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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Persian Bejeweled Rice

I’ve made a study of Persian cuisine for a couple of decades now, ever since marrying my Iranian-born husband. Right from the start, the unique qualities of Iranian cooking delighted me: stews that pair fruit and meat with vegetables; fresh herbs that perfume rice dishes or are served like salad at the table, unadorned by dressing; the fragrance of cinnamon in savory dishes, rosewater in desserts, and saffron in nearly everything. Like an oriental carpet, Persian cuisine is intricate, sophisticated, and a feast of color for the eyes.

 Rice lies at the heart of a Persian meal, and a cook’s skill is judged by the quality of her polo. The texture should be fluffy not sticky, with each grain lying separated from its sisters. The crispy layer at the bottom of the pot, known as tadiq, must be golden, not too dark and not too pale, crunchy without being oily.

 It was my good fortune to marry into a family of excellent cooks, and over the years they’ve shared their secrets with me. Each one has her own way of preparing Persian specialties, and each one is convinced her method is the best—this is not a family of shrinking violets. Over the years, I’ve collected tips and techniques from Iranian friends and relatives and come up with my own versions.

 My signature dish is javaher polo, (bejeweled rice), which offers a festive blend of colors, flavors, and textures. It sparkles with pistachios, orange peel, and ruby-toned barberries, with a splash of golden saffron. Javaher polo is traditionally served at weddings but can be enjoyed any time of the year. It’s good hot or cold, paired with chicken, or served on its own with a spoonful of yogurt on the side.

The secret ingredient in my recipe is a drop or two of rosewater, just enough to add fragrance but not so much that it overpowers. If you don’t like rosewater in your food, just leave it out. You’ll have a more traditional version of the dish. Noosh-e jaan! Bon appetit!

Javaher Polo


1 large orange (peel only)

2 tangerines (peel only)

2 medium-sized carrots, julienned

½ cup sliced pistachios

1 cup slivered almonds

1 cup zereshk (barberries), available in Middle Eastern markets, or use dried cranberries

½ cup sugar

½ teaspoon powdered saffron dissolved in 3-4 tablespoons of hot water

Splash of rosewater (optional)

3 tablespoons butter

For the rice:

2 ½ cups Basmati rice

8 cups water

3 tablespoons oil


 1.   Rinse the rice in several changes of water. Cover with more water, add 2 tablespoons of salt and soak for at least one hour.

2.  Cover the barberries with cold water in a bowl and let stand for at least 20 minutes so any grit will sink to the bottom. Omit this step if you’re using cranberries.

3.   Quarter and peel the oranges and tangerines. Remove the white part with a sharp knife and discard. Cut the remaining peel crosswise into thin strips. Cover with cold water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Drain and rinse in cold water.

4.   Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Add the carrots and sauté until they start to soften, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add the citrus peel and nuts and sauté for another 5 minutes.

5.   Scoop the barberries out of the water, making sure that the grit remains at the bottom of the bowl, and add to the carrot/orange peel/nut mixture along with the sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Salt to taste. Add the saffron water, bring to a simmer, cover the pan and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes, adding more water if the mixture gets too dry.

6.   Bring the 8 cups of water to a boil in a large non-stick pot and add the rice. Cook until al dente (firm to the teeth, but no longer hard). Drain and rinse with cool water.

7    Heat the oil in the same pot and layer the rice with the carrot/orange peel mixture in a pyramid shape, starting and ending with rice. Poke some holes in the top to let the steam escape and sprinkle 1/4 cup of warm water over the top. Cover and cook at medium-high heat until steam starts to rise from the rice. Then lower the heat, cover with a tight-fitting lid wrapped in a clean dish towel, and cook for 40 minutes.

8.   Mound the rice on a serving platter (the various layers will mix as you lift them out of the pot). In a separate bowl, mix 1 cup of the rice with ¼ teaspoon ground saffron dissolved in 2 tablespoons of water and arrange it over the top of the mound. (This step is optional but makes for a nice presentation.)

Serve with roast or braised chicken, salad, and plain yogurt.


Heidi Noroozy writes fiction set in the Persian-American subculture and regularly travels to Iran for research and inspiration. She has published short stories in German-language anthologies and is working on a contemporary crime novel set in the turbulent world of modern Iran, where rebellious youth push the envelope of their restrictive society and journalists find ways to report the truth under the vigilant eyes of government censors. On Mondays, she blogs about Persian culture at, where the conversation is about travel, culture, and storytelling.


  1. I love recipes like this that combine sweet and savory flavors. I'll have to give this one a try! I find dried cherries also work well as a tart dried fruit substitution.

  2. Gigi, I'm laughing. I recently had British houseguests and when I served a breakfast of bacon and eggs, biscuits and jelly, one said, "WE never mix sweet and savory." The next morning I served oatmeal (they called it porridge) with brown sugar, and he said, "You've done it again!" Guess tastes vary the world over!

  3. Gigi, I hope you enjoy the dish. And let me know how it turns out. Dried cherries would work as well as cranberries. Anything else would also work that would give the dish that "bejeweled" effect -as long as it isn't too sweet.

  4. I love Persian food, as you know, especially the ones relying on herbs. You're right, it's a perfume! I love the combination of sweet and savory as well, though I'm a bit skeptical about fruit in my rice. Will give it a try since it's your recipe, Heidi. :) Question though--what quality does the tangerine peel lend the dish? I would imagine boiled citrus peel to be chewy and either bitter or flavorless, but I have no experience cooking with this type of ingredient.

  5. Supriya, give this dish a try. Trust me. I've never had anyone eat only one helping of this. It's addictive. The orange/tangerine peel adds quite a nice perfume to the dish. The peel is bitter which is why you blanch it first. That takes a lot of the bitterness away. And be careful to remove all or at least most of the white part, which is very bitter. Normally Javaher Polo is made with the peel of two oranges, but I replace one of them with the tangerines because they are a bit sweeter. You can leave out the berries if you don't like them - then you'll have another traditional Persian dish called Shirin Polo (Sweet Rice). But this dish doesn't taste fruity at all. The fruit adds a sweet/sour quality.