This herb-filled Persian noodle soup is rich in both flavour and meaning
Ash-e reshteh is a celebratory dish. A hearty noodle soup traditionally served around the Persian New Year to welcome the spring, it’s full of healthy greens, herbs, pulses and tangled noodles, which represent all of life's possibilities. It takes time to prepare, but it’s extra tasty when it gets to hang around in the fridge for a day or two, so it’s perfect to make ahead. And since it can be easily adapted to different diets, it’s great for feeding a crowd.
This is my version of the allegorical dish, and I've tried to recreate it like I remember it. We used to stir in yogurt, so although kashk (a salted, fermented dairy product) is more authentic, I’ve added yogurt as an option. And I’ve made some other less traditional choices, like adding kale alongside the classic spinach, and leeks to diversify the alliums. I’ve maxed out the toppings too, but trust me, it’s worth it to do them all!
You might have to seek out a couple of ingredients at Middle Eastern grocery stores or online, but substitutes are widely available. It’s a dish that handles a lot of customizing and is super easy to make vegan.
I recommend using a mandoline or a food processor fitted with the slicing blade to cut this large a quantity of onions.
You can use fresh spinach here, but I use frozen for ease and economy. You’d need around 800 grams of fresh leaves and tender stems, chopped.
This dish calls for a lot of fresh herbs, as well as leeks and green onions, all of which can all be washed days in advance. Spin- or air-dry them before wrapping them in a damp paper towel or clean kitchen towel and place them in a plastic bag or container and store in the fridge.
The beans and carmelized onions can be made a day or two in advance and refrigerated until you’re ready to use.
Once the soup base is made, and prior to adding the noodles, it can be allowed to cool, then refrigerated for a day or two, after which it will taste even better. Bring it to a boil, thinning it with water if needed, and then add the noodles and proceed with the recipe.
The toppings should be prepared the day you plan to serve the soup.
A note on substitutions:
Reshteh are Iranian-style noodles usually available at Middle Eastern grocery stores. They are a little more starchy than pasta noodles, but linguine will do in a pinch.
Persian limes have a distinctive flavour and aroma. They can be difficult to find fresh, but Middle Eastern grocers usually sell the juice in bottles. Lemon will work in a pinch and is preferable to regular limes as a substitute.
Kashk is a salted, fermented dairy product that you also should be able to find in Middle Eastern shops. It comes fresh in a jar and dried in various shapes. The recipe below calls for fresh kashk. To use dried, soak the pieces in warm water for 30 minutes (around 6 tablespoons of water per 100 grams of kashk). Break up large chunks using a mortar and pestle or blender, and then let it sit for an additional 30 minutes to soften further. Then you should be able to work it into a smooth paste, adding a little more water if necessary to achieve a pourable yogurt-like consistency. (You’ll need 1 cup). You could also try yogurt mixed with crumbled feta cheese, mashed and thinned with water for a pourable consistency.
- ½ cup (100 g) dried chickpeas
- About 1 cup (200 g) dried kidney beans
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 4 large yellow onions (about 900 g), thinly sliced
- 5 cloves garlic (about 50 g), crushed
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 bunch kale, woody stems removed, chopped (about 250 g); or frozen chopped kale, defrosted
- About ½ cup (100 g) dried green lentils, picked over and rinsed
- 1 bunch green onions, white and green parts separated and sliced (about 110 g or 1½ cups)
- 500 g bag frozen chopped spinach, thawed
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 small bunch fresh mint leaves (about 12 g or ¾ cup)
- 2 bunches flat-leaf parsley, leaves and tender stems only, chopped (about 125 g or 3 cups)
- 2 bunches cilantro, leaves and tender stems only, chopped (about 125 g or 2 cups)
- 1 small bunch fresh dill, stems removed, chopped (about 25 g or ⅓ cup)
- 1 medium leek, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise, washed well, then thinly sliced crosswise (about 150 g or 1½ cups)
- 250 g reshteh (noodles) or linguine
- ⅔ cup fresh kashk, thinned with ⅓ cup water; or 1 cup Greek yogurt (or for a vegan version, ⅓ cup apple cider vinegar)
- 2 tbsp Persian lime juice (¼ cup if using yogurt instead of kashk); or fresh lemon juice
- ¾ cup grapeseed, vegetable or other neutral oil, as needed, for frying
- 4 to 5 medium shallots, thinly sliced
- 4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp dried mint
- ½ cup fresh kashk, thinned, or Greek yogurt, thinned with a little water for a pourable consistency (omit for vegan servings)
Precook the chickpeas and kidney beans.
