Herbed rice served with grilled salmon
This dish is synonymous with Norooz – Persian New Year. Rice is steamed with saffron, garlic and chopped herbs, 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, as the name suggests, inhabits the Caspian Sea). It’s usually served with pickled garlic, other traditional pickles (‘Torshi’), 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 has also recently been stocking Naranj (bitter Seville marmalade oranges). Kuku Sabzi is also served alongside the rice on the day, a great alternative should fish not be your thing.
Growing up in the UK my maman would cook two types of fish to serve alongside the Sabzi Polo: the first being a fried white fish (like grey mullet) in a light batter; or grilled salmon for the health conscious. As a kid, the smell of fish frying from the early hours in the morning used to torment me. I hated fish until I made myself overcome my fear when I was seventeen. When my maman would fry the fish, I would lock myself away in my bedroom slowly accustomising myself to the smell with the windows wide open until I could find the courage to open the door and step outside. Now, I love fish but those years of fish fear were character building.
The recipe I have put together is my family recipe for Sabzi Polo and we tend to use a greater amount of fresh herbs compared to others. We also add our chopped herbs to the rice while it is cooking and mix it through before draining. Others add the herbs when layering the rice into their pan pre-steaming.
The accompanying fish is grilled salmon marinated in a simple saffron, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil infusion. To emulate the smoked fish flavour, I use a smoked sea salt to season my fish before serving. It is a low key and simple version of cooking the fish accompaniment for the star of this meal, which is the herbed rice. 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, grill, oven bake, poach or steam your fish if you prefer. Ultimately the aromatics of this dish comes from the herbs in the rice so if you want to eat this rice with a simple breaded fish from your local supermarket’s frozen aisle then go for it – no judgment at all! I would recommend some fresh lemon or lime to squeeze over any fish you do serve with the polo, if you cannot get your hands on Naranj.
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 picture above so do not panic when you flip the crispy stuff out – it’s meant to be that dark!
You can make this a vegan dish by serving it with roasted vegetables or smoked tofu fried in a turmeric batter with a saffron, maple syrup, lemon juice and olive oil drizzle (I will write a recipe up for the tofu alternative one of these days – maybe next Norooz – watch this space). During recipe testing I had a fair bit of the Sabzi Polo leftover, so I roasted some purple sprouting broccoli spears with a drizzle of olive oil and smoked sea salt and it was a delicious yet simple and easy accompaniment for the rice which I also served with a Salad Shirazi.
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, and 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.’
Other than eating food centred around fresh herbs (Ash Reshteh, Sabzi Polo ba Mahi, Kuku Sabzi), the festivities and rituals we observe are focussed on letting go of the winter and all the negativity that may be associated with it and looking forwards to new life, prosperity and the general optimism brought by the 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).’
- 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 (predominantly any person of non-working age i.e. up to 21 years gets a gift and it is usually money).
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
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Small pinch of ground saffron (bloomed in 1 tbsp of water)
- 1 clove garlic (minced or crushed)
- Smoked Sea Salt and Pepper (to taste - you can use normal salt)
- The night before, wash the rice in cold water until the water runs clear. Then place the rice with 1 tbsp of salt in a bowl and pour in cold water to cover up to 2 inches above the rice. Leave to soak overnight.
- Marinade the salmon by mixing the olive oil, lemon juice, bloomed saffron, pepper and garlic and pouring it over the fish. Massage the marinade into the fillets. Cover and place in the fridge for a minimum of 1 hr.
- Wash all the herbs and spring onions. Remove all the tough woody stems from the herbs and cut the spring onions to remove the green ends for the polo. In batches, pulse the herbs and spring onion ends in a food processor until they are finely chopped. Place the greens in a bowl until you are ready to add to the rice.
- Fill a large non-stick saucepan with approximately 1.5 litres of water and 1 tbsp of salt. Bring the water to a boil. Drain the rice and then add to the saucepan. Gently stir the rice to make sure it does not stick to the pan. Every minute give the rice a gentle stir and take a grain of rice and check the texture - either between your fingers or using your teeth. What you want is the rice to be soft on the outer layer but still firm in the centre. It can take any time from 3 to 7 minutes with the quantity of rice in this recipe.
- Once the parboiled rice reaches the correct texture, stir in the chopped greens, turn the heat off and immediately drain the 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.
- Place the empty saucepan on your 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 your 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. Be careful not to break the grains. Then pat the rice down flat with the spoon.
- Reserve about 5 tbsp of rice and layer the rest into a gentle sloping pyramid shape in the saucepan, drizzling the garlic butter on each layer of rice spooned in. Mix the reserved rice with the remaining saffron water and then spread on top of the rice in the saucepan. 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 your glass lid on the sauce pan and turn the heat to the highest setting. Once you start to see steam rise from the rice (your glass lid will start to get clear from the steam and droplets of water will start to form on the lid - it is perfectly fine to have a little look under the lid now and again to check the steam situation) lower the heat to the minimum flame or equivalent on your cooker. Cover the lid with a tea towel (making sure it is not a fire risk) and replace the lid on the saucepan. Allow to steam for a minimum of 45 mins to get a crunchy and thick layer of tahdig.
- Take the salmon out of the fridge to come up 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. Add your smoked sea salt (or normal salt if not using) and cover and set aside.
- 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.