One of my favorite things about writing When We Vanished has been learning more about Persian culture (since several main characters are of Iranian descent). Through the years, I’ve done a lot of experimenting and have come to love ingredients like rosewater, saffron, fresh mint, nigella seeds, dried limes, and sumac. But one of my absolute favorites is the humble barberry.
These small crimson berries are packed with tart flavor and are scrumptious in a huge variety of dishes. (If you don’t have a local Middle Eastern grocer, you can buy them online here.) I’ve substituted them for cranberries in orange-cranberry-walnut muffins, added them to trail mix, and sprinkled them into grain salads with butternut squash and quinoa.
One of their traditional uses in Persian cuisine is in a rice pilaf dish, zereshk polo. The first time I tasted this dish was at the wonderful (sadly, now closed) restaurant Soltan Banoo in San Diego. It was incredibly delicious, and I took mental notes on the ingredients so that I could try to recreate it at home later.
Below you’ll find my recipe. It is decidedly not authentic, since I have yet to perfect the art of tahdig (the highly prized crispy layer that forms when rice is cooked the traditional Persian way. For instructions, check out this recipe). But what’s not to love about a rice studded with jewel-like berries, orange zest, golden saffron, sauteed shallots, and chopped pistachios?
I must say, it took my kids a while to come around to these flavors. I made this rice at least a half-dozen times before they would even try it. Then they started taking a few small bites… and a few more… and now they cheer whenever they see it on the meal plan.
I usually serve this rice with tofu cutlets (I add a bit of pomegranate molasses and sumac to my standard marinade to better fit this meal’s flavor profile) and a salad made with cucumbers, tomatoes, thinly sliced shallots, fresh mint or parsley, a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and lime juice.
Persian-Style Rice with Barberries
- 2 cups rice, Basmati or jasmine
- 3 cups water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp vegan butter
- 1 pinch saffron
- 1 pinch salt
- 2 Tbsp warm water
- 1/2 cup barberries
- 2 tb orange peel, dried or fresh
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium shallot, minced
- 1 sprinkle cinnamon
- 1 medium carrot, grated
- 1/4 cup pistachios, chopped
Cook the Rice
- In a rice cooker or saucepan, add the rice, water, and salt.
- Cook, covered, over medium heat until all water is absorbed, about 25 minutes for white rice or 40 for brown.
Steep the Saffron
- While the rice is cooking, grind a pinch of saffron with a pinch of salt in a small bowl (as shown here). Add a tablespoon or two of hot water and let it steep.
Soak the Barberries & Orange Peel
- In a separate (larger) bowl, add the barberries and orange peel (if using dried). Cover with warm water and let soak for about 30 minutes while the rice is cooking.
Put it All Together
- Once the rice has finished cooking, dot it with vegan butter and set it aside.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil and shallots. Sprinkle with salt and a dash of cinnamon. Saute for a few minutes, until the shallots have softened.
- Add the grated carrot and saute for a minute more.
- Drain the barberries and orange peel. If necessary, cut the orange peel into small strips. (I always need to do this since I use home-dried clementine peels).
- Stir the barberries and orange peel into the cooked rice, then add the rice to the pan.
- Drizzle the saffron mixture over the rice.
- Saute all ingredients together until well combined. Taste for salt and add more if desired.
- Garnish with chopped pistachios. Serve with tofu cutlets and a cucumber & tomato salad.
Have you ever tried to recreate a memorable dish after eating it at a restaurant? Are you a fan of barberries? What’s your favorite Persian recipe? Let me know in the comments!