Before we get into Persian ice cream, I just want to talk about why it’s important to do so, and why the “Taste” section of this publication holds so much potential, and is so dear to me. The appreciation of flowers in Europe and North America revolves and has revolved primarily around aesthetic value. People have traditionally reflected on the importance of flowers primarily through design and art that echoes their beauty- Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, Andy Warhol’s Mexican Flowers, Georgia O’Keefe’s many close-up portraits of flowers. All these works and the larger context in which they are made reinforce the idea that flowers are something beautiful to look at, but their beauty goes much further than that. In other cultures, there are equally rich traditions of appreciating flowers for their use-value, whether that be medicinally, or, in this case, their culinary characteristics, and that is just as important and profound. To really appreciate flowers for all their value, it’s important to consider disciplines, traditions, and approaches that aren’t necessarily as commonly discussed.
All that being said, the tradition of Bastani Sonnati, or Persian ice cream, uses floral ingredients in really creative and delicious ways that reflect the beauty of the flowers they use and the craftsmanship of the people who make it. If you’ve never had Persian ice cream before, I would highly suggest you do so as soon as you can. It’s ludicrously creamy and rich, the texture is thick and malleable in a way that’s incredibly appealing and satisfying to eat, and -its most defining feature- it’s beautifully aromatic. I fully understand it may be a little strange to describe it this way, but the sensation of eating it tastes like the sensation of smelling a really nice perfume smell, and this is due in large part to its floral elements. Persian ice cream is traditionally made with saffron and rosewater, floral ingredients that appear in many Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian desserts like Turkish Delight, Kulfi, and Rooh Afza. The fragrance of these floral ingredients pair really well with the sweetness of the ice cream, bringing out the sweet scents of flowers in ways that can only happen culinarily. There is a rich history and complexity to Persian ice cream, and thankfully, in researching this topic, I had help from an incredibly and absolutely invaluable source. Saffron & Rose is a Southern California based Persian ice cream shop with two locations- one in Los Angeles and one in Irvine. I had the incredible pleasure of getting to speak with Freddy Papen, whose grandfather, Ali Kashani-Rafye, began the business in Malibu (they later moved it to Westwood) in the 1970’s after having learned the craft of Persian ice cream in Tehran. Freddy was kind enough to share with me the history of the store and his knowledge of the history of Persian ice cream in general.
Saffron & Rose does serve flavors that may be more familiar to some, flavors like cookies and cream, coconut, and strawberry, but they have a particular focus on Persian ice cream’s traditional floral flavors and floral ingredients. Among their catalogue are flavors like jasmine, lavender, white rose, red rose, and orange blossom, and according to Freddy, their most popular flavor is still the classic and traditional mix of rosewater and saffron.
Flower of the Crocus sativus plant. Saffron spice comes from plucking and drying the stigma and styles. The stigma are the red threads sticking out of the center of the flower.
Image Source: Asadbagheri
Rosa x damascena, the type of rose commonly used for making rosewater.
Image Source: H. Zell
Speaking with Freddy, I got an insight into the deep level of artistry that goes into the production of Persian ice cream. As Saffron & Rose has grown as a business, they have made it a point to stick with Ali Kashani-Rafye’s recipes and methods, and use ingredients with a quality that can live up to that standard. The process of making the rosewater that is the base of most flavors is an important craft. Saffron & Rose sources their rosewater from Lebanon, where according to Freddy, the quality of roses is incredibly high, “they pick up flowers which are boiled and the water itself saturates the scents of the flower” resulting in a product that carries the fragrance of flowers, and adds a lot to the taste of the ice cream. Rosewater is also notably used in their Faloodeh, their second most popular menu item, which is like ice cream but doesn’t use milk, and instead is made of frozen rosewater, syrup, and noodles, and flavored with cherries and lime.
Faloodeh is a particularly interesting dessert as it varies in form throughout the Middle East and South Asia. In Pakistan, for example, it’s called Faloodah and uses milk and resembles more a rose flavored smoothie, and has other variations in Afghanistan and India.
Faloodeh as a dessert also gives insight into the history and tradition of Persian ice cream, and, ultimately, the history of ice cream itself, as ice cream as we know it was invented in the Persian Empire. “It’s very interesting,” Freddy said, “[Faloodeh] is the very first frozen dessert in human history and it’s over [2,500] years old…They would build a mound of sand and mud, and they would dig a hole underneath it, and the structure would capture the wind.” The structure, called a Yakhchal (pictured below), would work like a freezer and keep ice from wintertime frozen until summer, this would allow for the freezing of rosewater syrup, allowing for the creation and preservation of Faloodeh, noodles were then added to the mixture, to give it texture, and it would be further flavored with some condiments. “We still offer it with lemon and cherry, which is the Persian way to have it,” Freddy added.
A Yakhchal in Yazd Province, a region in Iran surrounded by deserts. In the Persian language, Yakhchal translates to “ice pit”, and nowadays it’s the word for “refrigerator”.
Image Source: Pastaitaken
Though Persian ice cream is a tradition thousands of years old, it still allows for the beauty of flowers to be explored in a completely different way, and it’s gaining widespread recognition. There is a rich sense of tradition in Saffron & Rose’s artistry but its work has no lesser contemporary appeal than that. If you’ve had, say, lavender ice cream before, but have never tried Persian ice cream, that might speak to the widespread influence that Persian ice cream has been having on the larger dessert scene as of late. As Freddy explained, “[In regards to] these types of [floral] flavors, I hadn’t seen flower infused ice cream since six- seven years ago. We’ve been doing it in LA for forty years.” It really is this sense of tradition and timelessness that makes Persian ice cream as a craft, and Saffron & Rose as a business incredibly special.
As my conversation with Freddy drew to a close, he left me with these words, “I’m just glad I can continue a family tradition and be an outlet to introduce people to Persian culture” and I was left thinking about how personal endeavors can have such large cultural impacts. Saffron & Rose is a family legacy, honoring the craft of Freddy’s grandfather, but its existence also carries on a much deeper tradition and enriches the larger culture of Southern California as a whole.
A scoop of Faloodeh from Saffron & Rose. Faloodeh is considered the world’s first frozen dessert. Rosewater is the main ingredient. Noodles are added for texture.Photograph by Essa Rasheed
Persian ice cream is beautiful. There is a rich artistry and tradition in it, and it brings something bold and lively to floral appreciation. It approaches the beauty of flowers in a unique and necessary way. We generally still tend to place the value of a flower in its visual appeal, but in none of the many wonderful floral flavors at Saffron & Rose do you find an object that visually resembles a flower, and yet, the beauty of a flower is still present nonetheless, and in a robust and lively way that visual beauty could never translate.
I would personally like to thank Freddy and Saffron & Rose for being an incredible resource and educating me with further context and history of their business and Persian ice cream as a whole.