The Secret Ingredient: Rose Water


Imagine that you are asleep, and you are dreaming. And in this dream, you are a bee. You are cruising on autopilot through an English garden. This really is the stuff of dreams—being so surrounded by food, that you don’t know where to begin. You buzz from one rose to another, and then you find one: big and fuchsia and reeking to high heaven of perfuming rose. You shuffle your little body, antennae first, down into the center of the rose, and crash down into the bottom. As you toss yourself around in pollen, the great petals harbor you in, and you positively bathe in sweet, musky rose. Right before you wake up, you may have an inkling of how rose water tastes.

I think sometimes that I should have been named Rose, like my grandmother. When I was growing up, my favorite Disney movie was Alice in Wonderland, because of that terrific scene where the deck of cards are painting the roses red. I wear Red Roses perfume by Jo Malone. My favorite tea is Black and Rose. All I ever order at Laduree in Paris is rose macarons. A bouquet of white roses are basking on the windowsill as I write. And my coat—it has the pattern of roses. I’m not exaggerating.

So this month’s Secret Ingredient, rose water, was like heaven to write. Usually I get two or three ideas and test them until they’re right. This month, I had so many I just had to pick my favorite three: Melon and Mozzarella Salad with Rose Water Vinaigrette and Crisp Prosciutto, Berries with Rose Sabayon, and Rosey Rosé.

Rose water was invented in the medieval Islamic world by chemists who would sell it to both the culinary and cosmetic markets. It is made from the essential oil of roses, made from the steam distillation of rose petals. Though it is often found in sweet things, there is no sweetness to rose water. Instead, the clear liquid looks and pours like water, except that it has that scent of granny’s perfume.

Although it is relatively rare in the U.S., rose water is used all over the world. As I said, France flavors macarons, religieuses, éclairs, sorbets, and madeleines with rose water. In India, rose water is used in rice puddings and lassis. Rose is the staple flavor of Turkish delight. In England, rose petals are used in teas. And although the flavor of rose is rare in the U.S., rose water itself is not hard to find at all. In fact, you can find it at almost any gourmet shop, Middle Eastern shop, exotic food store, or well-stocked supermarket. Smaller, more expensive bottles are imported from France, while larger, less expensive bottles are brought in from the Middle East.

This month, April showers have brought May flowers. And flowers are massively underutilized in American cooking. The colors are vibrant, the scents and flavors exotic. It’s time to buy yourself a bouquet, stop, and smell the roses.

Rose Water Recipes

Rosey Rosé
Melon and Mozzarella Salad with Rose Water Vinaigrette and Crisp Prosciutto
Berries with Rose Sabayon