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Food in the 'Hood

A Rose by Any Other Name

Rose petals steeped in the pitcher of lemonade sitting in the small Moroccan restaurant. This charbat served at the Baraka Café in the Central Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts was a perfect foil for the tangy eggplant relish, kebabs, and other dishes. The exotic fragrance worked on my imagination, summoning up a luxurious world when the kitchens of the “Orient,” as the Middle East was then called, created an aromatic, highly spiced, and vividly colored cuisine.

Several years later my visits to the now departed Caravan Grill, a Persian restaurant on 18th Street in Dupont North, stirred up similar thoughts. A delicate fragrance wafted from the sweets I enjoyed there. The sensuous fragrance came from rosewater, an aromatic widely used in Iran. My conversations with Esmail (“Sam”) Dehi, the Caravan’s owner, who was enthusiastic about his country’s flavors, often turned to gôlab. Gesturing and speaking animatedly, Sam remembers that the fragrance refreshed the mosque, making it “smell good.” He recalls an exquisite rose perfume and a jelly produced from dry rose petals. Persians believe that the rose is restorative. “The flower is natural,” he remarked. “This is important for your health. People use it as medicine.”

Sam talked about a Teheran ice cream tycoon, Akbar Mashdi, who owned a large dairy farm that turned out a rosewater ice cream made from “natural ice.” Luscious “hand whipping cream,” Sam effuses, was a key ingredient in the confection. Persian ice cream is so synonymous with this magnate that it is simply called “Akbar Mashdi.”

The Caravan’s vanilla ice cream, whose frozen cream was infused with rosewater, had just the subtlest breath of gôlab. The potent fragrance, Sam pointed out, needs to be used sparingly so as not to overwhelm the sweet. The whipped cream in Sam’s crème roulettes followed the owner’s prescription: It offered up just the hint of rosewater. Not the sickly sweet taste I had associated with the fragrance, it was all the more intoxicating for being subdued.

Sam whetted my imagination as he talked about other rosewater desserts he would like to serve his guests. He was lyrical about fereni, a cream sweet made from rice flour and garnished with chopped pistachios. I salivated as he conjured up memories of saffron halva.

Excited by the tantalizing scent, I was curious to know more of its story. From my investigations a tale unfolded, the journey of a mythic flower from ornament to aromatic.

The oldest civilizations were enraptured by the rose. Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen, was said to have bathed in rosewater. To the Greeks, the flower epitomized love and happiness. The poet Anacreon paid tribute to the rose’s hypnotic powers: “The rose is the perfume of the Gods, the joy of men. It adorns the Graces at the blossoming of love.” The Romans identified the flower with Venus, the Goddess of love.

In many ancient cultures, the rose was used to beautify the skin. People anointed their bodies with a pomade of rosewater.

Persia, part of the Central Asian region where roses were first cultivated, was a culture ardent about the fragrant flower. The Persians, who esteemed the rose for its beauty and sensory pleasures, expressed their wonder in poetry. Omar Khayaam, the poet and mathematician, honored the rose’s evanescent glory: “Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say. Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?”

The country’s royalty was especially fond of the perfume. Monarch’s mattresses were often stuffed with rose petals. One of the Persian kings commanded that his letters be composed on paper fragrant with rosewater and saffron.

Varied delicacies were prepared from the flower. Dried petals were converted into a dark red jam, a breakfast treat. Before they were conquered by Islam, the Persians brewed a potent rose wine that was exported to China. “A glass could make the sternest monarch merciful or make the sickliest mortal slumber amid his pains,” a Persian book of wisdom said.

Persians have long valued the rose for its cosmetic virtues. Even today, rosewater is an essential element in women’s makeup and men clean their mustaches and beards with it, notes cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij.

Not only were they transfixed by the rose, the Persians also saw its commercial potential. Skillful distillers, they developed an industry in the 9th century A.D. extracting atr (rose essence) and gôlab (rosewater) from the flowers. Kashan, a desert city, is now the center for manufacturing these products, as well as rose-scented perfumes, beauty creams, and other related items. Roses thrive in this setting of high altitude and low rainfall. The more extreme the dryness, the thirstier the roses become and the more powerful is their aroma.

