At any full and happy Persian sofreh or table, several side dishes should be present to complement the main dish, especially at supper time and most certainly with specific types of meals such as kotlet and any kind of mixed rice dishes. The most crucial and common sides to go with these dishes are small bowls of torshi, assortment of seasonal fresh herbs, radishes and scallions, and Shirazi salad.
Now, Torshi, ترشی, or torsu as it is called in Balkan and Middle Eastern cuisine, is basically diced fruits, vegetables and herbs marinated in vinegar and spices to be eaten with food in small portions as an appetizer and counterbalance to the greasy components of a meal. Persian Torshi is distinct from other sauce-based condiments, salt-solution pickles and sweet or hot-tasting relishes–all of which are more widely known outside Iran. The distinction has to do mainly with the fact that vinegar is the dominant taste, as the name torsh, or sour, suggests. Another distinguishing ingredient used in all types of torshi is the all-spice mix, advieh-e torshi, whose intense flavor and potent aroma is due primarily to ground coriander and nigella seeds. Other essential players are turmeric, powdered black and chill peppers and salt. Depending on regional culinary customs, some might add rose petals and other perfumed ingredients such as cardamom, cumin and cinnamon.
The variation in types of torshi–their texture, colour and taste–is related to the vegetables and fruits used to make them, as well as to the method with which they are chopped and mixed. For example, eggplant and shallot (moosir مو سیر in Persian) torshi consists of cooked and coarsely chopped eggplants and thinly-sliced shallots, while onion torshi consists only of peeled, baby onions. Similarly, what is commonly called “mixed torshi” might consist of a variety of coarsely chopped vegetables like cauliflower florets, carrots, celery, cabbage and garlic. My favourite is another mix called liteh or hafte-bijar, or “seven-tone”, which is basically a labour intensive combination of a wide range of herbs and vegetables: chopped parsley, coriander, mint, tarragon, basil, eggplant, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, garlic and white radish – to be described shortly along with another type.
Torshi can also be made out of a selection of fruits, although never mixed with the vegetable variety because the fruit-based torshi pleases a different category of senses. Standard candidates for fruit torshi are apples, a mix of apples and pears, grapes, mangos, even dates and limes. There is a much longer list of potential participants, basically any fruit that one might fancy seeing transformed in shape and taste, including persimmons, pineapples and kiwis.
Back home In Shiraz of 70s when I grew up, no one I knew ever bought torshi from a store. Homemade torshi was as common as homemade jam, and some families made torshi at home completely from scratch, beginning by making vinegar out of sweet grapes and apples. When a family made torshi, they made enough of it to provide a year’s supply to close relatives and friends. My family was among those domestic, large-scale torshi suppliers.
In a large households like mine, it took an army of women several weeks of individual work to gradually prepare all the ingredients and spices that the men of the household had helped buy from the market and carried inside. Nigella and coriander seeds had to be crushed and mixed, revealing their intense, smoky aroma. Dried shallot slices had to be soaked, cleaned and dried again. Herbs were picked, washed, chopped and fluffed out on clean sheets in the sun to dry. Vegetables also had to be chopped and sun dried before being soaked in the vinegar otherwise before long they would mold and spoil torshi.
The torshi making operations were all ideally done on nice, sunny days in the early fall when seasonal vegetables and herbs were still plentiful and the summer heat no longer threatened to spoil torshi. They were carried out all over the house, from yard to hallway to kitchen, using every single pot, colander and tray in the household. The capable women at work filled the air with pungent, haunting trails of vinegar, shallots and tarragon among dozens of other aromatic herbs and spices. Eventually, wide-mouthed, glass jars of various sizes with plastic lids were thoroughly washed and filled with torshi then topped with vinegar, with an inch left at the top for expansion. Metal lids were to be avoided in order to prevent rust.
The very last stage involved storing the jars in a cold, dry place for several weeks– checking on them a few times in between to add more vinegar as the herbs and vegetables absorbed the liquid. Just in time for winter, we all received our share of freshly-made torshi, which we savoured with our lunches and suppers for the entire year–first sparingly, to ensure it would last, and then generously as we approached the next torshi-making season.
Of all the homemade food products of my youth that I now buy in cans, torshi remains the only one I refuse to purchase from the market. We now buy jam, lemon juice, tomato sauce and pomegranate paste from the Iranian supermarkets in Montreal. However, my brother-in-law and I continue to supply our families with their moderate torshi needs, thanks to the all-spice, dried herbs and other exotic ingredients we regularly receive from Shiraz through travellers.
In Montreal, homemade torshi tastes as good as it did in Iran, and making it is somehow more convenient because first, we use the already mixed and dried spices and herbs and secondly we can make torshi whenever we find some free time, since most vegetables are available year round and we rarely get torshi-spoiling hot weather. The only trick is to learn to dry herbs and vegetables despite the lack of counter space and amid our frequently humid weather – a secret I am going to share with you very shortly below.
