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!
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 (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 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.