Sharbat is the generic umbrella term for a traditional and popular type of Persian beverage, made of concentrated aromatic syrups diluted with ice water – a perfect thirst quencher that’s synonymous with summer. Sharbat is easy to make. A mixture of water and sugar (or honey) is combined with fruit, fruit juice or flowers. It is then boiled until it thickens into a concentrated syrup, and bottled and stored in a cool dark place. When it’s time to serve, a few spoonfuls of the concentrated syrup are diluted with ice water in a tall glass, accompanied by a customary swizzle stick or long spoon for stirring. Served straight up or on the rocks, it’s good to the last aromatic drop.
Sharbat comes in many wonderful flavours: sour cherry, quince, pomegranate, lemon, rhubarb, strawberry, mulberry, blackberry, raspberry or even key lime are each enchanting in their own particular way. The adventurous 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 flavour, 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.
Sharbat ‘e sekanjabin is perhaps the oldest type of Persian sharbat, tracing its roots at least as far back as the 10th century. It is, strangely, both a sweet and sour drink. Infused with the heady scent of fresh mint it makes a memorable impression – so much so it even features in one of the canons of medicine written by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) the Persian polymath. Not only popular with Persians, the drink was also served by the ancient Greeks and Romans in its other guise, oxymel.
Diluted in a tall glass with cold water or club soda and ice, sharbat ‘e sekanjabin may seem like a strange drink at first, but it holds a special place in the summer memories of its Persian fans. These days, the youth in Iran may prefer to quench their summer thirst with a can of Pepsi – and many consider sharbat to be old-fashioned. But, for purists, there is no summer beverage more superior than a good, chilled, homemade sharbat.
The name ‘sekanjabin’ itself 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 and infused with fresh mint leaves. 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 if a stronger mint flavour is desired. Sekanjabin, like all other sharbat, is shelf-stable and if stored in a cool, dark place will last for a good year.
Kahoo sekanjabin is another well-loved member of the sharbat family. The sekanjabin is served undiluted as a dip and eaten with crisp fresh romaine lettuce leaves. To make this, 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 a biscotti in coffee.
There was a time when kahoo sekanjabin was the very embodiment of summer – a snack perfectly suited for hot weather. Heads of lettuce would vanish fast. ‘There is nothing more refreshing that dipping fresh romaine lettuce in this juicy sweet and sour concoction. Imagine the sound of the lettuce crunching and then this minty syrup oozing through your lips,’ shares Iranian Davar Ardalan, who is a producer at public radio station NPR and a sekanjabin-lover.
‘Just the thought of it in the summer heat is enough to make me salivate.’ At least in Iran, the tradition survives somewhat intact and many families continue to gather together and enjoy this summertime rite of passage. Kahoo sekanjabin is also traditionally served during sizdah bedar, the outdoor picnic that takes place on the last day of the Norooz (Persian New Year) celebration in early spring.
For the Iranians in diaspora, driven by a combination of nostalgia, reverence for their ancient culture and a desire to uphold their roots, homemade sharbat may yet make a comeback as one of the staple delights of the summer. Making and enjoying sekanjabin, the most ancient of Persian sharbat, could be the perfect way to start paying homage to this heritage.
This article appears in the issue41 Buy Now