Zereshk Polo ba Morgh

Barberry rice and saffron chicken

This dish is a real Persian classic and one that most Iranians cherish. It definitely tops my list of Persian comfort foods, reminding me of my childhood and the big family gatherings my mother would host.

Zereshk polo is Persian steamed rice, layered and/or topped with barberries. Some also scatter fresh pistachio slivers as a garnish on top of the rice. Where rice dishes are referred to as ‘polo’ (pronounced ‘pawlaw’) it usually indicates that the rice has been mixed with some other ingredient. Our plain white rice, served with our kebabs and khoresh (stews) is referred to as ‘chelow.’ In the case of this dish, barberries are the additional ingredient.

Barberries are edible red berries which grow in the wild in Europe and West Asia. They are rich in vitamin C and tart in flavour. They are called ‘zereshk’ in Farsi and are bought and used in their dried form. You can buy zereshk from most Middle-Eastern food shops or, as I often do, online.

Zereshk polo is a sweet and sour dish, where the barberries are gently sautéed on a low heat with sugar and bloomed saffron water before being added to the rice. It is commonly served with poached saffron chicken or chicken stewed in a saffron sauce and either layered through the rice or on the side. Some Persian restaurants serve it with jujeh kabab (grilled chunks of chicken, marinated in onion, lemon juice and saffron). Either way, you must be getting a sense that some kind of saffron flavoured chicken complements this sweet and sour rice dish. 

My mother and other members of our family would always poach the chicken and as a child I would search for the breast meat layered throughout my mother’s zereshk polo but I appreciate now that, when cooked for too long, this cut of meat can be quite dry. My recipe below uses chicken breast but with a few changes to preparation and cooking to ensure it remains juicy. I generally source chicken for all my cooking from a butcher (online or the old-fashioned method of dropping into a local establishment).

For this recipe I bought chicken breasts with the skin left on and a partial wing (the drumette) in tact. I marinate the chicken overnight and then I pan fry the chicken and finish it off in the oven as per the recipe instructions below. You can also eat this rice with saffron stewed chicken and I will post a recipe for this in due course, but for now the recipe below is a homage to the dish I grew up with and loved. The recipe below will also result in the delicious crispy rice formed at the bottom of the pot called tahdig  which adds a lovely crunchy texture to the dish.

Out of all our polo dishes this is probably the easiest to knock-up (relative to other Persian dishes which tend to be more involved in preparation and cooking time).  The recipe below looks daunting with all the steps but after you have done it once, and created a ridiculous amount of washing up, I promise the second time will be easier. And this dish is so delicious you will want to make and eat it a second, third, fourth…time!

As with most Persian dishes, I cook this on a weekend for my family and serve it with a mix of fresh herbs (coriander, parsley, mint, chives, tarragon and Thai basil), torshi and/or Shirazi salad.


Zereshk Polo ba Morgh

Barberry Rice and Saffron Chicken
Prep Time15 mins
Cook Time1 hr 15 mins
Total Time1 hr 30 mins
Course: Main Course, Rice Dish
Cuisine: Iranian, Persian
Keyword: chicken, family recipes, saffron
Servings: 4
Author: Mersedeh Prewer

Ingredients

For the Saffron Chicken

  • 4 Chicken Breasts (with skin and drumette - see note above about cut)
  • 1 medium Onion (finely sliced)
  • 1 tbsp tomato purée
  • 1 tbsp Greek yoghurt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil (for the marinade)
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/8 tsp ground saffron (bloomed in 2 tbsp of water)
  • 1/2 lemon (juice squeezed)
  • Salt and Pepper (to season)
  • 25 g butter (to cook the chicken)
  • 2 tbsp olive (to cook the chicken)

For the Rice

  • 2 cups white long grain Basmati rice (approx. 400g)
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tbsp ghee or butter
  • 1/8 tsp ground saffron (bloomed in 2 tbsp of water for the tahdig - crispy rice formed at the bottom of the pot)
  • 1/4 tsp ground saffron (bloomed in 2 tsp of rose water and 2 tbsp of water for the saffron rice garnish)

For the Barberries

  • 5 tbsp barberries (washed)
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar (feel free to add more if you want it sweeter)
  • 1/8 tsp ground saffron (bloomed saffron in 2 tbsp of water)
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar

Instructions

Preparation

  • Chicken – take the chicken breasts and place in a large bowl and add onion, tomato purée, yoghurt, olive oil, turmeric, saffron and fresh lemon juice to the chicken and mix until evenly coated. Cover and leave in the fridge to marinate for a minimum of 8 hrs (preferably overnight).
  • Rice – gently 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 the rice up to 2 inches above the rice. Leave the rice to soak for a minimum of 30 mins (preferably overnight).
  • Barberries – take a small saucepan, place it on a low heat and add 1 tbsp of butter. Once the butter has melted, add the barberries, the sugar and the bloomed saffron water and stir for 30 seconds. The barberries should only be cooked gently for 30 seconds. Turn the heat off and set them aside for later (I prepare the barberries the morning of the day I am cooking this dish as it one less thing to manage later and it allows for the sugary saffron syrup to infuse further).

Cooking the Rice

  • No less than 1 hour before you want to serve this dish, fill a large non-stick saucepan (minimum capacity 2.5 litres) 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, turn your heat off and 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 the stove. Add 2 tbsp of oil to the pan. Add your bloomed saffron (1/8 tsp bloomed saffron in 2 tbsp of water) to the saucepan and mix with the oil to distribute evenly (this will give a lovely golden colour to your tahdig).
  • To make your 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.
  • Then layer the rest of the rice, reserving 5 tbsp of rice, into a gentle sloping pyramid shape and poke a few holes in the rice. Take the bloomed saffron (1/4 tsp of saffron bloomed in 2 tsp of rose water and 2 tbsp of water) and add the 5 tbsp of rice to it and mix gently. Then spoon this rice on top of the rice in the saucepan to one side of the pot.  Do not mix this into the rest of the rice. This saffron coloured rice will be your garnish, but it is steamed with the rest of the rice to cook to the correct texture but also to add saffron and rose notes to the rest of the rice while cooking.
  • Pour 2 tbsp of cold water evenly over the rice and drizzle the 2 tbsp of melted ghee or butter over the rice. Place the glass lid on the saucepan and turn the heat to the highest setting. Once the steam starts to rise from the rice lower the heat to the minimum flame or equivalent. 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 layer of tahdig – the longer you steam your rice the thicker the tahdig.

Cooking the Chicken

  • Approximately an hour before you want to serve this dish and just before you launch into cooking your rice, remove the chicken from the fridge and bring up to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 180˚C (fan) / 200˚C (conventional) / Gas mark 6.
  • Approximately 30 mins before the rice has completed the cooking process, take the chicken breast and generously season both sides with salt and pepper. Discard the rest of the marinade including the onion.
  • Place a non-stick pan over a high heat, once smoking add a drizzle of olive oil and place the chicken breasts skin down in the pan. Cook on this side for about 5 minutes or until the chicken skin is golden and crisp.
  • Flip over and add the 25 grams of butter split into small knobs. Once melted, baste the chicken with the foaming butter for a minute. Then flip so they are skin side up again.
  • Place in the oven and cook for 15–20 minutes. The flesh should be firm and white (not pink) and the juices should run clear. A temperature probe should read 75˚C when it is safe to eat. Rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Serving the Dish

  • Once the rice has completed its cooking time, turn off the heat and remove the lid from the saucepan. Spoon the saffron-coloured rice out first into a separate bowl and reserve until you are ready to garnish. Spoon the rest of your rice onto a serving dish and plate up your tahdig separately. Then sprinkle the saffron rice over the white rice.
  • Reheat your barberries for 30 seconds on low heat, remove from and turn off the heat, and then spoon over the rice.
  • Serve the rice with the chicken, tahdig, a side of fresh herbs and / or salad shirazi and / or torshi.

