Rose Water—An Age-Old Flavoring for Dinner and Dessert
Rose water has left an indelible mark on human history. This clear, sweet-tasting, aromatic liquid has been used in perfumery, cosmetics, and medicine for many centuries. In Middle Eastern and West Asian countries, it has long been used as a flavoring in cooking.
Rose water is basically an aqueous solution of some of the odoriferous constituents of rose flowers. One low-tech way to make it is to soak rose petals in water for a couple of weeks, with some alcohol added as a preservative. A speedier technique, developed by the ancient Persians, is to distill the flowers with water or steam.
One might call rose water poor man's attar, the highly prized—and highly priced—essential oil of roses used in fine perfume. Indeed, commercial rose water is a byproduct of the steam-distillation process used to isolate attar. It's what's left of the distillate after the attar is skimmed off the top.
That's not to say that it isn't fabulous stuff. Ancient Romans used rose water to freshen the air in their homes. And it is said that the sails of Cleopatra's cedarwood ship were scented with rose water—"the very winds were lovesick," Shakespeare wrote.
Rose water, it seemed, could sweeten any activity, even one as heavy-handed as construction. In the golden age of the caliphates of Baghdad, mosque builders mixed rose water (along with musk) into the mortar paste, so that the noonday sun would release the scent.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, rose water was a popular remedy for depression. It was fine for bathing in, too, and as a "handwater" for rinsing.
The Persians were probably the first to explore the culinary potential of rose water, infusing mutton fat with it to season their food. They also invented one of the most enduring confections around—marzipan, which is made from ground almonds and sugar and traditionally flavored with rose water.
The earliest written recipes using rose water come from the glory days of the Arab Empire (8th to 11th century A.D.). Picking up a taste for rose water from the Persians, the Arabs used it to make sweet drinks and desserts and for seasoning savory dishes such as makhfiya (a lavish meatball concoction, described in detail in Reay Tannahill's wonderful Food in History).
With the migration of Islamic culture eastward, rose water became a popular flavoring for Indian desserts such as gulab jamun (fried milk balls in syrup) and the sweet yogurt drink lassi.
Other culinary highlights include lokum, or Turkish delight, a rose water–flavored candy dating back around 500 years to the early days of Turkey's Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, American Shakers produced a double-distilled rose water flavoring that was almost as popular then as vanilla is today.
Rose water is relatively easy to make at home, and you don't need approval from the USDA or miles of special tubing to do it. In Herbs for Natural Beauty, Rosemary Gladstar outlines a home-brewing method that's simple and fun and takes about 45 minutes.
For ingredients, you'll need two to three quarts of fresh rose petals, clean water (distilled, if possible), and ice cubes. For equipment, you'll need a large pot with a convex lid, a quart-size heat-safe stainless steel or glass quart bowl, and a chimney brick.
First, place the brick in the center of the pot and the bowl on top of the brick. Then arrange the rose petals around the brick, adding enough flowers to reach the top of it. Pour in just enough water to cover the roses.
Place the lid upside down on the pot. Bring the water to a rolling boil; then lower the heat to a slow, steady simmer. As soon as the water begins to boil, empty two or three trays of ice cubes into the inverted lid. Ta-da—your home still! If it all goes right, condensed rose water will flow to the center of the lid and drip into the bowl.
It's important not to simmer the pot too long or your rose water will become diluted. When you've collected about a pint, it's time to stop—and taste the rose water.
The best rose water comes from the freshest, most fragrant petals. When I tried petals from commercially grown roses, the result was timid at best; grow your own or try to locate a garden source with pesticide-free old garden roses. Damasks, centifolias, and gallicas are the varieties most commonly used in the industry to brew the sweetest rose water draught.