Note: This post was originally a print and online publication for Brownbook, and is reprinted here with their permission.♣
Give me a sun, I care not how hot, and sherbet, I care not how cool, and my Heaven is as easily made as your Persian’s. — Lord Byron ,1813
That Lord Byron! What a Romantic! And he sure seems to have liked sipping sharbat. And who can blame him? But for the uninitiated, let’s first review what sharbat means.
Persians make and bottle various types of sweet, fragrant, colorful syrups by cooking fruits or flowers or herbs in dissolved-sugar water. When ready to serve, a bit of the syrup is diluted and stirred with ice cold water and one ends up with a pretty and refreshing drink that is a popular Persian beverage generically known as sharbat. In Iran, offering guests a tall glass of some type of sharbat (with ice cubes) to ward off the heat of the summer is a standard of good housekeeping and an expected trademark of up-to-par hospitality. At least amongst the old-school Iranians.
A couple of sharbat recipes have already been posted here: the Cornelian cherry (sharbat ‘e zoghal akhteh) and the more recent sour cherry sharbat (sharbat ‘e albaloo.)
But sharbat comes in many more wonderful flavors: quince, pomegranate, lemon, rhubarb, strawberry, mulberry, blackberry, raspberry or even key lime are each enchanting in their own particular way. One can also savour sharbats made with mint, rosewater, saffron, chicory, musk willow, sweet briars, palm pods, citron and orange blossom – ingredients that reflect the poetic nature of Persian cuisine. Whatever the flavor, sharbat hits the spot during the dog days of summer, reviving the body and soul, and in some instances even offering some type of medicinal benefit.
What is the work of the thirsty one?
To circle forever ’round the well,
‘Round the stream and the Water and the sound of the Water,
Like a pilgrim circling the Kaa’ba of Truth
God’s wrath is His vinegar, mercy His honey.
These two are the basis of every oxymel.
If vinegar overpowers honey, a remedy is spoiled.
The people of the earth poured vinegar on Noah;
the Ocean of Divine Bounty poured sugar.
The Ocean replenished his sugar,
and overpowered the vinegar of the whole world.
Our featured Persian beverage, Sharbat ‘e sekanjabin, is perhaps the oldest type of Persian sharbat, tracing its roots at least as far back as the 10th century, as noted and praised in the canons of medicine written by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) the Persian polymath.
The name ‘sekanjabin’ is an Arabized version of the original Persian term, ‘serkangabin’, a combination of the Persian words ‘serkeh’ (vinegar) and ‘angebin’ (syrup, sweetness), literally meaning ‘honeyed vinegar’. True to its name, sekanjabin is made with vinegar and honey.
Sweet and sour and infused with the heady scent and flavor of fresh mint, this sharbat was not only popular with the Persians, but also copied and favored by the ancient Greeks and Romans who knew it as oxymel.
The recipe is satisfyingly simple: after boiling honey and water, vinegar is added and the mixture is left to simmer. Fresh mint leaves are then added and the syrup is left to cool for at least an hour, or up to 24 hours for a stronger minty flavor. Sekanjabin, like all types of sharbat, is shelf-stable for a good year if stored in a cool, dark place.
Like all types of sharbats, sekanjabin is served diluted with ice water in a glass or pitcher — as a perfect sweet and sour palette tickling summer cooler cordial. (For a modern twist, sparkling water can substitute flat water.)
‘Kahoo ‘va Sekanjabin’ | Crispy Lettuce with a Sekanjabin Dip
A distinct feature of sharbat ‘e sekanjabin — rendering it unique amongst all the other types of sharbat — is that it can also be served undiluted as a dip and eaten with crisp fresh romaine lettuce leaves. This combo of crunchy lettuce and minty sweet and sour sekanjabin — known as “kahoo va sekanjabin” — is a delicious and healthy snack perfectly suited for hot weather. The very embodiment of summer for most Persians.
Kahoo sekanjabin is also among the traditional foods of sizdah bedar, the outdoor picnic that takes place on the last day of the Norooz (Persian New Year) celebration.
To make this, undiluted sekanjabin syrup is poured into a dipping bowl and lettuce leaves are arranged, petal by petal, around it. To eat, dip the lettuce into the sharbat – just as you would dunk a cookie in coffee.
Try it! But beware: Heads of lettuce will vanish fast!
“The one who tastes, knows. The one who tastes not, knows not. Don’t speak of a heavenly beverage; offer it at your banquets and say nothing. Those who like it will ask for more; those who don’t aren’t fit to drink it. Close the shop of debate and mystery. Open the teahouse of experience.”
Thankfully, the tradition of making sharbat (while perhaps somewhat old-fashioned) survives and even thrives in Iran, at homes and in cafes. And many families continue to gather and enjoy the summertime pleasure of munching and crunching on Kahoo ‘va sekanjabin.
For the Iranians in diaspora, making and enjoying sekanjabin, the most ancient of Persian sharbats, to sip as or with lettuce as a dip, could be a delicious way to pay homage to and assuage their nostalgia for their ancient heritage. For everyone else, it’s just a sensible thing to experience as one of the fun pleasures of summer.
Sharbat ‘e Sekanjabin – Persian honey vinegar & mint cooler
- 1 1/3 cup honey (or use sugar instead, but that’s not the Avicenna way, and it’ll be far less healthy for you)
- 1 cup filtered water
- 2/3 cup white wine or apple cider vinegar (I used and prefer apple cider vinegar)
- fresh mint sprigs (1-2 cups or a bunch)
- Combine water and honey. With a wooden spoon stir and dissolve honey. Bring liquid to a boil and gently boil for 10-15 minutes. Skim foam as it appears.
- Add vinegar, bring back to boil, and simmer for 30 minutes or longer until the syrup somewhat thickens. Note: honey-based sekanjebin does not get quite as thick as sugar-based sekanjebin.
- In the last 5 minutes, add the fresh mint.
- Allow syrup to cool for at least an hour. If you prefer a stronger mint infusion, allow mint and syrup to diffuse longer, up to 24 hours. Remove mint leaves and discard.
- Pour syrup into a sterilized, airtight, dry bottle. Store syrup in a cool dark place (it will be shelf-stable for a good year) until ready to serve.
Pour 3-4 tablespoons of sharbat syrup in a drinking glass (ideally a tall, frosted one) Add a few ice cubes, dilute with 1 cup (or more, to taste) of cold water. You can substitute flat water with sparkling water for a modern twist.
You can adjust the amount of sweetness, adding more or less water as desired. You can experiment with adding a bit more vinegar or lemon juice if you prefer a more tangy taste.
Stir till syrup has entirely dissolved. Garnish with a lemon slice, or a mint leaf and serve!
To enjoy as a dip with lettuce – the classic “kahoo Sekanjebin”:
Pour sekanjebin into a dipping bowl placed in the center of a big serving tray. Arrange clean and dry lettuce leaves, petal by petal, around the dipping bowl. To eat, dip the lettuce into the bowl of sharbat – just as you would dunk a cookie in coffee. Crunch and munch!