Persian cooks embellished their dishes with a few drops of rosewater. A lamb stew might benefit from a dash of the perfume. Dried rose petals were sprinkled on pilaus, Persian pilafs. Rice puddings and pastries were imbued with rosewater.

Persian fruit drinks were frequently redolent of rosewater. The flavor of sharbats, icy refreshments concocted from lemon, tamarind, and other fruit syrups, was enhanced by the aromatic. (Our word, sherbet, comes from the Persian term). To Arab ears, which could not hear the “g” in gôlab, the rosewater potion turned into jôlab. This Arabic term was the origin of the name of the new English drink, the julep, food historian Margaret Shaida explains. In the julep, the 16th century poet John Milton wrote, were “spirits of balm and fragrant syrups mixt.”

In another twist, the word for a Persian hot weather refreshment, panj, a mixture of grape juice, rosewater, sugar, lemon, and crushed ice, made its way into English. After rum replaced grape juice in the beverage, panj was renamed punch.

Offering a frosted drink to visiting dignitaries was a mark of Persian hospitality. The 16th century Shah Tahmasp decreed that his guest “upon his auspicious arrival, let him drink fine sherbets of lemon and rosewater cooled with snow; then serve him preserves of apple, watermelon, grapes, and other fruits.”

The rose was an object of devotion in Arab society. Mohammed, who cherished the flower, told his followers: “When I was taken up into heaven, some of my sweat fell to earth, and from it sprang the rose, and whoever would smell my scent, let him smell the rose.” When Saladin, the Muslim general, won back Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, he refused to enter the Mosque of Omar, which had been converted into a Christian church, before it was perfumed with rosewater.

In their dining habits, the Arabic aristocracy emulated the Persians. Their sweets, whether puddings, pastries, or almond confections, had the scent and flavor of rosewater. Baklava, the filo specialty, was enriched with a rosewater sugar syrup.

The Caliphs of the vast Arabic empire seated in Baghdad craved rosewater for their courts and for those of the widely dispersed royalty. Shiraz, the ancient capital of rosewater production, sent 30,000 bottles of the fragrance a year in tribute to Baghdad’s rulers. From Shiraz, rosewater was disseminated to North Africa, Spain, Yemen, and to other Islamic dominions.

The chefs of the Baghdad court invented savory dishes balanced with rosewater. A recipe in a Baghdad Cookery Book published in 1239 A.D. calls for a voluptuously dressed bird: “A fat chicken stuffed with sugar, almonds and pistachios kneaded with scented rose water, and smeared with saffron inside and out.” Another culinary manual recommends roasted lamb flavored with sesame oil and rosewater. So integral did rosewater become to Arabic cuisine that many cooks routinely sprayed it over the cooking pot.

Later, when pilgrims traveled to Mecca, they longed to return from the Hajj with precious souvenirs, vials of rosewater. In Taif, on the outskirts of that Holy City, rose plantations were built to grow the flowers and to manufacture aromatic products. Charles Doughty, a 19th century English traveler, was eager to visit the town “with sweet and cool air, and running water, where are gardens of roses, and vineyards and orchards.” He saw camels hauling roses back and forth between Taif and Mecca: “We met some trains of loaded camels marching upward to et-Tayif: and out went others which descended before us to the Holy City. The most of these carried sacks . . . oh, blissful sweetness! in the pure night air . . . of rose blossoms; whose precious odours are distilled by the Indian apothecaries in Mecca. This is the ‘atar’ which is dispersed by the multitude of pilgrims throughout the Mohammedan world.”

