Berberis is commonly known as Barberry, and they are found throughout the temperate and subtropical regions of the world (apart from Australia).
Species diversity is greatest in South America, Africa and Asia; Europe and North America have native species as well. The most well-known Berberis species is the European barberry, Berberis vulgaris, which is common in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia. Many of the species have spines on the shoots and along the margins of the leaves.
These little red jewels are incredibly useful things to have in the store cupboard – sprinkle them on to a dish of rice or couscous or strew over pot-roasted chicken, and they’ll bring a burst of gorgeous colour and an explosion of tart flavour. Being dried (fresh ones are very hard to come by), they keep well, too. Just a little light soaking, frying or simmering is all that’s needed to plump them up and release their delicious flavour – like tangy, lemony currants.
Barberries are an important ingredient in Iranian cookery, and you’re most likely to see them in a Persian restaurant or a Middle Eastern grocer’s, where they may be labelled under their Persian name, zereshk. Iranian cooks will know barberries well as a key ingredient in certain wedding dishes, where their sourness stands as a symbol of the fact that life isn’t always a bed of roses. They’re also crucial in recipes such as tahcheen-zereshk – a dish of golden saffron rice, studded with the berries and enriched with yogurt, served with chicken.
Historically, yellow dye was extracted from the stem, root, and bark.