(Before we delve into āsh, let’s take care of the tricky matter of its pronunciation. Āsh should be pronounced as if you’re going to say Osh Kosh Magosh and not as if you’re Scarlette O’Hara foolishly pining for Ashley, oh Ashley. So: Osh not Ash-ley. Ok? OK! Moving on.)
In Iran, a cook is an āshpaz, which literally translates to maker-of-āsh. And cooking is āshpazi or making-āsh. What in exactly is āsh? Picture this: thick hearty soups with a mixture of herbs and veggies and legumes and sundry whatnots -somewhat akin to French potage. Perfect whenever it is chilly outside.
Not too long ago I was invited to a potluck. I wanted to make something non-fussy, potluck-friendly, and Persian of course. But … what? With discerning and accomplished cooks in attendance, and trying to represent the cuisine of Iran, the pressure was on! I pondered, I consulted, I wrung my hands and wore out my worry beads (not really) and finally figured I should make some type of cozy and nourishing āsh. Duh! Next question was: what type of āsh to make? There are so very many different types of āsh, you know – variations only limited by imagination and taste. Then the lightbulb moment: pomegranates! Not only are they in season, beautiful, naturally festive, and delicious, there’s also the convenient fact that Iranians have cultivated an encompassing and enduring love affair with pomegranates (a fruit native to the country) since ancient times, so a pomegranate āsh seemed just and fitting.
Pomegranate āsh, like most other types of āsh, is a forgiving recipe (you do not have to be Swiss-watch-precise re the cooking time and you can putz around with the measurement of ingredients to some extent and substitute this for that within reason) and you’ll still be rewarded with a delicious and flavorful fare. Also in its favor: it is a one-pot construction with a short list of simple ingredients, the sole exotic exception being the pomegranate syrup. (Pomegranate syrup should be readily available in most international and middle-eastern grocery stores. In New York City try Kalustyans or Sahadi’s.) Mini meatballs (called koofteh yeh sar gonjeshky) are optional. I may skip the meatballs next time I make this recipe but the traditional garnish of sauteed garlic (sir ‘eh dagh) and dried mint (na’nah dagh), however, should not be dispensed with under any circumstances, as it adds a vital je ne sais quoi depth of flavor and aroma to the dish.
In conclusion: the pomegranate āsh is a hearty, healthy and pleasurable fare (a mixture of tangy and earthy flavors) that is suitable either as a stand-alone meal or as a first course, and while I can’t claim that it behooves you to sample it, it is certainly worth a try!
Edited to add:
- For the DIY enthusiasts and the purists at heart, here’s a simple formula of making your own pomegranate syrup (rob’ eh anar), straight from apuginthekitchen: reduce pomegranate juice by boiling it for 15 or 20 minutes on medium high heat until it’s reduced to a syrup. If the syrup ends up on the sweet rather than tangy side, Suzanne recommends adding a bit of lemon juice, or lemon zest. She also said that she makes a glaze for baked ham with the pomegranate syrup. Which sounds amazing! Have at it and make your own pomegranate syrup.
- 1/2 cup rice (rinsed and washed until water runs clear)
- 1/4 cup split peas (rinse a couple of times and drain)
- 1 cup (washed, stemmed, chopped) parsley
- 1 cup (washed, stemmed, chopped) coriander
- 1 cup (washed, stemmed, chopped) chives
- 2 to 4 cups pomegranate juice, (can substitute 1/2 cup pomegranate syrup)
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 small-to-medium-sized onions (chopped)
- 1/3 cup of sugar (optional)
Note: any kind of white rice will do nicely, so no worries re the quality of the rice used.
For the optional meatballs:
- 1/2 lb ground meat
- 1 onion, grated
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 /2 to 1 teaspoon turmeric
For a vegetarian option, use 2 beets (peeled and cubed) instead.
For the garnish:
- 1 tablespoon dried mint
- 3-4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- olive oil
- handful of pomegranate arils
- Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a big nonstick pot and saute chopped onions over medium heat till golden. (Approximately 10 minutes.) Add split peas, 6-8 cups of filtered water, salt, pepper, and turmeric. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer (for around 15-20 minutes) until the split peas soften. Add rice and continue to cook for another 15 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Add the chopped greens and herbs and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes longer. Stir as needed.
- Add the pomegranate juice, simmer, covered, for 30-45 minutes.
- To make the (optional) mini meatballs (koofteh yeh sar gonjeshky): mix 1/2 pound of ground meat with one grated onion; season with salt, pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric; knead well to mix. Make hazelnut-sized meatballs, roll meatballs in a thin layer of flour and saute briefly in hot oil in a pan. Add to the soup at the same time you add the pomegranate juice in step #2. (Alternatively: instead of meatballs, add cubed beets to the āsh.)
- Once the āsh is set to your liking, taste and adjust flavor: add sugar (anywhere from 2 tablespoons up to 1/3 cup to taste) or conversely, add more pomegranate syrup/juice to amp up the tart flavor. Your call. Traditionally, a tart (yet not sour) flavor is preferred.
Note: If the āsh is too thick at any time throughout the process add a bit of water to dilute. Don’t forget to stir occasionally throughout to prevent sticking.
Just before serving, prepare the traditional sauteed dried mint and garlic (na’na dagh) garnish. Don’t be tempted to skip this part as it enahances the taste and aroma of the dish in a perceptibly exquisite way.
- Dried mint: Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a pan. Once oil sizzles, turn heat off completely, add the dried mint, and stir in the pan for just one minute. (Dried mint is prone to burning quickly, so that one minute is more than enough.) Remove mint from pan and set aside.
- Sauteed garlic: In the same pan, heat another tablespoon of oil till sizzling hot. Add sliced garlic, stir, and saute for just around a minute. (Don’t overdo it as garlic will lose its aroma.)
Serve when hot and transfer soup into a big serving bowl. Top with the dried mint and garlic (na’na dagh) garnish, making a criss-cross or another type pattern. Decorate with a handful of pomegranate arils.
Make it, and enjoy it, and noosh ‘eh jaan!