 

A Baluchi-Style Breakfast

My journey to discover more about the cuisine of Iran has led me to the Sistan and Baluchestan Province in the South-East of Iran. It is the second largest province of the 31 provinces of Iran, after Kerman Province. 

I knew next to nothing about this part of Iran and on investigation realised that my family and many Iranian friends also knew little about this area. During my research, I learned that the province borders Pakistan and Afghanistan and has a population of 2.5 million of which the majority are Baloch. Furthermore, they mainly inhabit mountainous terrains which has allowed them to maintain a distinct cultural identity and resist domination by neighbouring rulers. Approximately 20-25% of the worldwide Baloch population live in Iran. The majority of the Baloch population reside in Pakistan, and a significant number (estimated at 600,000) reside in southern Afghanistan. Baluchestan of Iran has been regarded as the most underdeveloped, desolate, and poorest region of the country. The government of Iran has been trying to reverse this situation by implementing new plans such as the creation of the Chabahar Free Trade Zone.

This area was bought to my attention by the popular food blogger Mark Wiens who filmed a whole series on the food of Iran while accompanied by the Iranian food blogger, Mr Taster (Hamid Sepidnam). The series is currently available on Amazon Prime and YouTube and I recommend having a dip into this charming series if you can. One of the episodes focusses on the food eaten in Chabahar, a county in the Sistan and Baluchestan Province. I had heard that in the Southern Provinces of Iran food tended to be spicier, but little more information had been provided to me other than that. In this case our handy search engines did not reveal a great deal about the secrets of the cuisine from these parts. So, I was delighted to get a little insight into this region and see foods similar to those eaten in Pakistan and India being offered by the street food vendors and restaurants, from chickpea curry served with fried eggs and parathas for breakfast, to kebabs rubbed with spices referred to as ‘Baluchi Masala’ being eaten for dinner. Restaurants in the area also served karahi curries and biryanis, whilst also offering an array of traditional Persian dishes.

The recipe below seeks to re-create the breakfast dish of chickpea curry with parathas and fried eggs which featured on Mark Wiens’s programme – see it as an aromatic version of baked beans and fried eggs on toast! If you don’t want to make the paratha, by all means pop into your local Asian supermarket and purchase some or any other flatbread such as chapatis or roti. I am not a seasoned paratha maker but if you follow the recipe and steps below the resulting breads are soft, flaky and perfect for dipping into the yolk of your fried egg and scooping up the chickpea curry. As with all aromatic food, the longer you cook/leave it the more intense the flavours, so I often prepare the chickpea curry the night before and let it simmer for over an hour to intensify the flavours. I also make the parathas the night before and just heat them up in a dry frying pan or skillet the next morning so all I am cooking is the eggs on the day we want to eat this meal. If you are going to cook all the dishes in one go then see the notes at the end of the recipe below to assist you with planning.

The recipe below feeds 6 as my husband can eat anything up to 3 eggs in one sitting and then the rest of the family get through the remaining or eat it as leftovers on subsequent days. But do feel free to revise the amounts down or up for the numbers required.

My family and I often eat this breakfast/brunch dish washed down with a homemade mango smoothie.


 A Baluchi-Style Breakfast

Prep Time30 mins
Cook Time50 mins
Total Time1 hr 20 mins
Course: Breakfast, Brunch
Cuisine: Iranian
Keyword: egg recipes, vegetarian
Servings: 6
Author: Mersedeh Prewer

Ingredients

For parathas

  • 3 cups plain flour (UK standard measuring cup)
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 large free-range egg
  • Water (as required to form a sticky dough)
  • Oil or ghee to brush and cook the parathas 