The aroma of roses transformed the Indian kitchen as well. The country’s Moghul rulers, who had admired the Persians’ culinary arts, introduced this style in their palaces. These Moslem warriors from Central Asia, who established a dynasty in 1532 that lasted 300 years, instructed their chefs to prepare luxurious dishes adorned with saffron, almonds, and pistachios. Palace cooks turned a rugged frontier chicken kebab into a regal plate by scenting it with roses. Gulrukh Zarda, a pilau (a Persian pilaf) fragrant with rose essence, saffron, and oranges, took its name from the daughter of Babur, the first Moghul emperor. Gulrukh means “Rose-Faced Princess.” Babur, who was enamored of roses, gave all his wives and daughters names that were luscious images of the flower.

The Ottoman Turks, another Islamic power, were also infatuated with the rose. Inspired by the poetic tradition of the Persians, they saw the flower as an emblem of limitless beauty. The Turks transplanted the Damask rose to their Bulgarian colony. There, the Kazanluk basin, known as the “Valley of Roses,” blossomed into the world’s largest producer of attar, the rose oil extracted from rose petals.

The visit of a Turkish sultan to Kazanluk in 1850 was welcomed with a profusion of roses. Authors K. Starcher and T. Trifonov described the celebration:

“In May 1850, all the inhabitants of Kazanluk in the Valley of Roses, together with children who were dressed in white and carrying bunches of roses, gathered on the main road to the east of town to meet Sultan Abdul Medzhit. All the rose bushes edging the road were left unplucked to frame the Sultan’s way with their blooms.

“When the Sultan appeared, the children surrounded the carriage on both sides, waving their roses, while the grown-ups poured rose-water on the road in front of the Sultan all the way to the outskirts of Kazanluk. In the town itself, they sprinkled attar of roses on the streets as they walked in front of the carriage.”

Europeans soon acquired a taste for the rose. The English came to fancy preserves made from rose and orange blossoms. Rose sugar, an Arabic innovation, developed a following. Sugar, which the Muslim occupiers planted in Sicily and Spain, was shipped to the West for use by confectioners. A 13th century Dutch recipe for rose sugar reveals an Eastern touch: “Rose sugar . . . is made in the following way: rose petals that have been rubbed fine with sugar are put in a glass jar and left in the sun for 30 days; the contents must be stirred daily; the jar must be well sealed and it will remain good for three years.” Europe’s titled classes kept large stocks of rose sugar on hand: King Edward VI’s household in 1287 consumed 900 pounds of rose sugar and 300 pounds of violet sugar.

At festive occasions, diners might feast on fish and game platters fragrant with the aromatic. A dish of quail might arrive scented with rosewater. Guests relished sweets like jemelloes, made from sugar, caraway seeds, and rosewater, or “kissing comfits,” hard sugar candies perfumed with the flower.

Like the Persians and Arabs, Europeans believed the rose had health-giving properties. Red roses, the herbalist John Gerard asserted, “strengthen the heart and help the trembling thereof.” During medieval epidemics, people burned roses, herbs, and aromatic woods to cleanse the air in their homes.

The alluring Oriental fragrance was surprisingly attractive to American cooks. Fashionable in Europe, rosewater, food historian Charles Perry points out, was touted in cookbooks across the Atlantic. Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796), the first American cookbook, put rosewater in recipes for bread pudding, pound cake, apple pie, and gingerbread. After the Civil War, a new spice, vanilla, supplanted rosewater as the fragrance of choice.

Culinary fashions are by their nature fickle, and rosewater has yet to make a comeback. At Le Caprice, the recently opened French bakery in Columbia Heights, I asked Persian Manijeh Erfani, who owns the business with her husband Ahmad, if any of their goods were made with rosewater. She pointed to a lone item, a rice cookie that is also flavored with cardamom. Her customers, Manijeh said, were not really comfortable with the fragrance. Here’s hoping that the new shop’s patrons surprise the owners with their tastes.

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Rosewater Sources

Fresh Med (3313 Conn. Ave., NW; 202-244-3995). This combination grocery and café carries the Cortas brand of rosewater and orange blossom water.

Le Caprice (3460 14th St., NW; 202-290-3109). Manijeh Erfani suggests that you bring her any special requests for rosewater sweets.

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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