Iranians like sour things. Really sour things. Suck-your-cheeks-in-til-they-meet-in-the-middle sour things. Proof of this is the fact that when Mrs. Shopkeeper first met Mr. Shopkeeper he had a tummy ulcer…from eating too much sour stuff. And a lot of this sour stuff comes in pickled format. Iran is justifiably famous for its amazing pickles. We joke that if Master Shopcat stands still for long enough mother-in-law will pickle him too – but in truth Iranians really will pickle anything. Fruit, veg, windfalls: it’s a way of making in-season stuff last until it becomes out of season (the notion of tweaking nature so that you can have everything all year round has thankfully not yet taken off across most of the Middle East). And the most famous pickles have become incorporated into the cuisine of the nation: they are not optional extras to keep in the pantry, but essential accoutrements to enhance the enjoyment of particular dishes.
This is our guide to the most famous varieties…
There are two basic methods of pickling stuff: using brine, or using vinegar. Brine makes things salty, or shor, whilst vinegar obviously makes things sour, or torsh. Once you have the basic vocabulary, it is pretty easy to work out from the title of each preserve how it is made.
The most famous pickle of the lot is literally just known as torshi, and consists of chopped-but-not-minced vegetables preserved in vinegar with (most commonly – recipes vary) a bit of chilli, golpar, nigella seeds, turmeric and garlic. But anything that you pickle by covering it with vinegar is known as torshi-ye-whatever. Torshi-ye-litteh (pictured left) is one of the most popular sub-varieties: it comprises minced vegetables, quite a dollop of chilli, and lots and lots of aubergine. Torshi-ye-Banadari is another: a tomato-y, fiery, sour mixed pickle from the docklands (bandar) of Southern Iran. Torshi-ye-Shah Pasand is one of Mrs.S’ favourites: a rich, slightly sweet mixed number, whilst Torshi Hafteh Bijar is a fresh tasting, green, herby pickle. All of these mixed pickles are popular with rice dishes such as sabzi pulao and bogoli pulao – and it is quite customary to put out a whole platter of different pickles for guests to try….
And then there is Torshi-Sir – garlic pickle (see top, and right). This is traditonally made with clear vinegar for peeled garlic, and malt or apple vinegar for whole garlic, and is quite often laid down to mature (our house garlic at the top is a 15 year old vintage…). Torshi Moussir is another classic: sliced spring garlic with saffron.
‘Shor’ pickles are pickled in brine with just a little vinegar added for good measure. The most well-known varieties are chunky mixed veg like the number in the photo on the left, and khiar shor – utterly addictive crunchy baby cucumbers bottled with dill or tarragon, chilli and garlic.. These salty pickles are enjoyed with snacks and in sandwiches.
If you want to start pickling stuff yourself, you just require sterilised jars (swill them round with boiling water and turn them upside down to dry), washed and dried whatever-it-is-you-want-to-pickle, and some sort of vinegar/brine combo. There is no mystery to it. None whatsoever. You just need a thrifty mind and a bit of determination. In the meantime, of course, there is always your friendly local Persian corner shop…