scent. The clerk at Nordstrom guided me to Diptyque’s Oyedo, which reminds me of a lemon drop—sweet but lemony, with very little scent (on me) other than that, except perhaps the faintest of its cedar note, which comes across as smelling “of me” rather than smelling of wood. I am in LOVE, especially as it doesn’t trigger my allergies at all. I wonder how that compares to Persian Lemon? January 28, 2019 at 11:11am Reply

    • Victoria: Oyedo smells like Concorn grapes and lemons to be, and I love this fragrance, but it’s not at all like Persian lemons. January 29, 2019 at 4:35am Reply

  • Sandra: This sounds very yummy!
    I will see if any of the major chains here in NYC have this variety of lemon.

    Speaking of Persian, my neighbor whom is Parsi , invited me over to learn two Parsi dishes. Parsi food is like a marriage of Indian and Persian cuisine. It was a long demo, I arrived and learned 2 dishes and it took us 3 hours. We made so much we invited our other neighbors as well as my family to the table to share. January 28, 2019 at 11:47am Reply

    • Victoria: Major chains aren’t likely to have them, but you might have luck with the Persian stores. There is a great one in Rego Park, although I don’t remember its name. January 29, 2019 at 4:34am Reply

      • Sandra: Hmm.. I can try to do some research to find the store January 29, 2019 at 9:36am Reply

        • Victoria: If you find a place, please post its name here. I’m sure other New Yorkers will appreciate it. January 30, 2019 at 4:19am Reply

          • Lydia: I would love to know if you find it, Sandra. I would try to visit it when the weather warms up. February 2, 2019 at 12:14am Reply

      • Julia: Nagila market! They rarely carry fresh produce though. January 29, 2019 at 9:27pm Reply

        • Victoria: That’s right, Nagila. The last time I was there must have been 6 years ago. I do remember excellent dried fruits, especially raisins and pistachios. They also carry products from Uzbekistan. January 30, 2019 at 4:18am Reply

          • Lydia: Oops, I commented before seeing the answer to the market question was below.

            Thank you! February 2, 2019 at 12:16am Reply

    • Victoria: Lucky you! Parsi cuisine is known to be quite refined. January 29, 2019 at 4:34am Reply

      • Sandra: I really enjoyed it, but it was a lot of work!
        Leftovers were actually better the next day, as the spice really got a chance to marinate January 29, 2019 at 9:35am Reply

        • Victoria: Definitely lots of work! January 30, 2019 at 4:19am Reply

          • maja: Lots of work, yes. I made a “mistake” and offered to bring zeytun parvardeh for ten people to a Xmas party. It took me so much to clean the olives, finely chop everything, roast walnuts… but it was so worth it. 🙂 Everybody just loved them. January 31, 2019 at 5:30pm Reply

            • Victoria: Your recipe sounds too complicated! I just do it the way I learned in Iran–put all of the ingredients in the blender and whip up the sauce and then use it to dress the olives. Also, there is no need to roast walnuts, which changes the flavor.
              Here is my recipe:
              https://boisdejasmin.com/2017/03/persian-olives-in-walnut-pomegranate-sauce.html February 1, 2019 at 3:31am Reply

            • Victoria: Oh, and since right now is the bitter orange season, you can make zeytun parvardeh with bitter orange juice and zest instead of pomegranate molasses. It’s another variation I’ve picked up on my travels. February 1, 2019 at 4:32am Reply

              • maja: OH, great idea. I don’t know why I actually chopped everything instead of just putting it in a blender. But it did taste great – a sort of a chunky sauce they were 🙂 Thanks, Victoria, next week, a smaller batch with bitter orange juice and a blender. February 1, 2019 at 7:06pm Reply

  • Wendy Jean Knospe: I do not know they existed! They sound amazing! January 28, 2019 at 5:32pm Reply

  • Satsukibare: Fascinating to read about the Persian lemon. My parents used to have a “lemonade tree” (Citrus lemon x reticulata) in their (Australian) garden. The juice was just as you describe Persian lemons tasting–so refreshing! January 28, 2019 at 8:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: I love that name, lemonade tree. 🙂 January 29, 2019 at 4:32am Reply

  • Muriel: I am sooo lucky to have you around!! I’m discovering a new universe through your posts and you even tell me where to find these treasures! Fresh Med is super close my daughter’s school! I’ll stop by tomorrow afternoon! Thank you Victoria January 29, 2019 at 6:54am Reply

    • Victoria: I love this store! They had these lemons to the left of the entrance, packed individually into plastic bags. I don’t remember how they labeled them, “citron/Iran,” I think. They also have bitter oranges from Iran next to the lemons. January 29, 2019 at 7:08am Reply

    • Mel Bourdeaux: I feel exactly the same way about Victoria and BoisdeJasmin, Muriel! My favorite blog EVER. NO competition! Living in CA, I’ll begin my hunt for these sweet lemons (I can’t even imagine the taste) tomorrow. Will explore Persian Basket right now! Thanks, V!!! January 30, 2019 at 10:22pm Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you so much, Mel!
        Hope that you’ll be able to find sweet lemons and that you’ll like them. Their perfume needs to be bottled. February 1, 2019 at 4:36am Reply

  • Lillian: Thank you for this lovely article Victoria. I know and love Meyer lemons, but these sound unbelievable! I’m very curious to try them. I shall be seeking them out at Iranian grocery stores here in Paris. January 31, 2019 at 3:49am Reply

    • Victoria: These are much more fragrant than Meyer lemons. I like all of citrus, but limu shirin are very special. Hope that you’re able to find them. Right now is their season. February 1, 2019 at 4:35am Reply

  • maja: Well, now I need to go back to Iran 🙂 January 31, 2019 at 5:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: 🙂 Or grow your own sweet lemon tree. I imagine that in your climate it would be possible. February 1, 2019 at 4:31am Reply

      • maja: It probably would but our patch really isn’t that great for any citrus 🙁 apart from the ubiquitous bitter oranges that could almost grow from rocks. February 1, 2019 at 7:08pm Reply

  • Lavanya: ooh! These sound so good V. I’m going to have to check if any of our local Persian markets carry it. Thank you for this lovely post! Also googling fresh med. February 1, 2019 at 9:11pm Reply

  • Aurora: Now, thanks to your post, I wonder if a lemon preserve I was served in Algeria to accompany coffee was perhaps sweet lemon, it was delicious, never seen them where I live, I will have to investigate. February 2, 2019 at 4:05am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Persian lemons sound fantastic. Here in Florida we grow Meyer lemons, which are big like oranges and quite sweet also. Many people have Meyer lemon trees in their yards. February 2, 2019 at 7:16pm Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Maybe I can find these at Whole foods. They sell Sumo mandarins, which are also divine! February 2, 2019 at 7:21pm Reply

  • Nadja: They do have an incredible smell! I infused gin with the peel, which was quite nice. February 8, 2019 at 9:52pm Reply

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