Last Updated on 23/01/2023 by Saffron & Herbs
Commonly served during Norooz, rice is layered and steamed with fresh herbs, saffron and garlic butter to create a delightfully aromatic dish. Grilled salmon, marinated in saffron, lemon, garlic and honey, is served alongside the Sabzi Polo to create the ultimate Persian meal.
A Special Dish
This dish is synonymous with Norooz – Persian New Year. Rice is steamed with saffron, garlic and chopped herbs. It is usually served with fish and Kuku Sabzi (a herb and egg frittata).
In Persian, ‘Sabzi‘ refers to herbs or vegetables; ‘Polo‘ refers to the fact that the rice is cooked with another element mixed in, in this case the fresh herbs. The herbs used in Sabzi Polo vary, but typically include dill, coriander, parsley, Persian chives or the green ends of spring onions and in some cases fenugreek.
Iranians traditionally eat Sabzi Polo with a fried or smoked ‘mahi sefid’ (‘white fish’, the Caspian kutum or Caspian white fish which inhabits the Caspian Sea). It’s usually served with pickled garlic, other traditional pickles, Salad Shirazi and ‘Naranj’ – a tart and slightly bitter orange, which we squeeze over the fish and rice like a lemon adding a citrus note to the dish. You can buy Naranj from your local Middle-Eastern supermarket. Sainsbury’s also stock Naranj (bitter Seville marmalade oranges) during the season. Kuku Sabzi is also served alongside the rice on the day, a great alternative should fish not be your thing.
What are the Ingredients?
Below is my family recipe for Sabzi Polo. We tend to use a greater amount of fresh herbs compared to others. The herbs use in this recipe are fresh coriander, parsley and dill. In Iran chives are also used but the chives available in the UK are not as spicy so we replace these with the green ends of spring onions. The herbs and greens are mixed in while the rice is parboiling. After draining the rice, it is steamed with garlic butter drizzled over with a little saffron to add further aromatics to this dish.
The accompanying fish is grilled salmon marinated in a simple saffron, honey, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil infusion and smoked sea salt. You can make the Sabzi Polo with any fish you want, including smoked fish like many in Iran will eat on the day. You can pan fry, BBQ, grill, oven bake, poach or steam your fish if you prefer.
Your Choice of Tahdig
Due to the herbs, the tahdig (crispy rice formed at the bottom of the pot) will come out a dark green-brown as you can see in the first picture so do not panic when you flip the crispy stuff out – it’s meant to be that dark!
However, should you prefer you can prepare the dish with a saffron layer of Tahdig as you can see in the pictures above and below. All you need to do is parboil the rice without adding the herbs, drain it and then take 2 cups of rice and add to a little saffron water (1/4 teaspoon ground saffron bloomed in 3 tablespoons water). Mix the rice until fully coated and then line the bottom of the pan, following the addition of the oil/butter, as set out at the step entitled ‘Preapre the Tahdig Layer’ below. Then pat it down and layer the cooked rice with the fresh herbs and the garlic butter layer by layer on top.
You can also have potato or bread tahdig as an alternative. Just replace the rice layer with slices of potato or flatbread.
Serving and Storing Sabzi Polo Ba Mahi
Serve this dish alongside all or one of the following.
- Salad Shirazi (Persian chopped tomato, cucmber and red onion salad dressed with lime, olive oil and mint).
- Borani Laboo (Persian beetroot and yoghurt dip).
- Maast O’Moosir (yoghurt and Persian shallot dip).
Store in an airtight container, once cooled down, and in the firdge. The rice will last up to 5 days. The salmon will last up to 3 days. you can reheat the rice and salmon in a microwave. Or you can reheat the rice in a saucepan. Remember to add a tablepoon or so of water to rehydrate the rice if reheating. The salmon can also be reaheated in a medium oven.
Norooz – Persian New Year and the First Day of Spring (Northern Hemisphere)
Norooz is the day of the vernal equinox and marks the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. It marks the first day of the first month of the Iranian calendar (Farvardin). The moment the Sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day is calculated exactly every year. Families gather together to observe the rituals. Due to this calculation, the day Persian New Year falls upon can vary but generally it is either on the 20th or 21st March. The Persian name translated means ‘New Day.’
The festivities and rituals we observe are focussed on letting go of the winter and all the negativity that may be associated with it. We look forward to new life, prosperity and have great optimism which is brought by spring and then the summer months.
In the lead up to the the New Year celebrations, many Iranians will undertake a ritual familiar to many – the ‘Spring Clean.’ I always do a major spring clean and this year was no exception. By day 3 into my efforts my house was messier than when I started, but by the end of the process I felt physically and mentally lighter from the purge of the clutter and the deep clean of the house.
The evening of the last Tuesday before Norooz is the night we celebrate Chaharshanbeh Soori – a festival of fire where we gather together and jump over bonfires. The tradition of jumping over the bonfire originates from people believing that the fire would take their problems, sickness and winter pallor and be replaced by energy and warmth, contributing towards their success for the upcoming year. As we jump, we chant the following words: ‘Zardiye man az toh (my pallor to you); Sorkhiye toh az man (your redness to me).’ See my post about Chaharshanbeh Soori and the dish we eat on that day here.
- Sabzeh (wheat, barley, mung bean, or lentil sprouts grown in a dish) – symbolising rebirth and growth.
- Samanu (sweet pudding made from wheat germ) – symbolising strength and power.