For the chickpea curry

  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 onion (finely sliced)
  • 4 cloves garlic (crushed or minced)
  • Thumb-size of fresh ginger (grated)
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp garam masala
  • 400 g tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 2 x 400 g tins of chickpeas (drained)
  • 200 mls water
  • Fresh lime juice (half a lime)
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • Chopped fresh coriander (to garnish)

For the eggs

  • 6 large free-range eggs
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)

Instructions

For the parathas

  • Add the flour, oil, salt, baking powder and egg to a large mixing bowl and mix until the egg is incorporated.
  • Initially add about 1 cup of water and mix with the flour mixture and then add more water in small increments to form a dough (I usually require 1.5 to 2 cups of water in total to make a dough).
  • Knead the dough for about 5 mins and then leave to rest for 30 mins.
  • After the dough has rested, the texture should be soft and the dough lighter in weight. Take the dough and split into 6 equal amounts and roll into a ball.
  • Sprinkle some flour onto your work surface. Take one ball of dough and roll to approximately 10cm in diameter with a rolling pin. Brush with a little oil / ghee and then fold the dough like a fan. Take one end and roll it along the edge of the dough until it forms back into a ball (like a Catherine wheel). Leave to rest on the side while you repeat the process with the other balls of dough. This will create the layered, flaky texture for the final cooked parathas.
  • After preparing the ‘Catherine wheel’ dough balls, take a frying pan or skillet and place it on a high heat. Drizzle some oil / ghee into the pan.
  • Take one of the dough balls and roll it until it is approximately 1/2cm thick. Then cook it in the hot pan for 3 minutes on each side, or until nicely charred. While cooking, brush with a little bit more oil / ghee on each side. Repeat with the remaining dough balls.
  • Once the parathas are cooked, turn off the heat and leave the cooked parathas to one side until you are ready to serve.

For the chickpea curry

  • Take a saucepan and place it on a medium / high heat. Add 2 tbsp of oil.
  • Add the onion and cook until it softens and turns golden. Then add the garlic and ginger and stir.
  • Once the aroma of the garlic and ginger starts to permeate, add the ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala and mix until evenly distributed. Allow the mixture to cook with the spices for about 2 mins.
  • Add the chopped tomatoes and once bubbling lower the heat to low / medium to allow the mixture to simmer. Simmer for 20 mins.
  • Then add the chickpeas, water, lime juice, salt and pepper and stir. Leave to simmer for 20 mins minimum until you are ready to serve. Garnish with fresh chopped coriander before serving.

For the eggs

  • Add oil to a frying pan / skillet and place on a medium to high heat.
  • Crack the eggs into the pan, cover with a tight lid and cook for 3 mins or until white is set.
  • Season with salt and pepper and serve alongside with the chickpea curry and parathas.

Notes on timing

  • If you are going to prepare this dish in one go, then start off with the parathas first. While the dough is resting (paratha’s method - step 3), undertake steps 1 to 4 of the chickpea curry method.
  • While the tomato mixture simmers for 20 mins, undertake steps 4 to 6 of the paratha’s method. Then, before moving on to cook the parathas, add your chickpeas to the simmer tomato mixture (chickpea curry method 5).
  • While your chickpea curry is simmering, move to step 7 of the parathas method and cook the parathas.
  • Fry your eggs in the same pan used to cook the parathas after you have finished cooking the parathas.

The Alternative Roast

Slow roast chicken and vegetable stew with herb dumplings

It may not be a Persian dish but it is a firm favourite and will, in time, be a classic Sunday dish in our little family.

My husband, being English, loves a roast and so do I. It wasn’t a dish that we ate when I was growing up but with pub lunches and Christmas becoming another excuse for a family gathering, my Iranian family were introduced to the concept of the British Roast dinner. Although I love a roast, I don’t always love the amount of work and washing up involved, so this is my alternative to the traditional Sunday Roast.

All the vegetables are cooked in one pot as a casserole and the addition of fluffy dumplings are a highly satisfactory substitute for roast potatoes. The chicken is slow roasted for three hours, so you can prepare the casserole straight after popping the chicken into the oven and then get on with Sunday chores, park adventures with the kids or zoning out in front of Netflix with a glass (or 4) of wine.


