Even more than the turkey, certain sides take center stage at the Thanksgiving table: sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and most of all, stuffing. Whether it comes out of a box, or from lovingly saved scraps of homemade bread, it's the stuffing that feels most quintessentially American. It's the perfect accompaniment for our most beloved national holiday. Unless, of course, you don't like stuffing.
In my mixed-heritage West Indian-Iranian family, no one except my American-born brother and I had any use for it. Maybe it was because my parents defaulted to the simple out-of-the-box stuffing that surely tasted bland and gummy to their spice-accustomed palates, or maybe it was because bread in all its forms simply isn't the highlight of either culture's cuisine.
That place of pride is owned almost entirely by rice.
My cousins, newly arrived from Iran, would tentatively try the stuffing before politely edging it to the side of their plates. My father's West Indian relatives, louder and more boisterous, would boldly announce their distaste for the bready side dish, with pronouncements of "yech!" and "it have no taste!" So at our family table, a Persian layered rice called zereshk polow became the side that served as the key back-up singer to the turkey.
The Persian Polow
Zereshk polow features tart barberries cooked with onions, orange peel, and almonds in a saffron-rose sauce. Polows are layered rice dishes that have ancient origins. The skillful cook is able to produce it in such a way that the ingredients are not sticky or dry. Every grain of rice is perfectly separate and fluffy, gently cocooning the meats, vegetables, or fruit cooked within them without undue clinging.
Requiring some finesse, polows are considered one of the great achievements of Persian culinary culture and are the precursor to popular Indian biryanis. Some versions of the dish, like zereshk polow, are considered even more special than others, thanks to the rarity of ingredients.
Even in Iran, where barberries (zereshk) are specially grown for cooking (in other parts of the world, including the U.S., they are considered primarily an ornamental plant), they are expensive and used sparingly. To this day, they are not widely exported so they remain an expensive treat. When I was a child it was impossible to get zereshk at all.
When my mother visited the Middle Eastern markets on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and asked hopefully for them year after year, the shopkeepers immediately replied, "Oh? You're Iranian? Sorry, no one else eats those."
We depended on friends and relatives who were able to freely visit Iran and covertly bring the precious berries back.
Even the few Iranian restaurants in New York found it hard to get zereshk. Their version of the dish featured tiny currants or, sometimes, fresh pomegranate seeds which resembled zereshk in color and tartness. Back in those days, we depended on friends and relatives who were able to freely visit Iran and covertly bring the precious berries back. They would be delivered in thin black plastic bags, knotted and double knotted lest any escape. Once safely within my mother's grasp, they'd be tucked into the back of the refrigerator and sparingly doled out for special-occasion dinners like Christmas, Easter, graduations, and, most of all, Thanksgiving.
In keeping with the plentifulness of the holiday, it was on Thanksgiving that the zereshk was most abundant. The glistening red berries would sparkle in mounds of fluffy basmati rice, their brilliant color offset with the hue of orange peels and ivory almond slivers. Garnished with deeply yellow saffron rice, the platter resembled the intricate Persian rugs that adorned our house.
By the end of the meal, the turkey well-devoured, only a spoonful of zereshk polow remained, while the bread stuffing sat forlornly uneaten except for the small dent made by my brother and I.
Today, it's much easier to get zereshk, thanks to the wide variety of Middle Eastern and gourmet stores. In cities like New York or Los Angeles, they are fairly easy to find and otherwise readily had online. While they aren't cheap, they are not nearly as expensive as they once were. Still, I use them sparingly, unwilling to rob the dish of its festive specialness.
At Thanksgiving the little barberries shine in all their glory, nestled like rubies in a platter of rice, reminding us that while my parents are now gone, zereshk polow serves as their stand-in at our Thanksgiving family table.
