Zereshk Polo: The Regal Rice of Persia
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
Sadly the only time Americans hear about Iran in the media is in reference to war, sanctions, and more war and more sanctions. In truth, Iran is a rich yet overlooked civilization with ancient roots, a country of people that pride themselves on their hospitality, architecture, art, poetry, and culinary heritage. While Iran maintains its cultural uniqueness, the country has intersected with the Arab world throughout history, particularly in the realm of the culinary arts.
Iran’s distinctive culture and society date back to the Achaemenian period, which began in 550 BC. From that time the region formerly known as Persia (now Iran) was a hub of great empires for thousands of years. Throughout this reign, foreign conquerors and immigrants influenced Persia. Muslim Arabs that conquered Persia in the 7th century left the most lasting influence, and to this day Arabs live in Khūzestān, as well as in the Persian Gulf islands. Throughout history, Persian people were also exposed to the cuisines of the neighboring regions, including the Levant, Turkey, and Greece.
Take a peek into an Iranian kitchen today, and you will see foods typical of the Mediterranean diet, with fruits like pomegranates, quince, apricots, and grapes. When fresh fruits are not available, a large variety of dried fruits such as dates, figs, and apricots are used instead. Iranians, like Arabs, serve fruit in various forms as dessert. Like Egypt and the Arab Gulf States, Iran is also one of the world’s top ten major date producers, so dates are a significant part of their diet.
The Iranian dinner table is also loaded with staples popular in the Arab world. The most popular vegetables are eggplant, spinach, onions, garlic, and cucumber; along with herbs like cinnamon, turmeric, and parsley. Nuts like pistachios, almonds, and cashews adorn both savory and sweet dishes or are eaten as a snack. Typical Iranian main dishes are combinations of rice and meat, vegetables, meat kebabs, lentils, or hearty stews. What makes Iranian cuisine particularly distinctive from other Mediterranean diets is their emphasis on saffron, dried lime and other sources of sour flavoring.
The usage of rice, at first a specialty of the Safavid Empire‘s court cuisine, evolved by the end of the 16th century into a major branch of Iranian cooking. Traditionally, rice was a major staple in northern Iran and the homes of the wealthy, white bread were the dominant staple in the rest of the country. If there is one dish that exemplifies the regality of rice in Iranian cuisine, it would be Zereshk Polo, the saffron rice dish topped with barberries. This rice specialty is inverted upside down like a rice cake, to display the tadig, or the prized crispy buttery rice on the bottom. The barberries that adorn the top add a beautiful deep crimson color with sweetness and tartness reminiscent of cranberries. Traditionally this rice dish was time-intensive, requiring the cook to parboil the rice first. Today a modern-day rice cooker can achieve great results with a fraction of the time. If you don’t have a rice cooker you can use a standard pot, just watchfully and cook for 20 minutes or even longer on low heat to ensure an extra crispy rice layer.
Iranians usually like to cook this rice with grapeseed oil, as it does not add a strong flavor to the rice like olive oil, and helps crisp up the rice without burning. I highly recommend you get the saffron from Iran, which is of superior quality to other saffron threads on the market. You can gauge the quality of the saffron by making sure the threads are dark red, not yellowish, with a sweet floral scent. This difference is easier to discern with saffron threads instead of powder.
Iranians and Arabs both love to shower their guests with a warm welcome and heaping servings of delicious handmade food. If only the media captured the beauty of these ancient rooted cultures and shared a plate a zereshk polo, the world might be a more peaceful place.
To see the easy technique of how to make this dish, click on the video below:
Zereshk Polo–Serves 8
2 ½ cups basmati rice, rinsed
½ cup grapeseed oil
4 cups of water
1 tsp salt
For Saffron Topping:
Pinch of saffron threads
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup boiling water
2 tbsp butter
½ Cup Barberries
2 tbsp butter or grapeseed oil
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp shelled pistachios (optional)
In a rice cooker or pot, add the oil and rice and stir around until you hear a sizzling sound. Add the water and salt, and set the full cooking time for the rice cooker and let cook. Or if using a pot, let the water boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer then cover to cook for at least 20 minutes. Meanwhile, put the saffron with the sugar into a mortar and pestle and grind. Add the boiling water to it in a cup and set aside. Rinse the barberries and make sure there are no stones. Let soak in water for 30 minutes. Then drain the barberries, and mix them in a skillet with the 2 tbsp butter or grapeseed oil and 1 tbsp sugar. Stir for about 5 minutes then set aside. Once the rice has been cooked, take about 1 cup of cooked rice from the top, then pat the rest of the rice down gently into the rice cooker. Take the 1 cup of rice and combine with 2 tbsp melted butter and about half of the saffron water. Take that rice and pat it down above the rice in the rice cooker. Then carefully flip the rice upside down on a plate. Top with the cooked barberries, and pistachios if desired.
Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, host of the YouTube cooking show called Feast in the Middle East and a cookbook author. For more authentic and classical Middle Eastern recipes, you can now purchase her brand new cookbook: “Feast in the Middle East, A Personal Journey of Family and Cuisine” by clicking HERE:https://secure.mybookorders.com/Orderpage/2189
To check out her cooking video tutorials and other recipes follow Blanche on
Her blog at https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/
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