The Alternative Roast

Slow roast chicken and vegetable stew with herb dumplings
Prep Time30 mins
Cook Time3 hrs 15 mins
Total Time3 hrs 45 mins
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: British
Keyword: family recipes, roast dinner
Servings: 4
Author: Mersedeh Prewer

Ingredients

Roast Chicken

  • 1 large whole chicken (1.8kg - 2kg)
  • 1 lemon (halved)
  • 2 cloves garlic (crushed - for rubbing on the chicken)
  • Fresh mixed herbs roasting herbs (sage, thyme and rosemary - usually sold as a packet of roasting herbs)
  • 2 tbsp butter (room tempertaure)
  • Drizzle of olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Vegetable Casserole

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic (crushed)
  • 400 g new potatoes (washed and halved)
  • 1/2 tbsp plain flour
  • 2 medium leeks (washed and chopped into 2 inch chunks)
  • 4 parsnips (washed, peeled and chopped into 3 inch chunks)
  • 300 g Chantenay carrots (washed and halved)
  • 250 g mushrooms (cleaned and quartered)
  • 8 stalks purple sprouting broccoli
  • 225 ml white wine
  • 1.5 litre chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • Salt and pepper  (I sometime use crushed / ground pink peppercorns as an alternative which gives a lovely note to the stew)

Dumplings

  • 140 g chilled butter (chopped into small cubes)
  • 250 g self-raising flour
  • 1 tbsp grated parmesan
  • 125 ml water

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 120°C  (fan) / 140°C (conventional) / gas mark 1.
  • Place the herbs in the chicken’s cavity and around the chicken in a roasting tray. Add the lemon halves and the garlic bulbs to the tray.
  • Crush the 2 garlic cloves and add to the butter. Rub the butter into the chicken and drizzle with the olive oil. Season and place in the oven for 3 hrs.
  • After the chicken has been in the oven for 90 mins, baste with the juices and return to the oven.
  • About 15 mins before the end of the cooking time for the roast chicken, increase the heat to 200°C (fan) / 220°C (conventional) / gas mark 7 to crisp the skin. Once the skin is crispy, to your liking, leave to rest out of the oven (don’t cover) for about 15 mins.
  • While the chicken is in the oven, heat the oil in a casserole dish approx 3 litres capacity on a medium heat.
  • Add the potatoes and cook for about 5 mins. Add the flour and mix, this will help to thicken the gravy for the vegetable casserole.
  • Then add the vegetables, with the slowest cooking veg going in first, with around 2 minute intervals between each addition (carrots, parsnips, leeks, mushrooms). Hold back on the broccoli for now.
  • Add the bay leaves, thyme leaves and garlic and mix. Add the wine, if using. Then add the stock and lower the heat and let simmer until the veg is soft.
  • Season to taste. You can put the lid on the casserole once simmering or if you have cooked the casserole early on and intend to reheat prior to adding the dumplings.
  • Then make the dumplings. Rub the butter into the flour until it looks like bread crumbs. Add chopped parsley and the Parmesan. Add water and form into a dough. Divide and make 8 balls.
  • While the casserole is simmering and about 5 mins before increasing the temperature of the oven to crisp the chicken skin, remove the lid of the casserole dish (you will have no further need for it during the remaining cooking steps) and add the broccoli and the dumplings and let the casserole simmer.
  • Place the casserole dish in the oven with the chicken on 200°C (fan) 15 minutes before the roast chicken has finished cooking. Check in on your dumplings half-way through the cooking time i.e. when you take the chicken out to rest.
  • Leave the casserole in the oven as the chicken is resting for a further 15 mins (overall about 30 mins in the oven) for the dumplings to turn golden.
  • Serve the vegetable casserole with the roast chicken and a side of cranberry sauce.