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!