There is nothing like the smell of “Ash” cooking. If you have never had it before, then you must take my word for it. Ash (pronounced “osh”) is the much beloved not-quite-soup, not-quite-stew dish that Persians go ga-ga for. There are many different versions of Ash and do not even ask me to try and pick a favorite because that would be near impossible but what I can do is tell you about one that is definitely near the top of my list, Ash-e-Jo. Ash-e-Jo is basically a very thick bean, barley (“jo”) and herb soup (meat is commonly added but is totally optional). While often served as a starter for a big meal, a bowl of Ash can easily stand alone as a meal in itself. Serve with a little lavash and you are good to go.
In an attempt to describe this soup , I would say that the flavors center mainly on the fresh herbs (including parsley and cilantro), the fried garlic and mint, the mix of legumes (including lentils, kidney and chickpeas), and last but not least, the “kashk” (a thick whey product which has a bit of a sour flavor).
Seriously, there is nothing like a warm bowl of Ash. Ash is more often eaten during the fall and winter months, which tend to have cooler weather, but still tastes delicious any time of year. For example, a couple of weeks ago was Sizdah-Bedar, the thirteenth day of the Persian New Year where, traditionally, Persians go outdoors and enjoy the day with family and friends. In the U.S., most Persians celebrate it on the second Sunday after the New Year (the New Year always coincides with the spring equinox). This year, my family and I went to a park in Virginia filled to the brim with grills, dogs, soccer balls, food, food, more food and lots of dancing Persians. :)
And the best part of that day, other than hanging out with my family in the lovely afternoon sun, having a bowl of Ash-e-Reshteh (Ash made with reshteh noodles) which had been warmed up over the fire. Seriously, there is nothing like a bowl of Ash on a cool afternoon. And like I mentioned above, the smell is beyond enticing (even though it is definitely not the prettiest looking dish in the world)! :)
One thing I should mention about Ash, it is one of those things that can be easily tweaked based on taste preference. Different regions of Iran might use different ingredients, flavors, etc. just like every Persian chef might tweak it to his or her own preference. I share below the recipe from my mom which she says was influenced by my grandmother and by her favorite Persian cookbook, Persian Cuisine: Book One – Traditional Foods by M.R. Ghanoonparvar.
1 medium onion
1 15 0z can of kidney beans*
1 15 oz can of chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans)*
1/2 cup of dried lentils
1 cup of uncooked barley
6 cups of water (feel free to add more if you want to thin your soup out a bit more)
3 tsp of salt (more or less to flavor)
pepper to taste
1 TBSP of turmeric
1 large bunch of parlsey, chopped
1 large bunch of cilantro (also known as coriander), chopped
2 cups of fresh spinach leaves, chopped
Optional herbs/greens: dill, leeks, green onions, chives (chopped)
1-2 TBSP butter or oil
2 -3 large cloves of garlic, chopped
1-2 TBSP dried mint (you can use fresh here too but you would need to use more than just 1-2 TBSP)
1 cup of kashk (you can substitute it with some sour cream or buttermilk but just add it to taste because 1 cup may be too much of either)**
1/2 lb – 1 lb of ground beef, optional (I made my soup vegetarian)
*I used canned beans because it is more convenient but feel free to use dried beans. Just remember that if you use dried beans, you must cook them until they are nearly done before adding them to the dish.
**Kashk can be found in Persian stores or in a Middle Eastern market and can also be ordered online.
1. Chop the onions and sauté over medium heat until they become translucent. (If you are using meat, you can add it now and cook just until browned). Then add the lentils and sauté for about 5 -7 minutes more.
2. Then add the water, the remaining beans, barley, chopped herbs and greens, salt, turmeric, salt and pepper. Stir and cover.
3. Let the soup simmer for about 40-50 minutes. It should get pretty thick. If all of the ingredients are cooked through, remove the soup from the heat. If they are not cooked all the way, let the soup continue to simmer until everything is fully cooked.
4. In a separate pan, melt the butter (or you can use oil) over med/high heat. Add the chopped garlic and cook for about 20 seconds. Then add the dried mint. Cook for a few more minutes.
5. Add a majority of the dried mint and garlic mixture to the soup, reserving a small portion for the topping. Then add the kashk (or the buttermilk or sour cream) and stir. Note: often times, the kashk is not added at this point but is instead served alongside the Ash so that each person can add as little or as much as they like. I like to add mine to the pot of soup itself and then also top it off, once it is in my bowl, with a little more but it is totally up to you to determine how you want to do it.
6. Ladle the soup into bowls and enjoy! Note: when presenting the soup for guests, the top is almost always decorated, often with some kashk and some of that reserved fried mint and garlic mixture.
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