Now, imagine walking past an Arabian garden, cool and green in the bright sun, with a fountain splashing softly in the background and a faintly sweet, almost undetectable fragrance of roses lingering in the air.
That’s rose water, too. Now, don’t you feel better about cooking with the stuff?
In fact, rose water has a long and illustrious culinary history. Made by distilling rose petals with steam, it was created by chemists of the Islamic world in the Middle Ages. It became firmly ensconced in the cooking of the Middle East, North Africa and North India, all cuisines in which the floral and the aromatic are highly prized.
But don’t think of it as an exotic ingredient used in far corners of the world. Before 1841, when vanilla became widely available (after a 12-year-old slave figured out how to hand-pollinate the vanilla orchid so that it could be commercially produced outside its native Mexico, but that’s another story), rose water was also a primary flavoring in a wide range of desserts and pastries in Europe and even the United States.
It’s not hard to figure out why. This relatively inexpensive product allows you, with just a drop or two, to add the alluring fragrance of one of the world’s great flowers to your cooking.
In one respect, though, rose water does resemble the cologne that detractors so often compare it to: too much can have the opposite of the intended effect. The idea is that people should notice it, but have to ask you exactly what that subtle flavoring is, not quite able to put a finger on it. Uncooked, rose water has a full, rounded fragrance; heat erases some of its aromatic qualities but still leaves a warm, muted flavor.
If you’re looking for clues as to how to use this distinctive flavoring, there are plenty of traditional recipes to turn to, most of them for sweets.
One of my favorites is a rice pudding that is popular in North India, scented with super-aromatic cardamom as well as just enough rose water to make itself known. And, of course, there is the baklava of Turkey and a whole panoply of sweets from Iran.
But there are also some savory applications worth trying. Iranian lamb stews sometimes contain relatively large infusions of rose water, as does the occasional pilaf. And in Morocco, rose water provides a delicate balance to the earthy cumin and coriander in a classic carrot salad.
You can also just start freelancing. Taking a cue from 18th-century bakers, substitute rose water for the vanilla in cupcakes, puddings or scones. Or (a personal favorite) add a teaspoon or so to your next batch of French toast batter. Put a drop or two in a glass of lemonade for a remarkably refreshing summer drink — or make a rose martini in the same manner.
Rose water matches uncannily well with many fruits, drawing out their shy aromas. Try adding a bit to a bowl of strawberries, or sprinkling sliced melon, plums or peaches with rose water mixed with a bit of riesling.
And if you make a salad of bitter greens dressed with a vinaigrette that has been barely touched with rose water, you’ll quickly change your mind about the versatility of this ingredient.
Its delicate fragrance can even stand up to the bold flavor of grilled food. (It’s still summer, so you knew that was coming.) Rose-water poundcake sliced thick and then left over the coals just long enough to get a little toasty and a tiny bit smoky is a fine finish to any summer meal. Draping it with a peach-and-rose-water compote doubles the pleasure.
Despite its lack of mainstream popularity, rose water is surprisingly easy to find in this country. Middle Eastern stores carry it, as do most Indian stores and many specialty-food stores. Most brands are fine, though the readily available Cortas, made in Lebanon, seems to me to have particularly clear flavor. Just don’t buy rose syrup, which may have added sugar that will throw off your recipes.
And you can even put a couple of drops in your linen drawer.