an ice cream education
The first day of Spring, as I mentioned, is the first day of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Though it has come and gone along with the important thirteenth day, nothing has changed since last year. I still make it a point to go visit my moonstruck friend and master baker, Mohammad (aka Agha Tabrizi) to pick up the plumpest, juiciest dates; some sumac-spiced mixed nuts, legumes, and seeds; and the famous cookies and sweets.
Before making the annual trip, I had decided that this was the year I was going to take the word “Americanized” out of the title of my version of an Iranian ice cream called Bastani Akbar Mashti. This saffron-flavored ice cream makes up for what it lacks in French-style creaminess in its uniquely Middle Eastern texture. The ice cream is chewy. Not chewy like the densest of premium ice creams in the US, but chewy like a melting taffy. It is traditionally served between two thin wafer cookies. When you bite into the ice cream sandwich of sorts, the ice cream shows a bit of resistance, gently teasing you until it finally touches your tongue. It’s the sweetest of battles and isn’t nearly as grueling as the one between mouth and Turkish dondurma (an even chewier, stretchier ice cream that can be cut with a knife – check it out!)
The unique chew comes from an equally unique ingredient: salaab (or salep or sahlab or salepi depending on the language). Salaab is a special polysaccharide from the tubers of a species of wild orchid. Because it has thickening powers, it’s compared to cornstarch. But cornstarch it is not. It’s the steroidal version of cornstarch. And after it has thickened something, it leaves a fragrant something-something in its wake. Sweet and floral it doesn’t shout its presence and provides a sexy aroma not a starchy blandness. Without salaab—even with cornstarch as a substitute—Bastani Akbar Mashti is just saffron, pistachio, and rose ice cream, which is still very good, of course. But not as unique.
But with salaab, the stretchy treat is borderline illegal. You see, white, powdery, fragrant salaab is a hallucinogenic substance.