Fairly recently I picked up a bag of dried barberries (also known as Zereshk or Pipperages) in one of my local Middle Eastern food stores. I do tend to like fruits in savoury dishes, this is customary in Middle Eastern cooking and so I had an inkling that I would probably love them. I posted a photo of my new purchase on twitter and one of my followers, Sophia – who writes the blog ‘Real Simple Food’ – sweetly tweeted back saying how she enjoyed eating a savoury dish called ‘Zereshk Polow’ growing up, which used barberries.
I did a bit of digging around on the internet and came up with a number of recipes for the dish. It immediately appealed to me as it incorporated chicken, rice, saffron, turmeric, yoghurt, milk, rice, onions – what’s not to like?
Since my discovery of the dish I have cooked it a number of times, simplifying it from some of the more detailed ones on the web and those that are rich in butter and egg. The dish originates from Iran although I discovered that barberries are not as exotic as we are led to believe as they once grew in abundance all over Europe, US and Asia. Over time they were eradicated as they were responsible for creating a fungus that caused damage to wheat crops. There were a wide variety of barberries growing in sixteenth century Britain and one of the most loved was called ‘Nutmeg Barberry’, which would typically be served as a garnish for fish such as pike. English kitchens would also use the fruit to make jellies, jams and even ice cream – now there’s an idea!
The barberries themselves are bursting with a citric, tart flavour, not dissimilar to little lime explosions. Their crimson colour adds a jewel like quality to the dish, not unlike pomegranate seeds in their appearance, and this complements the turmeric and saffron in an explosion of colour. It looks inviting don’t you think? As they are dried, they store really easily. When cooking all you need to do is give them a thorough wash and then pop them in the frying pan for around 30 seconds, continuing to move them around the hot pan so that they puff up slightly.
The final part of the cooking requires some layering of ingredients before placing in the oven for 30 minutes. See photos below.
Zereshk Polow (Iranian Chicken with Barberries and Rice
3 large handfuls of basmati rice
3 small red onions (totally 125g weighed), finely sliced
500g chicken breasts/thighs, cut into substantial pieces
4 tbsp butter
1 tsp turmeric
50g dried barberries
1 tsp sugar
4 tbsp milk
1 pinch of saffron
3 tbsp plain yoghurt
pinch of rock salt
1. Wash the rice thoroughly in cold water and place into a pan and pour in enough boiling water so that the water is roughly a thumb nail higher than the rice. (I tend to find this calculation works for me!) Cook on a low heat until the rice has absorbed the water and the rice has softened. Remove from the pan and place in a bowl.
2. Soak the barberries in cold water for 10 minutes. In a pan melt a tablespoon of butter then add the strained barberries followed by the sugar. Move the barberries around the pan so that they begin to puff up. They burn really easily so keep them moving for max 30 seconds and then place to one side.
3. In a small bowl add the milk and saffron, stir and allow to rest. Once the liquid has taken on a yellow hue add the yoghurt and mix thoroughly into the milk and saffron.
4. In a large pan add two tablespoons of butter and gently fry the onions so that they bronze slightly. Gently place the onions into a bowl to rest.
5. Place the chicken in a bowl with the turmeric and mix in throughly. Add another spoonful of butter to the same pan that the onions were in and gently brown the chicken on both sides. Then add 150ml cold water to the pan and allow the chicken to gently simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Remove the chicken and place in a bowl to one side and place the liquid with all the extra bits from the bottom of the pan into another bowl.
6. Now for the layering: In the same pan that you have cooked the onions and chicken – I find my Le Creuset casserole pot works superbly – add the final tablespoonful of butter and make sure that it fully coats the bottom and the lower sides. Add a layer of rice so that it completely covers the bottom of the pot then place the chicken pieces on top. Next add another layer of rice mixed with the barberries. Then add the onions on the top followed by the yoghurt saffron milk and finally the juicy liquid that you have kept to one side. Scatter a pinch or two of rock salt over the top.
7. Place in a preheated oven at 150 degrees centigrade (300F) for 30 minutes with the lid on, allowing the flavours to blend together.
8. Serve straight from the pot when it is still deliciously hot.