- Senjed (Persian Olive / oleaster) symbolising love.
- Serkeh (vinegar) symbolising patience.
- Sib (apple) – symbolising beauty.
- Seer (garlic) – symbolising health and medicine.
- Somagh (sumac) – symbolising sunrise.
The Haft-Seen may also include a mirror (self-reflection), candles (enlightenment), eggs (fertility), goldfish (progress), coins (wealth), hyacinth (spring’s arrival), and traditional confectioneries. A “book of wisdom” such as the Quran (religious text of Islam), or the Book of Kings – the Shanameh of Ferdowsi (an epic and long poem on the Persian Empire), or the Divān of Hafez (an anthology of the famous Iranian poet Hafez’s poems) may also be included.
Music will play and we will eat Sabzi Polo ba Mahi and Kuku Sabzi. Many of us continue the celebrations by having a separate organised event for the wider family and friends at a hotel or restaurant where we dress up and dance the night away.
During the Norooz holidays, we make short visits to the homes of family and friends. Typically, young people will visit their elders first. Visitors are offered tea and pastries, cookies, fresh and dried fruits and mixed nuts or other snacks. Gifts are given from the elders to the younger members of the family.
On the 13th day of the Norooz celebrations we celebrate Sizdah Bedar. Iranians spend the day outdoors. Many will go out for a family picnic in a local park. Come rain or shine we will gather outdoors and celebrate this day – throwing our sabzeh into a nearby river or stream marking the end the Persian New Year celebrations.
Sabzi Polo ba Mahi
For the Sabzi Polo (herbed rice)
- 1/4 tsp ground saffron (bloomed in 100mls of water)
- 400 g white long grain basmati rice
- 2 tbsp salt
- 80 g fresh coriander
- 80 g fresh dill
- 80 g fresh parsley
- The green ends of 5 spring onions
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp melted butter mixed with 3 crushed or minced cloves of garlic
For the mahi (salmon)
- 4 salmon fillets (or 1 side of salmon circa 600g to 800g)
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tbsp honey
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1/8 Small pinch of ground saffron (bloomed in 2 tbsp of water)
- 2 cloves garlic (minced or crushed)
- Smoked Sea Salt and Pepper (to taste - you can use normal salt)
Marinade the Salmon
- Mix olive oil, lemon juice, bloomed saffron, honey, smoked sea salt, pepper and garlic and pour it over fish. Massage the marinade into the fish. then pleace fish flesh side down into marinade. Cover and place in fridge for a minimum of 12 hrs. I find the best results are to marinade the salmon for 2 nights.
Wash and Soak the Rice
- Wash the rice in cold water until the water runs clear. Then place with 1 tbsp of salt in a bowl and pour in cold water to cover with 2 inches clear above the rice. Soak overnight.
Prepare the Herbs & Greens
- Wash all the herbs and spring onions. Remove tough woody stems from the herbs and cut the spring onions to remove the green ends. In batches, pulse the herbs and spring onion ends in a food processor until they are finely chopped. Place in a bowl until ready to use.
Make the Garlic butter
- Melt butter mixed with 3 crushed or minced cloves of garlic over medium heat in small pan. Put to one side until ready to use.
Parboil the Rice
- Fill a large non-stick saucepan with approximately 1.5 litres of water and 1 tbsp of salt. Bring the water to boil. Drain rice and add to the saucepan. Gently stir the rice to make sure it does not stick to the pan. cook rice until al-dente.
- Stir in herbs and greens, turn heat off and immediately drain rice in a colander or sieve. Sprinkle a little cold water on the rice to halt the cooking process. Taste the rice - if it is very salty then rinse the rice further with a little water.
Prepare Tahdig Layer
- Place the empty saucepan on stove. Add 2 tbsp of oil. Add 1 tbsp of the bloomed saffron to the saucepan and mix with the oil to distribute evenly. To make rice tahdig spoon about a 1-inch layer of rice into the saucepan and gently stir to mix with the saffron oil to ensure colour is distributed evenly. Pat down flat with spoon.
Layer and Steam the Rice
- Reserve 5 tbsp of rice and layer rest into a gentle sloping pyramid shape in the saucepan, drizzling garlic butter on each layer of rice spooned in. Mix reserved rice with remaining saffron water and then spread on top of the rice. Pour any remaining saffron water over the rice. Poke 5 holes, evenly distributed, into the rice to the bottom of the pan with the end of a spoon.
- Place glass lid on saucepan over high heat. Once steam rises from rice lower heat to the minimum flame or equivalent. Cover the lid with a tea towel (making sure it is not a fire risk) and place on saucepan. Allow to steam for a minimum of 45 mins to get a crunchy and thick layer of tahdig.
Cook the Salmon
- Remove salmon from fridge to come to room temperature prior to cooking.
- Heat grill to high. Place the fish in a shallow baking dish, then grill for 5 to 7 mins until cooked through, but still a little pink in the centre, cover and set aside.
Serve the Sabzi Polo Ba Mahi
- When the rice is cooked, spoon the saffron coloured rice separately in a bowl and reserve for the garnish. Spoon the rest of the Sabzi Polo on to your chosen dish and plate up your tahdig separately. Garnish with the saffron-coloured rice and serve with the grilled salmon, fresh naranj (or lemons or limes) to squeeze over the fish and rice, Salad Shirazi and torshi.