So, I guess by now you already have a very good idea of how to make torshi if you are a first timer. Still, here is a more detailed description of the procedure, in this case, to make two different types of torshi: coarsely mixed vegetables and finely mixed “liteh”. Just a heads up, although this is a simplified and mini operation compared to what I just described above about Shiraz torshi making, it still is time consuming process and you may need to break it into a few steps/days or ideally do it collectively.
- 4 liters of a good quality red wine, such as wine or apple vinegar (Remember white vinegar in the kitchen should be used only for cleaning purposes not for dressing or making a quality torshi)
- 2 heads of cauliflower,
- 4 medium to large eggplants, equivalent of approximately 3 kg
- 4 large carrots,
- 4-5 chili peppers
- 1 big head of garlic
- 2 cups dried shallots
- 1 cup mix of dried herbs, consisting of parsley, coriander, mint, tarragon and basil
- 6 tbsp. Persian all spice for torshi (advieh torshi) to be purchased from Iranian markets
- 2 tbsp. salt
- 1 tbsp. turmeric
Note 1: Thanks to my family in Shiraz, I receive three of the most essential torshi ingredients– dried herbs mix, dried shallots and Persian all-spice from Iran in excellent quality and condition. If you are not living in Iran and receiving these goodies is not an option, you could still purchase them from Iranian markets.
Note 2: For the largely-cut torshi mix, I just happen to choose the above noted vegetables but you could certainly skip any one that you do not like or add celery, for example which is a common toshi ingredient, prepared the same way I am going to prepare cauliflower and carrot.
Preparation: I want to make 3 jars of coarsely chopped mix of eggplants-shallots-cauliflower and 3 jars of liteh, made of finely chopped eggplants-shallots-cauliflower in addition to finely chopped carrots and assortment of dried herbs. Chopped/minced chili peppers, garlic, and spices are shared in the two types of torshi.
Remember I said the only trick in making a good torshi in a humid temperature is knowing how to dry them quickly and easily? Well, I use oven to roast and dry eggplants or simply to dry herbs and other raw vegetables and fruits at the lowest possible temperature–propping its door open slightly and keeping an attentive watch to make sure that nothing cooks or burns. The result is a very successful and long-lasting torshi.
- Cut cauliflowers in 2-3 pieces, wash thoroughly and drain. Cut half coarsely and the other half finely. Spread on a lined oven tray separately.
- Peel carrots and cut coarsely before letting dry a bit. Use food processor to finely chop all the carrots (we need this only for our liteh torshi, so all should be finely chopped). Spread on a lined oven try.
- Peel garlic cloves and mince. Wash, dry and finely chop chili peppers. Place both on a lined oven try.
- Place the above trays (No.s 1, 2 and 3) in a preheated oven and roast at the lowest possible temperature over an extended period of time (at least 1 hr) until the moist is taken away. Open the oven’s door and gently stir the chopped vegetables a few times in the process to ensure even distribution of heat and dryness. Take the trays out and let cool.
- Wash eggplants and with a fork pierce each one several times. Place on a lined oven try add 1-2 tbsp. water and roast at 350F for 90 minutes or until completely soft. Turn eggplants half way through. When thoroughly soft, place eggplants on a cutting board and peel then cut in small chunks and place in a colander to release excess juice. Cut half eggplants in fairly small chunks and the other half almost shredded.
- Soak dried shallots overnight in a closed container (as it has a strong smell). Once they are soft, with a knife cut out the rim around each shallot’s slice. Place shallots on a paper towel for few hours to absorb the excess water before final use for torshi.
Hard part over; here comes the mixing time:
In big bowl #1 add: Coarsely cut chunks of eggplants, cauliflower, prepared shallots, 1 tbsp. salt. ½ tbsp. turmeric, half the amount of semi-dried chilli pepper and garlic, 3 tbsp. all spice (advieh torshi), and 1 cup vinegar. Mix well.
Transfer in to clean and dry glass jars with plastic lids (ideally with wide opening) just over three quarter. Top each jar with vinegar but leave about an inch at the top for expansion. Remember we did our best to dry these vegetables so over time they are expected to expand as they soak in vinegar. Close tightly and place in refrigerator or in a cold place. After a few days, check on them to add more vinegar if needed.
In big bowl #2 add: Shredded eggplants, finely chopped (and dried) cauliflowers and carrots, the remaining minced garlic chilli peppers, 1 tbsp. salt. ½ tbsp. turmeric, 3 tbsp. all spice (advieh torshi), 1 cup dried mix herbs, and 1 cup vinegar. Mix well.
Transfer in to clean and dry glass jars with plastic lids (ideally with wide opening) about three quarters. Top each jar with vinegar but leave about an inch at the top for expansion. Remember we did our best to dry these vegetables so over time they are expected to expand as they soak in vinegar. Close tightly and place in refrigerator or in a cold place. Check on them after a couple of days to add more vinegar if needed.
Enjoy each and every time!