Zereshk Polo: Persian Barberry Pilaf

Zereshk polo, or barberry pilaf, is a sweet and tart Persian dish of basmati rice cooked with barberries and saffron (both essential flavors of Persian cuisine).

This dish typically includes chicken, but since I don’t eat meat I added caramelized onions cooked in turmeric–ingredients normally cooked with the meat–straight into the rice to add more flavor.

I decided to make this dish because I was curious about the flavor of barberries. Growing up, I remember there always being a container of dried Sadaf zereshk in our kitchen cupboard. My father’s roommate in college was Persian, and my dad often spoke about his spectacular cooking. I think he had gotten the barberries with the intention of re-creating this magical rice he always talked about…and then just never did. So, when I was home from college one semester, I decided to bring the mysterious ingredient back to my college co-op with me, where I did all my experimental cooking at the time. After internet research on Persian cuisine, I decided zereshk polo was the essential dish to start with.

Barberries often appear translucent red, but the ones I had were black. When googling the difference, I found one source noting black barberries as typically smaller and more tart: (https://javanehskitchen.wordpress.com/tag/black-zereshk/). Beyond this, I had trouble finding clear distinctions between the two.

I did, however, learn in my research that berberis is a genus if deciduous and evergreen shrub, and so one possibly explanation is that I was simply using a different species of barberry. The packaging label made no distinction so I remain unconvinced.

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Ingredients:

  • shallots, caramelized
  • turmeric
  • salt
  • saffron, steeped
  • basmati rice, rinsed
  • barberries, rinsed and rehydrated
  • butter
  • sugar

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I’m not a huge fan of hyper specific recipes in cooking and generally eyeball proportions based on my readings of other peoples recipes, and on my senses/ (does it look right, smell good, taste right??). For the dish above, I caramelized roughly 3 shallots in butter, adding a sprinkle of turmeric at the end. I’d say I used a giant handful– or a full small container– of barberries, which I rinsed and sautéed in butter and sugar to rehydrate. I steamed the rice (1 cup I believe) with the shallots, steeped saffron (a pinch of threads), salt, and turmeric. I added the barberries on the top at the end, though next time I might try cooking them in with the rice and other ingredients.

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