This morning as I was puttering around the kitchen I had a sudden craving for a salad of tender shoots of wild tumble thistle and yoghurt (kangar mast). We’ve just returned from a holiday and have not done our vegetable shopping yet. Even if we had, wild tumble thistle shoots would obviously not be available anywhere here.
I opened the fridge and stared at the quite empty vegetable drawers.There were a few fennel bulbs in the bottom drawer. It occurred to me to use the fennel to make something similar to what I was craving for and this caramelised fennel salad recipe which will definitely be a keeper with me was born. Necessity is the mother of invention as the saying goes…
Fennel is not a vegetable commonly grown in Iran. Once in a while if I were lucky I would find a few small bulbs at the exotic fruit and veg stalls of my favourite market in Tehran. Living in the UK now I often have some in the fridge for making my Tomato & Fennel Salad with Vegan Pistachio Pesto or my favourite fennel, orange and olive salad with balsamic vinegar dressing.
Tumble thistle (kangar in Persian, akkoub in Arabic, kenger in Turkish, kereng in Kurdish) grows all over the place in the Middle East and is widely used in Persian, Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish and Levantine cuisines. This plant is related to artichoke and cardoon. While the edible part of the artichoke plant is its flower bud, cardoons are grown for the celery-like leaf stalks. Kangar, however, is the young shoot of the plant that has barely reached the ground level. The grown plant is very thorny and inedible.
This amazing seasonal wild vegetable is quite neutral in flavour but becomes very tasty with cooking. It’s also believed to have lots of health benefits. I must admit that the flavour of cooked fennel wasn’t the same as kangar but I’m so happy I trusted my instincts because the combination of caramelised fennel and yoghurt turned out really delicious. It’s the kind of flavour Iranians like very much. A dish of cooked vegetables with yoghurt, often with garlic too, is called
A dish of cooked vegetables with yoghurt, often with garlic but very lightly spiced, is called borani or burani in Persian. The most common are spinach (borani esfenaj) and aubergine/eggplant borani (borani bademjan). My 16th-century cookbook also mentions truffle borani and wild asparagus borani. More on borani in future posts hopefully.
This salad keeps well in the fridge for several days and gets even better as flavours mix. Now it’s time for the recipe:
Every Iranian family is sure to have their own minty wine vinegar syrup (sekanjabin) recipe. This simple syrup is incredibly versatile but probably the most common way of using it is as a dip for tender green leaves of romaine lettuce. Sounds strange? Food from other cultures can often sound strange. I remember the first time I saw a recipe for prosciutto-wrapped melon. I couldn’t have imagined eating melons and ham together even in my wildest dreams. Same with bacon-wrapped prunes. But guess what? I tried both and I fell in love with the sweet-savoury flavour combination.
Small bowls of sekanjabin and tender, pale green lettuce hearts on beautiful trays is a childhood memory associated with spring in my mind. It reminds me of my blue-eyed grandma. She would put the syrup in small bowls and pile trays with the tenderest romaine lettuce hearts. We would dip the crunchy leaves in the sticky syrup and try to stuff them in our mouths before it fell all over our clothes.
At other times, especially in summer she would dilute the syrup with cold water to make a summer cooler (sharbat). She would serve the sharbat in tall glasses over grated cucumbers and ice cubes with long spoons to get every shred of the delicious syrup-soaked cucumber. Sekanjabin sharbat is supposed to have a cooling effect on the body and ward off the heat. Summers are quite long and can get really hot in most parts of Iran and it’s important to keep cool and hydrated at all times.
Lettuce with sekanjabin was and still is a snack for Iranians. Sadly our younger generation, like in the rest of the world, will now snack on nutrition-poor stuff because those things are cool and grazing on healthy lettuce leaves and a syrup their grannies made is not. I know there’s sugar in the syrup but the amount of sugar one gets from a snack like this is not even comparable to what there is in a single chocolate bar or most cakes and cookies. I now sometimes serve it as a starter salad with roasts but that’s not traditional.
Sekanjabin means “vinegar and honey” in Persian language and that’s how it was made when honey was the only available sweetener. The vinegar and honey syrup was used medicinally in ancient times. Romans called it oxymel and the Iranian polymath Avicenna wrote a whole book on its virtues in the 11th century. Some people will still make it with honey rather than sugar. I like to make my sekanjabin with caramelised sugar because the combination of honey and vinegar tastes somehow medicinal to me and I love the flavour of caramel. I eat quite healthy most of the time so I guess it won’t hurt to be a little indulgent with sugar sometimes.
My friend Hamid uses sekanjabin in his delicious Chicken and Apple Khoresht (stew). He makes it with regular sekanjabin (no caramelisation). It’s a sweet and sour chicken stew and so good with rice. The flavour sekanjabin imparts to the stew is simply fabulous.
Now for the recipe: You can make this with white or red wine vinegar but make sure you get the best quality you can. With red wine vinegar and caramelised sugar you’ll get a deep red colour while white wine vinegar and regular sugar syrup will make a light gold sekanjabin. This recipe will make a small bowl of sekanjabin, just enough to make you wonder why you didn’t double or triple the amounts!