Written by William Dobson
Desserts in the Arab world tend to be fairly limited, with restaurant offerings, in my experience at least, usually restricted to either fresh fruit or halawiyat (sweets such as baklava). Meals are far less structured than in the West and, as such, there is no tradition for pudding in the way we have here. Ice creams are ubiquitous throughout the region (indeed, Bakdash, an ice cream parlour in Souk Al-Hamidiyeh, Damascus has been there since 1885), although they are seen as more of an afternoon snack than something to be enjoyed at the end of a meal and vary somewhat from our idea of Hagen-daz or gelato. The addition of salep gives them a creamy, viscosity while mastic creates a slightly chewy, yet not at all unpleasant, texture. Sorbets are also hugely popular in Iran, with paloodeh a particular favourite in Shiraz. A seemingly bizarre combination of churned frozen sugar syrup, flavoured with lime and rosewater, and rice noodles, it’s fresh, zesty and palette cleansing, with marked contrast between the still soft noodles and the icy bite of the sorbet.
However, as the West’s influence marches ever eastwards, this is beginning to change and, rather ironically, it seems that Iran is the country most embracing the idea of the dessert. I’m not usually a pudding man myself but, when cooking for others, it’s seen as de rigueur to include a sweet offering to finish the meal. So, as part of a Middle Eastern inspired meal I cooked the other day, it seemed only right to look to Persian inspiration for an appropriate ending. Rather than try and claim it as my own, I should add that this recipe of sholleh zard, or saffron rice pudding, comes straight from New Persian Cooking by Jila Dana-Haeri and the photography is courtesy of Jason Lowe. While rice pudding usually evokes nightmarish memories of school dinners and carefully removing suspicious looking skin from a tepid mush resembling the gruel straight out of Oliver Twist, this was delightfully interesting. The addition of cardamom lends an exotic fragrance and spice, while the saffron adds a rich, almost egg-like yellow and it’s topped with a liberal sprinkling of warming cinnamon and crunchy, moreish pistachios.
- 20g almonds
- 20g pistachios
- 200g rice (any type)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 litres water
- 400g sugar
- 2 tbsp saffron water
- 3tbsp rose water
- 3 cardamom pods
- 50g unsalted butter
- 1tsp cinnamon
Cut the almonds into slivers and crush the pistachios. Slit the pods from the cardamom, remove the seeds and grind them with a pestle and mortar.
Put the rice, salt and water into a heavy-based saucepan on a medium heat and bring to the boil. Boil until the rice is thoroughly cooked and the mixture is thick.
Add the sugar and bring back to the boil, stirring continually. Add the liquid saffron (made by brewing 1/8 tsp saffron with 2tbsp water) and the rose water; stir well, then add the almonds, cardamom and butter and stir to mix thoroughly. Cover with a lid, reduce the heat to a minimum and cook for a further 40 - 50 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remover from the heat and pour into serving bowls. Leave to cool at room temperature. Decorate with cinnamon and crushed pistachios.