Steamed rice with a layer of sweetened barberries served with a saffron roasted 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.
What is Zereshk Polo ba Morgh?
Zereshk polo is Persian steamed rice, layered and/or topped with barberries. It is a sweet and sour dish. The barberries are gently sautéed on a low heat with sugar and bloomed saffron water before being added to 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 Persian and are bought and used in their dried form. You can buy zereshk from most Middle-Eastern food shops or online.
‘Morgh’ means ‘chicken’ in Persian and refers to the accompanying protein served with 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 Version of Zereshk Polo ba Morgh
My mother and other members of our family would always poach chicken breast and layer it in the zereshk polo. I appreciate now that, when cooked for too long, this cut of meat can be quite dry. My recipe below uses chicken breast but the cooking method ensures it remains juicy. I generally source chicken 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, pan fry them and then finish it off in the oven as per the recipe instructions below.
You can also eat this rice with saffron stewed chicken (see picture below). 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. The recipe below will also result in the delicious crispy rice formed at the bottom of the pot (tahdig). Tahdig adds a lovely crunchy texture to the dish.
How to Serve Zereshk Polo ba Morgh
Because of the layer of barberries and saffron rice, the key to serving this dish is to spoon the rice out on to a platter (as seen in the pics). The tahdig is usually served separately as a side dish.
Serve this dish with:
- A mix of fresh herbs (coriander, parsley, mint, chives, tarragon and Thai basil).
- Torshi (Persian pickles).
- Maast O’Khiar (Persian yoghurt and cucumber dip).
- Salad Shirazi (Persian chopped cucumber, tomato and onion salad).
Zereshk Polo ba Morgh
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 oil (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
- Chicken – take chicken breasts and place in large bowl. Add onion, tomato purée, yoghurt, olive oil, turmeric, saffron and fresh lemon juice. Mix until evenly coated. Cover and leave in fridge to marinate for minimum 8 hrs (preferably overnight).
- Rice – gently wash rice in cold water until water runs clear. Then place rice with 1 tbsp salt in a bowl and pour in cold water to cover up to 2 inches above. Leave to soak for minimum 30 mins (preferably overnight).
- Barberries – take a small saucepan, place it on low heat and add 1 tbsp butter. Once melted, add barberries, sugar and bloomed saffron water and stir for 30 secs. Turn heat off and set aside for later.
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 water and 1 tbsp salt. Bring water to boil.
- Drain rice and then add to saucepan. Gently stir rice to make sure it does not stick to the pan. Every minute give it 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 a soft outer layer but still firm in the centre i.e. al dente. It can take any time from 3 to 7 minutes with the quantity of rice in this recipe.
- Once parboiled rice reaches the correct texture, turn heat off and drain in a colander or sieve. Sprinkle a little cold water to halt the cooking process. Taste the rice – if it is very salty then rinse further with a little water.
- Place empty saucepan on stove. Add 2 tbsp oil to pan. Add bloomed saffron (1/8 tsp bloomed saffron in 2 tbsp water) to saucepan and mix with oil to distribute evenly (this will give a lovely golden colour to your tahdig).
- To make tahdig, spoon 1-inch layer of rice into saucepan and gently stir to mix with saffron oil to ensure colour is distributed evenly. Then pat down flat with spoon. Then layer the rest of the rice, reserving 5 tbsp in a separate bowl, into a gentle sloping pyramid shape and poke a few holes in it.
- Take bloomed saffron (1/4 tsp of saffron bloomed in 2 tsp rose water and 2 tbsp water) and add to the bowl with the reserved rice. Mix gently to create a golden coloured rice. Then spoon the golden rice into the saucepan to one side of the white rice. Do not mix it. This saffron coloured rice will be your garnish.
- Pour 2 tbsp cold water evenly over and drizzle 2 tbsp melted ghee or butter over rice. Place glass lid on saucepan and turn heat to highest setting. Once steam starts to rise, lower heat to lowest setting. Cover the lid with a tea towel (making sure it is not a fire risk) and replace on saucepan.
- Allow to steam for a minimum of 45 mins to get a crunchy layer of tahdig – the longer you steam the 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 chicken from 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 chicken and generously season both sides with salt and pepper. Discard the rest of the marinade including the onion.
- Place a non-stick pan over high heat. Once smoking add a drizzle of olive oil and place chicken breasts skin down in pan. Cook on this side for 5 minutes or until the chicken skin is golden and crisp.
- Flip over and add 25 grams of butter split into small knobs. Once melted, baste the chicken with the foaming butter for 1 min. Then flip so they are skin side up again.
- Place in oven and cook for 15–20 mins. 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 rice has completed its cooking time, turn off heat and remove lid from saucepan. Spoon the saffron-coloured rice out first into a separate bowl and reserve until you are ready to garnish. Spoon the rest of the 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.