Notes for the Cook
The tah digh: Rice dishes like this one that comprise layered meat and vegetables or fruits date back thousands of years to the Persian Empire. They were brought to India by the Mughal princes in the 16th century and became the precursor for the popular Indian dish biryani. The method calls for soaking the rice and then steaming it so that each grain remains elongated and separated. If prepared correctly, the rice will yield a golden crust called tah digh, which is a delicacy on any Persian table. Serve the tah digh with a small garnishment of the barberry mixture.
Barberries: Once rarely found in the United States, barberries are imported by a number of companies and can usually be found in Middle Eastern groceries or online at specialty stores like Kalustyans or Amazon. Because barberries are dried, they need to be soaked briefly in hot water before cooking; do not soak them too long or their flavor and color will seep into the soaking water. Barberries are also extremely sour, so sugar is necessary for this dish, but experiment with an amount that suits your taste.
Orange peel: When preparing the orange peel, be sure you have removed all the white pith from the peel before julienning, otherwise the end result will be bitter.
Persian Barberry Rice (Zereshk Polow)
Serves 4 to 6
coarse salt, divided
extra-virgin olive oil, divided
finely ground saffron
finely julienned orange peel
3 1/2 tablespoons
granulated sugar, divided
small onion, sliced thinly
dried barberries soaked in 1/4 cup boiling water
rose water syrup
dried rose petals (optional)
Wash the rice: Place the rice in a large, deep bowl and add enough cold water to cover. Swirl the rice around with your hand until the water is cloudy and then gently pour it off, making sure not to spill out any rice. Repeat 4 to 5 times or until the water is mostly clear.
Add enough water to the rice to cover by 1 inch and add 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt. Mix once gently and then set aside for at least 1 hour and up to overnight.
Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a large deep pot, preferably nonstick. Add the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Drain the rice and add it to the pot. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the rice for 12 minutes, stirring once or twice. Drain.
Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into the same pot in which you boiled the rice. Add 1/4 cup of water. Mix well. Using a large spoon or spatula, spoon the rice, one spoon at a time, into the middle of the pot. Continue until all the rice is used and forms a "pyramid" or mound in the middle of the pot. Cover the pot with a clean kitchen towel or double layer of paper towels and then firmly press the pot lid on top. Fold up the edges of the towel over the top of the lid so it is not near the flame. Cook on the lowest heat setting for 20 to 25 minutes.
While the rice is cooking, prepare the zereshk mixture. Dissolve the saffron in a small bowl with 5 tablespoons of boiling water and set aside to steep.
Place the orange peels and 1 cup of water in a small pot over medium-low heat and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes and then drain. Repeat this process one more time. Place the orange peels back in the pot and add 1/2 cup of water and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Simmer over medium heat until the water is nearly evaporated, 6 to 7 minutes; set aside.
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a medium frying pan over medium-low heat until shimmering. Add the onion and fry until beginning to soften and lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the almonds and fry until they begin to lightly brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the orange peels from their syrup, add them to the onion mixture, and stir to combine.
Reduce the heat to low. Drain the barberries and add them to the frying pan. Fry for 1 minute, stirring the whole time. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. Fry, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, about 1 minute. Add 3 tablespoons of the saffron liquid and the rose water. Stir well and simmer until the liquid is almost totally evaporated, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, and set aside 1 teaspoon for garnish.
Assemble the dish: Remove the lid from the rice pan and, using a fork, gently fluff the rice. Remove 2 tablespoons of rice and add it to the bowl with the remaining saffron liquid. Stir gently to coat and set aside.
Spread 1/3 of the rice onto a platter. Add 1/3 of the barberry mixture on top and gently stir together. Repeat this layering until all the remaining rice and barberry mixture are used up (reserve the rice pan). Do not scrape up the bottom of the rice. Sprinkle the reserved saffron-soaked rice on top, and garnish with some of the rose petals if using.
Remove the tah digh: Dip the bottom of the rice pan into cold water, making sure none gets into the pot itself. Gently run a rubber spatula around the edge of the rice to dislodge it. It should come out in one piece. Turn the tah digh, golden-side up, onto a plate and garnish with the reserved teaspoon of barberry mixture and a few rose petals.
Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.