Monday, October 20, 2008

sekanjebin (thick sweet mint-and-vinegar syrup)

When I came across my Portuguese friend, Jorge/ʒɔRʒ/ a few weeks ago, he told me that his fiancée and he had just "drank the last drop". I couldn't remember what he was referring to, so realising my confusion he told me: "the sweet mint drink". I had to think hard to remember how long ago was it that I had brought Clara and Jorge a bottle of sekanjebin; It was about a year ago, when they had another one of their great Portuguese parties after coming back to US from Portugal, sharing port and cheese, alongside fantastic homemade octopus salad and other Portuguese delicacies... and as a gift, I had offered them a bottle of sekanjebin. They should have been too tough on themselves, drinking it in very small quantities and sharing it only with very special friends and family members (otherwise how could it have lasted for a year?!). So, I thought instead of giving Jorge a fish, I teach him how to catch fish*. My friend, Jorge, now you owe me a lesson on all the nuances of octopus recipes!

The sweet mint and vinegar drink goes back to a long time. At least 800 years ago, as it has been mentioned by Rumi, the persian poet in his six-volume poem-book: In the 1st volume Rumi narrates the saga of a Prince, where things go wrong, and to demonstrate how badly things got screwed up, he mentions that, paradoxically almond oil caused skin dryness, whereas sekanjebin, ironically, caused surplus of yellow bile, leading to the excess of choleric humour**. The term Rumi uses is serkangabin, which is a combination of serke (vinegar) and angabin (syrup, sweetness). Whether the recipe used 800 years ago is exactly the same as the one we use nowadays, I have no idea. Even if not exactly the same, for sure it contained vinegar and sugar, so it would be pretty close, and remember, its eight-hundred years; how many recipes do you know that have remained intact after eight centuries?

The Persian word sharbat (ie syrup) comes from the Arabic root (sh,r,b) meaning to drink, where other words as sharāb (wine), mashroob (any alchoholic drink), and sharbat are derivatives (sharbat is the only soft drink derived from the root!). In Persian, sharbat is a refreshing summer drink made up of water and fruit, fruit juice or herbs, sweetened and thickened. According to this definition, lemonade is a sharbat, made from fresh squeezed lemon juice, sugar and cold water. However, most sharbats are prepared in a more elaborate manner.

Among the well-known persian sharbats there are the more common ones such as limoo (keylime), albāloo (sour cherry), toot-farangi (strawberry) and beh-limoo (quince & keylime). The less common ones include rivās (rhubarb), golāb (rosewater), zaferān (saffron), shāh-toot (blackberry) and tameshk (black raspberry ). How common is sekanjebin? It depends on the household. At our place, sekanbebin was the normal flora! of our kitchen cabinet and it could be found almost all year around, as it was my Dad's favorite (Was there anything with my dad's humour that went well with the drink? No idea!). On the other hand, I've had friends that had never tasted it and knew it only as an old traditional Persian drink, existing in old books and grandma's recipies. Still, I think sekanjebin is the most traditional among persian sharbats, and definitely the most unique one.

Before explaining how to make sekanjebin, let me emphasise not to mix up sharbat with sorbet, which is a French word derived from sharbat/sherbet, and usually refers to a non-dairy frozen sweetend fruit juice/puree. In US, sherbet and sorbet are sometimes used interchangeably, which leads to more confusion.


* A Persian proverb meaning to give sb the more basic skills of doing sth rather than offering them the end-product. An example would be teaching sb how to make sekanjebin instead of giving them a bottle of the boisson!

** Yellow bile has a warm and dry quality, and if anything, sekanjebin would be cold and moist, quite the opposite of choleric.

Sekanjebin continues here

Ingredients (yields around 2 litres: 40-50 servings)

Edibles needed:

1.5 litres of water
3 kg sugar
2 bunches of mint
2 cups of white vinegar (500 ml) (See below)

Non-edibles needed:

wooden spoon
cheese cloth (seive can be used if cheese cloth not available)

One point to mention before explaining the recipe is the type of vinegar used. At home the most commonly available vinegars are white and red ones; white vinegar would be a diluted solution of acetic acid, whereas red vinegar would be obtained from fermented macerated grapes. In contrast, in US, red vinegar (and even sometimes white) is made from fermentation of alcohol (hence wine vinegars). I personally play it safe, using the white vinegar to avoid adding flavours I'm not used to in sekanjbin; I dont want any other flavour from the vinegar except the tartness of acetic acid.

Start with cutting off the 1-2 cm end of the mint stalks. Wash the mint thoroughly. À la grandma, the mint stalks are tightened together with a piece of string (similar to making a bouquet garni), so that it'll be easier to remove at the end. I find it difficult to tighten up the mint after giving them a thorough wash, as they dont stay together afterwards. Besides, I've got to filter it anyway to get rid of the floating mint pieces, so I go without the bouquet garni, but if you feel like doing something fancy, go on.

At home sometimes confectionery sugar (khāke ghand) is used instead of sugar, or to replace some of it. The reason is that confectionery sugar is a by-product of cubing the sugar cone: persians drink their tea with cube sugar (ghand), and the uncubed sugar comes in ~1.5 kg cones. So you've got to cube it at home to obtain cube sugar; the by-product is confectionery sugar: the very fine sweet powder, and since making sharbat needs a good amount of sugar, the powdered sugar could be used for this purpose. (You can also buy cube sugar at stores, which a lot of people would do nowadays; however it is too soft, and immediately dissolves into tea, whereas the home-prepared cube sugar gradually releases its sweetness until you are finished drinking your brewed beverage; the details of making Persian tea would be for another post)

Making sekanjebin starts with preparing the simple syrup, which consists of 2:1 weight ratio of sugar and water: Place the water, sugar and mint in the pot and bring it to a boil. When it starts boiling, reduce the heat so it makes only small bubbles (ie to parboil), and the syrup would start thickening. It would be roughly around 30 minutes from the start of the boil. When reached proper thickness add the vinegar, give it a few stirs, and wait for another 4-5 minutes. Dont let it boil too much with the vinegar as the vinegar will evaporate quickly. Turn off the heat. You're almost done!

More on the the proper thickness: With other syrups its very important to get the thickness called ghavām in persian (not the early 20th century prime minister!): How to know whether its got to ghavām stage? I just look at the viscosity when its dribbling from my wooden spoon back into the pot; the most objective! way is to place a drop on you fingernail where it should stay and not run. If not thick enough (not ghavām āmade), it might grow mold; this would be of more concern if the sharbat is kept for a long time*; mold formation more likely happens for those sharbats that contain fruit juice. If you think its too tricky to get the right consistency for preventing fungal invasion, keep the bottle in the fridge.

The final touches on making sekanjebin: Let your syrup cool down, then pass it through the cheese cloth to get rid of the broken mint parts (my mom had a spare cotton scarf for filtering purposes). Give it a good squeeze as there is plenty of the syrup having soaked into the mint. Discard the mint. Your syrup is ready. bottle it and keep it somewhere cool. (fridge is good, not necessary as mentioned above)

How to serve:

i) You can use it as a lettuce dip.

ii) Add cold water to it: you have a refreshing drink! The amount of water is quite up to you depending on how sweet you like it; I prefer it with only a tinge of sweetness.

iii) Peel and grate a cucumber, preferably an English cucumber (through large pores), add sekanjebin syrup and water, and you have a refreshing dessert.

Nooshe jaan (Bom apetite!!!)


* like Jorge's ! However Jorge, dont worry; I personally make yours, so the thickness has been properly taken care of.