Rana Zia Ebrahimi from Kerman Province, southern Iran, talks about three beloved spices of Iran – Saffron, Cumin, and Sumac. Spices are part of everyday life in Iran and Iranian cooks almost never go food shopping without stocking up on some fresh spices. Variety is really the key as most of the authentic Persian dishes call for very different spices.
A special report by Rana Zia Ebrahimi in Kerman Province, southern Iran
The Middle East and Asia are renowned for their aromatic spices used to create some of the most mouth-watering cuisines. For some of the best spices in the world, look no further than Iran, and southeastern Iran in particular.
My name is Rana and I’ve been living most of my life in Kerman, the capital city of the Kerman province located in the northern part of southern Iran. The population is just below 1 million people and we refer to ourselves as Persians rather than Iranians. To be more exact, we are proud to be called Kermanis. Kerman province has a particular strong cultural heritage and known for our outstanding local handicrafts, carpets, music, poetry, and of course the “best spices in the world”!
Spices are part of everyday life here. We almost never go food shopping without stocking up on some fresh spices. Variety is really the key here as most of our authentic Persian dishes call for very different spices.
Across Iran we all use very similar spices even though there are notable differences in our regional cuisines, such as those in northern Iran, Khuzestan in the west near Iraq and Kuwait, Khorasan in the east near Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, Iranian Kurdistan, Iranian Azerbaijan, central Iran, and right here in southern Iran.
While we use too many spices to mention here, I would like to discuss three spices that have a very special heritage right here in Kerman province: saffron, cumin and sumac. While all three grow in several regions across the country, us Kermanis believe that our homegrown spices are superior!
Saffron has been around for the very long time. Its usage in Persian cooking dates back more than 3,500 years, which would be around the Bronze Age.
Saffron is derived from a flower which is commonly known as saffron crocus. It is an autumn-flowering plant that is mostly grown in the eastern and southeastern provinces of Iran, including the provinces of Kerman, Fars and in the Khorasan region. Known for its golden yellow-orange color, it is sold in different qualities and strengths. Iran accounts for about 90-93% of global production with the remaining production being mainly from Spain, India, and Greece.
Much of Iran’s saffron is exported where it retails on the world markets for between US$1,100 to $11,000 per kilogram. Why so expensive you may ask? Simply because the production of just 450 g of dry saffron requires the harvest of between 50,000 and 75,000 flowers. That’s a lot of flowers to pick! Normally it will take about 20 hours of labour to pick 75,000 flowers.
Upon extraction of the flower’s stigmas they are dried and sealed in airtight containers. The stigmas can be used whole or first be grounded into a fine powder which is then mixed with boiling water to make a liquid saffron which contributes a luminous yellow-orange coloring to foods.
Saffron is an essential spice in Persian cooking. It is used in rice dishes, stews (Koresh), deserts and even in tea. It gives Persian food its unique and subtle flavor and sets it apart from the rest.
Cumin (zireh) is globally popular and an essential flavoring in many cuisines. Originally cultivated in Iran and the Mediterranean region, cumin has several varieties with the most famous being the black and green cumin that are grown in Kerman province. The cumin in Kerman is known for its distinctive flavor and aroma that is used in rice dishes, stews, pickles and sweets. It also has medicinal properties and benefits the digestive system and is often used to treat anemia and the common cold.
Cumin is a flowering plant and a member of the parsley family. The cumin plant grows to 30-50 cm tall and is harvested by hand. It requires a moderately cool and dry climate and its cultivation requires a long, hot summer of three to four months.
Its flowers are borne in umbels such as caraway, parsley and dill, while the seeds contained within a small fruit resemble caraway seeds. The seeds are first dried and then grounded to a fine powder.
Sumac (sommaq) is also a flowering plant that grows in subtropical and temperate regions throughout the world, and right here in Kerman province. Sumac plants vary from shrub size to small trees that can reach a height of 1 m to 10 m.
The leaves are spirally arranged while the flowers are small with greenish, white or red petals. The small, round, reddish fruits are densely clustered and referred to as sumac bobs. These bobs are then dried and ground to a fine or coarse powder ready for use.
Sumac powder is often used in Persian cuisine where it is sprinkled on salad, rice and meat – especially kebab. It adds a fresh yet very distinct lemony taste to the food.