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The Iranian dish came to the table with a side plate of white long grain rice sprinkled with dried red berries. I knew that pomegranate berries are often added to middle eastern cooking but these tasted different. They were tart and plumb and were perfect counterpoints to the rice’s flavour and colour.

“They are called zershk,” said the chef. A little research revealed that zershk—also called zereshk—is dried red barberries. Barberries are too sour to eat fresh. They are often made into syrups or, as Iranians do, dried and then rehydrated by soaking them in water for about 15 minutes and then draining and cooking them in a little butter. If they are very hard they may need to be soaked in boiling water first for up to an hour. To do this boil the water, remove the pot from the heat and add the berries. Drain them as soon as they plump up but are not too soft.

The fruit is similar to red currents, which will come to market here as fresh ripe fruit in in mid-summer. Zershk seems to be unique to Iranian cooking but it shouldn’t be. This fruit has a zesty flavour that would work well with many dishes, just as ripe currants are used in puddings and jelly.

Barberries are high in vitamin C. In larger quantities, they have been used as a purgative. The bark and roots are used to make a brilliant yellow dye.

While Zershk was served to me in a rice dish, it is often added to an Iranian souffle called kookoo sabbi which is a kind of thick vegetable omelet . However Zershk can also be used in stuffings for fowl or fish.

The sourness of these berries makes for a lovely bittersweet sauce. Mix a little saffron into a couple of ounces of boiling water. Remove this from the heat and let the rich colour develop. Add a quarter cup of rehydrated Zershk, two tablespoons of sugar (more if you like a sweeter sauce), and a dash of lemon juice. Stir fry this mixture in a tablespoon of very hot oil until the sugar dissolves. This can be spread over rice when it is served or as a condiment for any food that calls for a sweet and sour sauce. I would try it as a dipping sauce for Chinese egg rolls or as a delicious tart topping on vanilla ice cream.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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