Posted: May 3, 2023 Author: Ryan Kukuruzovic, Corporate Chef
Ryan has 20-plus years of R&D and foodservice experience. His focus is on the design and implementation of diverse and innovative culinary visions with the highest standards of excellence.
Middle Eastern cuisine is notable for its copious use of aromatic flavoring ingredients. Recently, when we dug into it as part of our latest Wixon Innovates project, I was captivated by the diversity and uniqueness of the cuisine. There were variations upon variations of spice and ingredient combinations, depending on local cultures and ingredient preferences. Amidst this wealth of flavoring ingredients, three stood out to me – rosewater, pomegranate molasses, and saffron. Unusual within the context of mainstream American cuisine, these ingredients are wonderfully flavorful, and quite approachable, which made me want to share a bit more about them.
Sweet, fragrant, and delightfully delicious, I came to greatly appreciate rosewater for its delicately evocative floral character. As its name suggests, rosewater is derived from rose petals that are either steeped, simmered or distilled in water. Used sparingly in much the same way as vanilla extract, it’s in both sweet and savory dishes In Middle Eastern cuisine. I find it lends itself particularly well to sweet applications – specifically bakery and pastry.
When layered into these two applications, it imparts a fresh, aromatic nuance to tortes, cakes, cookies, and hard candies. Or it can be infused in vanilla pudding, whipped cream, or crème anglaise and pastry cream for an exotic, yet alluring flavor hit.
Ultimately, balance is key when using rosewater. As too much rosewater extract will come off as “cosmetic” tasting or overwhelmingly “perfumy,” which is definitely not where you want to end up. My advice is to be sure to establish usage levels based on the source of the extract. Then you can lend subtlety and nuance in such a way that it elevates the overall flavor experience in a unique way.
Although many common foods today arrived via trade routes that crisscross the region, pomegranates are thought to be indigenous to the Middle East. Their cultivation spread from there to Asia and into the Mediterranean where Spaniards eventually brought them to the Americas. A condiment particular to Middle Eastern cuisine, pomegranate molasses is concentrated from the juice of pomegranate seeds. At times, sugar, citrus, and/or other ingredients are added to enhance the flavor. As you may imagine, pomegranate molasses has a thick, syrupy consistency, tawny color, and an intense flavor that’s a balance of sweet and tart.
Pomegranate molasses is frequently used in Middle Eastern fare in stews and salads. It can also enliven dips or spreads, be used as a glaze or in marinades for lamb, beef, chicken, and vegetables. The application range is quite broad and not limited to savory dishes either. It adds a fruity, tangy note when poured over vanilla ice cream, pound cake or rice pudding.
Another flavor emblematic of Middle Eastern cuisine is saffron. Its subtle flavor is often described as floral, smoky, and earthy, yet sweet. Despite its complexity, saffron plays remarkably well with a vast variety of foods from meat and vegetables to pasta and rice dishes. And let’s not forget desserts. Saffron is biologically similar to vanilla – both are harvested from the stamen of flowers – allowing it to function similarly as a background flavor. Like vanilla, saffron lends itself well to amplifying the character of every other component in a dish.
In Persian cuisine, saffron is used in various sweet and savory applications. Sweet dishes range from saffron rice pudding and saffron sherbet to saffron tea. As far as savory dishes, it’s used in most rice dishes, meat and or vegetable stews, known as khoresh, and with grilled chicken.
The best way to use saffron before adding it to a dish is to take several strands and grind them into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. The powdered saffron is then bloomed in two to three tablespoons of hot liquid (water, broth, or stock) for at least five minutes. This will bring out the color and aroma. Alternatively, toasting saffron in olive oil over low heat allows it to be infused in any application, savory or sweet, more readily.
If you’re looking for some more flavor inspiration, I invite you to check out these applications Middle Eastern – Wixon, Inc. our team created.