Monday, November 22, 2010

Vintage Garlic

In my pantry stands a glass jar filled with what looks like tiny twigs poking out of slimy black mud. Not an appealing sight. Yet it is the most precious item in my kitchen—seer torshi (pickled garlic). Heaven on a plate.

The first time I saw the nasty-looking black mess, I eyed it with deep suspicion. Whole round bulbs of garlic, darkened with age, lying in a viscous liquid. Surely no one actually ate that and lived to tell the tale.

I sniffed the jar. It didn’t smell too bad. In fact it had a pleasant, woodsy odor, like last year’s leaves after a snow melt. One with a slightly vinegary bite. Once, the garlic had been white and the vinegar clear, but over the years it darkened to black, the papery skin covering the cloves disintegrating and thickening the liquid. It put me in mind of little mummies, their wrappings falling apart with age.

My mother-in-law explained the condiment’s origins. Her grandmother had made the seer torshi forty years earlier, and every time the family ate it, they could feel her presence with them. Sure, I thought, doesn’t everyone have some item that reinforces an emotional bond with a long-gone loved one? Usually it’s a handmade quilt or a knitted sweater, not something you're supposed to eat.

I remembered the way my mother used to can our garden’s summer bounty. Packing vegetables into jars and processing them in a hot water bath then testing the lids for a proper seal. These garlic pickles had surely never seen the inside of a canning kettle. Thanks, but no thanks.

It took me several years to work up the courage to try the seer torshi, as its age marched relentlessly on toward half a century. We serve it a couple times a year, on special occasions like Persian New Year—the perfect accompaniment to the traditional holiday meal of grilled fish and herbed rice. But for a long time, I was certain that one bite would send me directly to the emergency room. Despite concrete evidence to the contrary.

I’d watched my husband and his relatives scrape the tattered remnants of skin off the cloves, lick black vinegar from their fingers, and pop the cloves into their mouths, savoring every bite. Maybe they had developed an immunity to the microbes that had to be lurking in that murky liquid. The way that Mexicans can drink their tap water without falling victim to Montezuma’s Revenge.

It was only a matter of time before curiosity banished caution, and I tried one small clove. Just a nibble to begin with. I was hooked from the first bite. Smooth and buttery, with a mild vinegary tang on the tongue, as though most of the vinegar’s sting has evaporated over the years.

Seer torshi is easy to make; you don’t even need a recipe. Just take a gallon-sized glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and wash it thoroughly. Fill it two-thirds full of garlic bulbs, hard stems removed. You can separate the cloves, but leave the skins on or the garlic will turn to mush. Cover with vinegar and toss in a tablespoon of salt. Then cover the jar with plastic wrap for a tight seal before replacing the lid. Wait seven years and enjoy. Preferably longer because, like good wine, seer torshi only gets better with age.

As our supply of great-grandma’s pickled garlic dwindles, we serve it only at Persian New Year now. And when we sit down to the meal, it’s like the old lady is sitting beside us, smiling and murmuring noosh-e jaan. Bon appétit.

Do you have a special food tradition, recipe, or dish that brings back memories of relatives now gone?


  1. I love this story, Heidi. And plan to make some. The real question will be: can I wait 7 years before I try it?

    I ate a lot of pickled garlic in Japan, mostly while hiking in the mountains. We bought a little jar while we hiked up Mt. Fuji and it brought an odd, wonderful energy to the climb. There it isn't pickled for 7 years, and includes some soy sauce. The pickling, as you said, mellows it.

    Thanks for sharing,


  2. Thanks, Edith! The long wait is the hardest part.

    A friend once told me a shortcut: he said his grandmother simmers the garlic in balsamic vinegar for a few hours and then you can eat it right away. I've never tried it, but I expect the balsamic vinegar darkens the color and the simmering mellows the taste.

  3. As Christmas approaches I find myself thinking of my German mother's Stollen. The way she made this German fruit cake for the holidays tasted nothing like the commercial versions and was always a huge favorite at the Christmas Eve poluck and music gatherings we still host every year. When I was a kid my uncle sent the Stollen from Dresden and it came in a beautiful tin from East Germany. It was always so exciting to cut that tin open and savor the treat that came from family so far away.

  4. Oh, there is nothing like a real Dresdener Stollen for Christmas! I wish I could find it around here. I have to make do with other varieties. Not really a hardship. :)