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X is for X-tra Special Foods from the Land of Xerxes

Check out these Persian groceries for some unusual treats.

Xerxes was a powerful king of Persia in the 400s BC. The cuisine of his land was my choice for the so-challenging X — a letter that typically turns up in food when it comes to X-rated pastries and chocolates.

What’s X-tra special in downtown San Rafael are two lovely Persian grocery stores: , a distinctive fixture at the Montecito Shopping Center for eight years now, and the new , all of two and a half months old, at the far Western end of Fourth Street.

 Shop either of these two stores and you’ll experience a cornucopia of fascinating foods: wafer-thin soft breads as big as bath towels in whole wheat and plain wheat styles; huge crisp seed-flecked crackers the size of truck wheels; freezers stocked with esoteric ice creams such as saffron/pistachio and rosewater; Persian frozen dinners to go and the elegant glass-thin doughs for making Persian pastries. Both markets carry one of the best read-to-eat savory yogurt dips you’ll ever find, called Lebni, that gets its kick from oodles of dried shallot.

For fresh produce, there are Xtra-crisp, dainty Persian cucumbers, ideal for muddling in cocktails or using, instead of crackers, in dips such as hummus or tahini. You might score fresh sour cherries over the next couple of weeks, a staple of Persian cooking though extremely hard to find in most American stores, even in our farmers markets.

Cans of stuffed grape leaves abound, including huge tins holding enough of these rice-packed, spiced leaves to to feed Xerxes’ army.

I’m particularly fascinated by the liquids: yogurt sodas, for instance, carbonated and available plain or with mint flavoring. I bought a bottle of sour cherry syrup, vibrant with fresh fruit flavor, that I now use as the basis of a complex cherry lemonade made with Meyer lemons.  If you want to be orally challenged, pick up a bottle of dill, willow or chicory water. Slightly medicinal in flavor, they’re meant to be diluted and drunk as healthful tonics.

 These are just a few of the myriad of unusual foods to be found at both markets. Check them out. I guarantee you’ll become X-cited by new treats.

 Ω Jasmine Market is at 307 Third St. San Rafael, 459-4860. Open Monday to Friday, 9:30 to 8 p.m.; Saturday 10 to 8 p.m.; Sunday 10 to 7 p.m.

 Ω Olive Market is at 1904 4th St., 460-6200. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Contact Leslie Harlib at lharlib@gmail.com

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