The moment I smelled the aroma of cow parsnip seeds, I knew there was great potential to use the seeds as an herb. Indeed, the seeds of the plant are an ancient seasoning from the Middle East, but there was a lot more to them than I first thought before I'd looked at the plant from an ethnobotanical perspective.
Years ago now I wrote a post on cooking with the seeds, but, as happens, there were a few tricks I didn't know yet that have since helped me to really unlock the best ways to cook with the seeds of the plant, so I'm giving the post a fresh coat of paint to make it more helpful.
Typically, I gather the seeds of Heraculem maximum / common cow parsnip. If you're familiar with the plant and it's seeds, or some of it's cousins that have near identical-tasting seeds, you'll know that it's a strange aroma, something like mixed spices with a touch of black lime, or something like that.
It's a very powerful spice, and at first it was really difficult to work with. Everything I put it in seemed to have a soapy undertone from the strong aroma of the seeds.
I had some success using the seeds to flavor things that had other potent flavors: blended into harissa paste (arguably my favorite) an aggressive fruit ketchup made from aronia berries and red wine vinegar, as well as sauces made from tomatillos or green tomatoes, and they worked, but I was missing something.
Golpar: an Ancient Persian Spice
As I was writing my book, I did a lot of research into traditional methods of cooking with wild plants around the world and, somewhere, I stumbled across the word golpar while researching traditional uses of angelica.
The spice is a traditional ingredient in Persian/Iranian cooking that you can buy online from all kinds of purveyors, and, as I found out, comes labeled confusingly as angelica, which it isn't, at least not any species of angelica I've eaten.
Excited to work with a variety of angelica seed that might be easier to work with, I bought a jar, and was surprised when I cracked open the lid and immediately knew by the scent that what I got was some species of Heracleum seed-definitely nothing from the genus Angelica, whose seeds are arguably even more difficult to work with than Heracleum.
A little confused, but interested, I started following some of the traditional recipes that call for golpar. It should come as no surprise that it worked like a charm. It's a testament to traditional food ways, and a great example of how just knowing the name of a traditional food can be a sort of invocation, a key for opening new doors you didn't know existed.
Typically golpar is used in dishes with legumes, the most famous being freshly cooked fava beans in their pods, but two people with Iranian heritage on Instagram also mentioned they ate it on pomegranites, preferably sour ones.
It's also used in a sort of sweet-sour-pomegranite and olive relish called Zeytoon Parvardeh. Once I tasted legumes seasoned with the golpar, I knew I'd finally tasted what it was supposed to be. There's just something about the complex flavor of the spice that loves legumes-it's magic.
Mixing golpar with cumin
Hands-down, the most useful thing I gleaned from reading traditional recipes is that golpar is often mixed with other spices, typically spices from the Apiaceae/carrot family, specifically cumin. Mixed in equal parts with cumin, the golpar is tamed a bit, making it easier and more palatable for most people.
If you've tried the seeds of the plant before and thought it tasted like soap, try mixing them half and half with cumin-it might change your mind. After I started mixing golpar with other spices, I got the idea to branch out on the theme, and started mixing other spices of related family plants to make blends-a technique I discuss in the essay "The Botany of Spices" in my book.
Different species, same flavor
The golpar sold in jars is Heracleum persicum-not the same species of Heracleum as the one I harvest, but the flavor is nearly identical. As some of you will have read in my book, many related plants share similar flavors, and golpar is a perfect example. To date, every species of Heracleum I've eaten has a near identical taste. And there's more.
Aside from Heracleum persicum and Heracleum maximum I've already touched on, In Britain, foragers might harvest Heracleum montegazzianum (giant hogweed) most of them simply referring to the spice as hogweed seed.
Interestingly enough, the seeds of wild parsnip, although not in the genus Heracleum, also have seeds interchangeable with Heracleum seeds, although they're a little smaller.
In a keynote speech in 2019, I heard author Stephen Barstow describe the version of golpar he cooks with that comes from Heracleum sphondylium in Norway. So, interestingly, and confusingly, for culinary purposes, you can think of all of the aforementioned plant seeds as golpar.
One thing most people know about cow parsnip (angelica and wild parsnip too) is that the sap of the plant is phototoxic and will give you a rash if you get it on your skin in the sunlight. Fortunately, golpar is the dried seeds of the plant harvested at the end of the season (I gather them in August through September).
As the plant is dried out at that point, you can harvest the seeds without gloves, or any worries about getting a rash from touching it as there's no juicy plant sap to worry about when harvesting the seeds.
To harvest the seeds, I take a paper bag, and, holding the umbels with one hand, I gently rub the seeds together with my fingers, making them fall off en-masse. It's an easy harvest, and you can get years worth of the spice in just a few minutes.
I'm pretty sure there's plenty of fun things you can do with the green seeds, which have a great flavor, but I keep forgetting to work with them. They're pretty chewy, but finely chopped I could see them working well in somethings, curry or hot green Zhug, for example. Jacqui, a regular commentor here, sent me a recipe for cordial made from the green seeds that's been on my list to try.
In time I'll probably get some ideas up here on working with green golpar, in the meantime, if you have experience working with the green seeds, leave a comment and I'll update this as time goes on.
As the green seeds are fresh and juicy, remember to wear gloves when harvesting or be mindful of not touching your face, and wash your hands quickly after harvesting them.
After the seeds are harvested, they're typically pretty dry, but I dehydrate them to ensure they don't mold (100F for 4-5 hours or so in a dehydrator). After drying, the seeds are shelf-stable for years, just like any other dried spice.
Unlike other dried spices though, the outer husk of the seeds is very papery and tough, and, depending on how they were harvested, could also have some tough stems mixed in.
You can add the seeds whole to something that will be blended, pureed and strained to get past the tough texture, but, as long as the seeds are well dried, they can be powdered without too much trouble in a spice grinder before using, and I find that method a lot easier for cooking.
As I mentioned, golpar loves legumes, and, similar to ajwain and epazote, I've read claims that using the spice can help make legumes more digestible. Lack of post-dinner music aside, legumes seasoned with golpar mixed with cumin or other spices is just great, and a perfect place to start if you're curious about the plant, or if you've used it before and found it difficult to work with, or unpalatable.
Traditionally, Persian hogweed seeds are used to season broad beans, / fava beans cooked right in their pods, and that's a good, easy recipe to start out with.
One quick thing to know: unlike most other spices I cook with, golpar doesn't like to be toasted, it's best simply ground and added to things.
The black lentils with golpar I make are probably my favorite way to use the spice to serve to others for the first time, and I was confident enough others would like it to that I served 200 portions of it at the Wild Harvest Festival in 2019. Marinating feta with a mix of golpar, cumin, fresh herbs and lemon (see above) is also crazy good.
If you want more ideas for cooking with the seeds, the golpar tag below will take you to what I have.