May has been a busy month for me with a 3-week business trip to Europe! That is why we are closing our monthly feature of Azerbaijan cuisine a few days late with a very traditional drink from the Land of Fire : sharbat.
Sharbat or sherbet is a popular drink in Western and Southern Asia. It is typically prepared from fruits, herbs as well as flower petals.
The word sharbat comes from Persian “شربت” (sharbat), and sherbet comes from Turkish şerbet. Both words actually come from Arabic شربة (sharba) which means “a drink”, and شرب (shariba), “to drink”.
Sherbet entered the English language as sorbet, which is now more of an iced dessert or palate cleanser than a drink.
This beverage is very common in Azerbaijan but also in India, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh as well as many Arab countries. It is often consumed by Muslims when breaking their fast, during the month of Ramadan, which happens to start this coming week. Also, because of the Islamic ban on alcohol, beverages in the Islamic world have mostly consisted of fruit juices and syrups.
The first mentions of sharbat date from the 12th century. In the Persian book Zakhireye Khwarazmshahi, royal Islamic physician Ismail Gorgani describes different types of sharbats in Iran, including ghooreh (sour grape), anar (pomegranate) and sekanjebin (mint).
Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, popularized the drink in the Indian subcontinent in the sixteenth century. He used to ask for frequent loads of ice to be sent from the Himalayas to make cool refreshing drinks. This is the same ice that was used to make other iced delicacies such as kulfi. Badam ka sharbat, for example, is now a famous Indian sharbat with almond. Other popular flavors include gulab sharbat (rose sharbat), amla sharbat (gooseberry sharbat), kokam sharbat, bel sharbat (wood apple sharbat) or kachi keri sharbat (raw mango sharbat).
At the same time and in the centuries that followed, spices and fruits were grown at the Ottoman Palace of Topkapi in Istanbul to be used in sharbat. One of the earliest mentions of Turkish sherbet was by the French botanist Pierre Belon, who traveled to Turkey, Egypt, the Holy Land and Persia between 1546 and 1551.
References to sherbet start to appear in English sources in the seventeenth century. English Philosopher and Scientist Sir Francis Bacon was actually one of the first to write about this novelty in 1627.
The fashion for Turkish sherbet in Europe started in Venice in the seventeenth century, and from there, it spread to the rest of Italy. Turkish word ‘şerbet’ actually entered the Italian language as sorbetto during the period of Ottoman-Byzantine-Venetian relations.
The colors of all these sharbats actually reminded me of granita, another Italian iced delicacy that Vera prepared last summer.
The reason that sherbet became so widely popular was simply that, until the early twentieth century, there were very few ways to preserve and transport fresh fruits. Because of this, fruits remained seasonal and local, except when they could be either dried or reduced to syrup, which are two forms that served as sharbat extract.
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 during his visit to Istanbul in 1813
In the collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories The Thousand and One Nights, sherbet also appears as a refreshing and medicinal drink.
Sherbet is a very traditional drink in Azerbaijan. It is made with everything from fruits like pomegranate, apricot, quince, orange, or cherry, but also from rose petals (ovshala), basil, mint, saffron, sumac or seeds like cardamom, caraway, coriander.
Sharbat is considered the most refined of soft drinks in Azerbaijan. Sharbats are a symbol of celebration and are often consumed at weddings, dinner parties, banquets and similar events.
Gandab sherbet (made with strong aromatic herbs like yarrow, violet willow, mint and catnip) has the quality of increasing the appetite but also facilitating digestion. This sharbat is served with pilafs and other Azerbaijani dishes that are rich in fat.
I actually didn’t serve sharbat with the plov that Vera and I prepared while I was in Paris, but made it for our Memorial Day Weekend BBQ last week.
That day, I made Persian koobideh and joojeh kabob (chicken kebabs) that I served with zereshk polo (rice with barberries) and Shirazi salad (cucumber and tomato salad).
It was quite hot that day. And the mint sharbat that I prepared really came in handy! The next day, I tried two other sharbat recipes that our culinary expert Feride shared with me from her book “Pomegranate and Saffron: A Culinary Journey to Azerbaijan“, and they were all deliciously fruity and thirst-quenching.
I love anything sour, so you can imagine that the pomegranate sharbat really did it for me. Plus, as you may already know, pomegranate has a lot of antioxydants. It is often recommended for those who suffer from low blood levels or blood loss.
The summer season is approaching. The best time for BBQs, picnics and outdoor gatherings, so drop the sodas and artificially flavored drinks and opt for a refreshing and natural sharbat!
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 4 medium pomegranates (about 2 lb)
- 6 cups water
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 6 coriander seeds , crushed
- 3 saffron threads , ground to a powder with a mortar and pestle
- 2 large juicy lemons
- 1 bunch fresh mint
- 5 cups water
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- Freshly squeezed juice of ½ lemon
- Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a saucepan. Simmer, stirring over medium heat, until the sugar has completely dissolved, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
- Meanwhile, knead the pomegranate firmly by rolling it back and forth on a flat surface, until it is soft. Pierce a small hole with a knife on one side of the fruit, then firmly press the fruit with both hands to squeeze the juice out from the hole. You should obtain about 2 cups of juice from all four pomegranates.
- In a pitcher, combine the pomegranate juice with the cooled syrup. Stir to mix. Chill in the refrigerator before serving, or pour into glasses over ice cubes and serve immediately.
- Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan. Toss in the crushed coriander seeds. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the sugar has dissolved, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
- Meanwhile, make a saffron infusion with the powdered saffron and 1 tablespoon hot water. Set aside until the sugary syrup has cooled.
- Squeeze the juice from the lemons into a pitcher. Strain the sugary syrup into the pitcher, discarding the coriander seeds. Stir in the saffron infusion. Chill in the refrigerator before serving.
- Cut off the stalks of the mint and coarsely chop the leaves. Put the mint in a saucepan. Add 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
- In the meantime, combine the remaining 2 cups of water with sugar in a saucepan and boil over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Remove from the heat.
- Strain the mint-infused liquid into a pitcher. Discard the herbs. Add the sugary syrup to the pitcher. Pour in the lemon juice. Stir to mix. Chill before serving.