Soak the chickpeas and kidney beans overnight in separate containers with plenty of water. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add drained chickpeas and cook at a good simmer for 30 minutes. Then add the drained kidney beans and continue to cook until the legumes are close to being tender, but still feel a touch undercooked with a little bite to them, another 45 minutes to 1 hour. Drain and set aside.
Caramelize the onions.
Heat the olive oil in a large pot (a stock pot or extra-large Dutch oven works well) over medium heat. Add the onions and 2 teaspoons of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally so the onions don’t burn, until they are soft, very brown and deliciously caramelized. If they start to stick at any point, deglaze the pot with a bit of water. This should take around 40 to 50 minutes. Remove ⅓ cup of the caramelized onions and set aside for topping.
Make the soup.
Add the crushed garlic and turmeric to the pot and sauté for 1 minute.
Add the kale and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes, adding water as needed to prevent the garlic from burning. (If using frozen kale, add it when adding the frozen spinach, below.)
Add the cooked chickpeas and kidney beans, dried lentils and the white parts of the green onions, and stir to combine.
Now add the spinach (and frozen kale, if using). Season with 2 teaspoons of salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Stir well to combine.
Add 8 cups of water to the pot and stir well. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes.
Chop the fresh mint leaves and add them to the pot along with all the herbs, the green parts of the green onions and the leeks. Stir and simmer for 15 more minutes, adding more water as needed, about a ½ cup at a time, to achieve a thick, almost chili-like consistency. At this point, the legumes should all be tender.
Add the noodles to the pot, breaking them in half if necessary to fit them all in at once. Simmer gently until the noodles are soft, around 15 minutes. Meanwhile, move on to the toppings.
Prepare the toppings.
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan or frying pan over medium-high heat, and line a plate withe a paper towel.
Test the temperature of the oil by adding a shallot slice to the oil. If it sizzles right away, you’re good to go. Add the shallots in batches (three to four depending on the size of your pan) and fry until brown and crispy. Then remove them using a slotted spoon, spider or tongs, transfer them to the plate and sprinkle with salt. Repeat with the remaining shallots. Transfer the fried shallots to a small bowl and set aside.
Next, add the garlic slices to the same oil and fry until browned, before transferring them to the plate and sprinkling with salt. Transfer the garlic to a small bowl and set aside.
Carefully discard all but ¼ cup of the oil. Add the dried mint to the hot oil, stir, then immediately remove from the heat and let cool. Transfer the mint oil to a small bowl and set aside.
Have the thinned kashk or yogurt ready in a bowl for serving.
Finish the soup.
If using kashk, start by adding to the soup ½ cup of the thinned kashk at a time, stirring and tasting as you go. It’s an acquired taste, so if it’s your first time using it, you might not want to add the full amount. Then add citrus juice, taste and add salt, pepper and more juice as needed.
If using yogurt, add it now followed by the citrus juice.
Check for seasoning, adding salt if needed.
Warm the soup through briefly, then divide it into bowls. Top each serving with some of the caramelized onions, crispy shallots and garlic, mint oil and the additional kashk or yogurt, if using. Serve with extra toppings on the table.
Makes 8 servings.
Leila Ashtari is a food and travel photographer based in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. She loves telling stories about food, people and places through pictures. As well as contributing to CBC Life, her work has been published in Saveur, Condé Nast Traveler, the New York Times and Vanity Fair, among others. In her spare time she makes cider and is learning how to farm. See more of her work at leilaashtari.com or on Instagram @ashtariphoto.