Some of the most precious memories that our good friend Mona has from her childhood are the summers she spent with her grandmother Mamamohtaram in Tehran.
Her grandmother lived on the ground floor of a three-story building with high walls and a large garden.Her elder son and his family lived on the middle floor and the younger son and his family lived on the top floor. Her kitchen was the center of all the action. Her daughters in law would come downstairs to help her prepare breakfast for the family. As soon as breakfast was cleared from the table, her grandmother would start cooking huge lunches. There was a little courtyard off the kitchen where she and the housekeeper would pluck chickens, wash and soak the rice, trim the herbs and chop the vegetables.
Her grandmother was happiest when she was feeding everyone. She would spend mealtimes making sure that everyone had a full plate rather than eating food herself.
Mamamohtaram was determined that Mona and her siblings enjoy the crown of Persian cuisine—Shiran Polo (sweet rice). Traditionally served on Rosh Hashana and other festive occasions, Mona’s grandmother made it for a regular Friday night dinner during their summer vacation. Mona remembers the love and patience that she put into preparing all the toppings that go into and on top of the rice. She would candy thin strips of orange peel, roast pistachios and julienne the carrots by hand. She would sauté barberries and raisins with sweet spices. Then she would layer all these ingredients on top of fragrant saffron steamed rice.
After the Iranian Revolution, Mona’s grandmother and her extended family moved to Los Angeles. Whenever Mona would travel from New York for Rosh Hashana and other special occasions, Mamamohtaram would make jeweled rice. She was in a different country and a different kitchen but it was the same incredibly delicious rice.
Persian cuisine is rich with intricately spiced and flavored khoresht stews like Ghormeh Sabzi made from five different herbs and red kidney beans, Fesenjan made with chicken and walnuts in a sweet and sour pomegranate sauce and Gheima made with meat, yellow lentils, dried lemon and spices. There are roasted meats, fish, duck and chicken and all the grilled koobidehs (kebab style meats and chicken). And they all go on top of rice. Basmati rice.
The Persian rice cooking process is precise and includes many steps. First, the rice is rinsed four to five times, then it is left to soak for at least an hour. The drained rice is added to a pot of boiling water. After it is cooked till al dente, the rice is washed and drained, then returned to a pot with oil on the bottom. The top of the pot is covered with a towel or a double layer of paper towel and the lid. The heat is turned to low and the rice is left to steam.
SHIRAN POLO IS A TRULY SPECTACULAR DISH. THE RICE IS STEAMED SO THAT EACH GRAIN IS SEPARATE AND THEN THE TOP LAYER IS STAINED YELLOW WITH SAFFRON WATER.
Shiran Polo, also known as Jeweled Rice, is a truly spectacular dish. The rice is steamed so that each grain is separate and then the top layer is stained yellow with saffron water. Then the rice is layered with the delicately spiced toppings—carrots, sliced almonds, pistachios, orange peel, currants, raisins and barberries.
In the past, Zereshk, the tart barberries that give this dish it’s uniquely sour notes, were expensive and hard to find, so it is no wonder that Shiran Polo was reserved for Rosh Hashana, weddings and other festive occasions.
We were experimenting in the kitchen and we came up with our own recipe. We caramelized onions, sautéed some Zereshk and raisins, toasted some almonds and pistachios, popped open a bag of candied orange peel and shredded carrots. We washed and soaked the rice but we skipped the step of parboiling and rinsing again.
We served the dish at one of our girls’ nights and we were all obsessed with the delicious flavors.
We thought we’d share our much simpler Sephardic Spice Girls version of this rice in honor of the month of Adar and the very Persian holiday of Purim.
1/2 cup hot water
3 cups Basmati rice
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 teaspoons kosher salt
2 cups shredded carrots
Avocado or vegetable oil for frying
1 onion, finely diced
1/3 cup sliced almonds
1/3 cup raw pistachios
1/3 cup barberries
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup candied orange peel
- Place a pinch of saffron strands in a bowl and cover with hot water., then set aside to steep.
- Place rice in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Rinse four to five times until the water is fairly clear.
- Cover the rice with cold water and soak for at least one hour.
- Drain water from rice and place in a large pot.
- Pour enough water over the rice, so that the water is at least 1 inch above the rice.
- Add kosher salt and olive oil and bring the rice to a boil, stirring occasionally.
- When all the water has been absorbed, reduce the heat to low.
- Fluff the rice, then add the shredded carrots onto the rice.
- Pour the saffron water over the carrots, cover with a dish towel or paper towel and a tight fitting lid. Let steam for 25-30 minutes.
- In a frying pan, warm oil over medium heat, then add onions and sauté until caramelized. Then set aside.
- In the same frying pan, toast the almonds and pistachios over low heat. Then set aside.
- Warm a little oil to the frying pan and set over medium heat. Add raisins and barberries and sauté lightly. Set aside.
- Add orange peels to the frypan and sauté lightly. Set aside.
- Place hot rice on a large serving platter and arrange onions, almonds, pistachios, barberries, raisins and orange peel in a pretty pattern.
Sharon Gomperts and Rachel Emquies Sheff have been friends since high school. The Sephardic Spice Girls project has grown from their collaboration on events for the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem. Upcoming events include interviewing Chef Shimi Aaron at the WIZO Purim Luncheon and a Sharsheret Passover Cooking Webinar. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC