The Story (and recipe) of Torshi-ye Shah Pasand

For 2-3 big jars. As one is never enough.
This is an unusual torshi as the ingredients are boiled in the vinegar. It is sweet and rich and syrupy and incredibly moreish.
There is a little story behind this pickle, which I shall relate to keep you occupied whilst you are waiting for your ingredients to cook…

Once upon a time, many pickle jars ago, in the Spice Lands beyond the River Tigris, there was a small but jolly kingdom, ruled by Amir, a small but jolly shah. He had a small but jolly fiancée, and they were very much in love. He had but one fault: he was incredibly clumsy. He’d climb on his horse…and fall off the other side. He’d pick up his sword…and accidentally slash half the soft furnishings. He’d try to be solemn and ceremonial at solemn ceremonies…and then he’d trip down the steps. In truth, he was a bit of an embarrassment as national figureheads go, but his people loved him, and his reign had brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to the kingdom, so they pretended not to see all the goofball stuff.

Shah Amir. Well, a close relative.

His betrothed, Farzaneh, was quite the opposite. Although not of royal stock herself, she was dainty and dextrous, a paragon of queenly beauty, and clever beyond belief. The palace staff adored her for her compassion and down-to-earth approach: she was famed for her love of cooking and often supervised state banquets herself.
‘Twas early summer, and but a week before their nuptials, and the capital was abuzz with all things matrimonial. In the absence of any good skirmishes or famines, there was nothing like a good state wedding to get the scribes all worked up. Amir and Farzaneh were enjoying breakfast in a turret of the palace when there was a knock at the door: an emissary. The shah got to his feet to admit the chap, kicking his chair back into place as he strode towards the ante-chamber, not noticing that in so doing he had gently tipped his wife-to-be out of the open tower window. When he returned he was at first put out to find that she had gone, and then puzzled that she did not return, and then anxious when he could not find her, and finally fraught when a palace-wide search failed to find his beloved.
Farzaneh in the meantime had fallen, oh-so-it-could-only-happen-in-a-fairytale-luckily, on to a passing hay wagon, knocking herself out in the process, but all in all escaping miraculously unscathed. It was not until the farmer reached his barn later in the day that she came round, uttering a faint cry of pain and confusion. The farmer rushed to check his load and was astonished to find this fair maiden struggling to climb down the back of the cart. He did not recognise her: well he wouldn’t, would he, without the aid of celebrity Big Brother, commemorative mugs and stamps? But more worryingly, she did not seem to recognise herself: she had no idea of who she was, how she got there, or why she was clutching half a croissant. Being a kindly soul, the farmer took her back to his homestead, where Mrs. Farmer quickly set an extra place for dinner…
Time passed. Days. Weeks. Months. A year. Shah Amir walked with a heavy, careful gait, determined never to be clumsy again. He was not jolly any more. Which meant that his viziers weren’t jolly either. Nor the chambermaids. Nor the cooks. A veil of sadness settled over the kingdom. The shah was under huge pressure to marry and produce an heir, and so it was eventually that he conceded to look for another wife. But he did not want any old dumb blonde: the woman for him would have to pass muster with his palace staff. She would have to be able to make a bed so perfectly that you felt like you were sleeping on air. And be capable of turning a pretty hand in the garden. And make bread and jams and pickles just like his Farzaneh. In fact, he decreed, he did not want to see the candidates at all: he would choose the winner by her deeds alone.
Well, before you could say shanbalileh (lovely word, no? actually it means fenugreek) there was a queue of likely looking lasses stretching right round the block, brandishing recipe books, gardening gloves and tacky mascots galore. The palace staff were having a field day, delegating their chores and scoring the applicants.
Soon Mr. Farmer heard about the competition. He and the missus had grown very attached to Farzaneh: she had proved a boon to their burgeoning farm shop, and her home made produce was earning them new customers from across the Zagros Mountains and beyond. Still she seemed to have no recollection of what had landed her on his hay that day: worse still, she seemed to be terribly clumsy, always dropping stuff and walking into things. But they had grown to love her, and knew that a girl as sweet as she was would make a fitting royal consort. So on the next market day Mr. Farmer took Farzaneh along with him and (reluctantly) she joined the end of the queue. By the time it came to her turn, most of the palace had lost interest. It was obvious that the shah was just going through the motions of auditioning a bride, as he would find fault with everything the candidates did. So it happened that on the day she was due to ‘perform’ there were but few staff working, none of whom had been there long enough to recognise her. Still, a funny thing started to happen to her as she tripped into the royal bed-chamber: flashbacks, the stirrings of lost memory. And so it was that she arranged the bed just the way Amir liked it. Later on the gardener was astonished by her eye for what to pick and what to leave (even though she broke three flower pots in the process), and in the kitchen – why, she was soon giving a masterclass in just about every department, in spite of burning herself.
Farzaneh was slowly working out what had happened, but it was only when the cook got back from her day off that the tomen finally dropped: the cook squealed in recognition and rushed over to hug her. And then curtsied and blushed all at once. Word spread faster than Rostam’s spear, and so it was that when Farzaneh was due to take the final test – submitting a meal cooked by her own fair hands for the Shah’s appraisal – the halls and corridors of the palace were packed. A hush fell over the building of the type that only the anticipation of an imminent happy ending could generate.
As Shah Amir finished his soup, he nodded. And smiled everso slightly. When the rice courses were served, witnesses swear they saw him wink at the butler. But it was when he tasted the accompanying torshi that he leapt to his feet. “Where is she?” he cried, “This one will do very nicely. Shah pasand.” The Shah’s chosen one. He still did not know that what he had lost had found him again, but he was feeling cheerier than he had for a long time. With the meal cleared away, it was time for him to meet his chosen bride. Of course, when the couple saw each other their joy was tangible and there was nary a dry eye in the house. Especially tender was the gallant, co-ordinated way Amir caught his beloved as she fell up the steps. Her forgiveness of him had never been in question, any more than his tolerance of her two left feet.
Jolliness ruled again: the wedding was back on. The natives danced in the streets. Mr. and Mrs. Farmer were given a royal warrant and some vouchers for a Gulf cruise. The torshi quickly became a national favourite, taking the name of the occasion it had come to commemorate: Shah Pasand: just as its creator had been chosen not once but twice, the ingredients of the dish are pickled not once but twice – both by the cooking process and the vinegar itself.
And the perfectly matched, mis-matched, star-crossed couple lived happily-go-luckily ever after.

Anyway, the recipe passed down through the generations, across the borders and over the sea, and now seems to belong entirely to Mr. Moghadam, one of our suppliers. He is neither clumsy nor royal, as far we know, but he does make exceedingly good pickles.

  • 500g baby aubergines
  • handful (50g) mild green chillies
  • 5 spring onions
  • 75g dried spring garlic, soaked in water for at least one hour, drained*
  • 3 small beetroots, cooked and peeled and chunked
  • 1 bulb peeled garlic
  • 2 litres of ‘brown’ vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons tamarind paste
  • 6 tablespoons salt
  • 8 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon onion seeds
  • 1 tablespoon chilli flakes

Wash and prick the aubergines, removing the calices; likewise the chillies. Chop the white part of the spring onions roughly, reserving the green bits for salad or some such. Then place these three ingredients in a big pan with the spring garlic, beets and garlic garlic, add the vinegar, put the lid on and bring it to the boil. Turn down the heat and allow to cook gently for one hour before adding all the remaining ingredients. Set to simmer for a further half hour, and then turn off the heat and allow to cool. The trade secret behind this luscious pickle is to leave the lid on the pan while the stuff is cooling: this keeps all the goodness in. Only when it is cold should you ladle it into sterilised jars and seal well. The pickle is ready straight away, but better after about a week.
*On spring garlic:
The stuff we’re talking about here is allium hirtifolium (you’re impressed, no?), or Persian shallot (moussir in Farsi). The nearest thing to it is spring garlic (green garlic). You can buy it dried from Middle Eastern shops: it is most commonly reconstituted to use in ‘must-e-moussir’. If you can’t find the dried form, either use 200g fresh spring garlic, or just increase the amount of garlic and spring onions accordingly.

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