Iranian Chicken in Walnut-Pomegranate Sauce

Parivash Rohani heard about Immigrant Kitchens from a friend and reached out to see if she could be involved. In her Portland, Maine, home, she taught me how to make her favorite Iranian dish, called fesenjoon, which is pieces of chicken breast in a sweet and sour sauce. See below for the full story, recipe, and how-to-photos. 

The Story

Freedom Chicken

By Lindsay Sterling

Parivash Rohani heard about Immigrant Kitchens from a friend and reached out to see if she could be involved. In her home in Portland, Maine, she taught me how to make her favorite Iranian dish, called fesenjoon. It's chicken breast cut into cubes and cooked in a nutty sweet and sour sauce that's kind of like Persian bar-b-q sauce, but without the tomato base. Ground walnuts give the sauce body, richness, and a touch of bitterness. Pomegranate molasses adds dark red color and pungency.
Fesenjoon is really too intense to be eaten straight in a bowl. It’s perfect served over saffron-colored basmati rice. You couldn’t have a better match for fesenjoon’s bold flavor than a Shirazi salad, named after a town where Parivash spent her teenage years in Iran. Lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, tossed with lime juice, olive oil, dried mint, and sumac, make for a fresh, cool accompaniment. She remembers her mother using the juice from unripe grapes called ab ghooreh instead of the lime juice.
Parivash's mother and father still live in Iran, but 16 of her friends from childhood were executed by the Iranian government between 1982 and 1985 for believing in her religion, the Bahá’í Faith. It is the largest minority religion in Iran. When she was just six years old, fanatical Muslims threw stones at her and pulled her hair. In her teens, an angry mob of Muslims burned her home to the ground along with those of 500 other Bahá’í families. In 1979 the Islamic government denied Bahá’ís access to higher education and work, and started imprisoning and executing them. Parivash fled to India with two cousins when she was eighteen, thinking she would stay until the persecution ended.
After six years, her Indian visa ran out. She could neither return to Iran nor stay in India. She had no permission to live anywhere. She applied to the United Nations for refugee placement. In 1986 she made Maine her permanent home to be near friends and a relative. She said, “the first day I got to America, I was human. It was so liberating. For the first time I felt: I am safe. I belong somewhere. I can be me.”
Parivash loves making this meal because her husband and grown children love to eat it. She met her husband, who is also from Iran, when she was in exile in India. Their daughter was born there. One son was born in Canada, and two sons were born in Brunswick, Maine. Her daughter is now a nurse; her son, a pharmacist; and two sons are college students at University of Southern Maine.

After working in nursing for over 20 years and raising her family, she now dedicates her time to building community and helping humanity. She is on the board of the Maine chapter of Interfaith Power and Light, an organization that brings diverse religious groups together to save the earth. She volunteers on the “Education is Not A Crime” campaign, setting up documentary film viewings and speaking at educational institutions about the continued deprivation of education for the Bahá’í in Iran. She is also working with local organizations in Portland to plan this year’s festivities for World Refugee Day on June 20th.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2016

See How To Do It

She insisted - it has to be basmati rice. Below is the rice she likes to use. It's marked "basmati sela" which means it's been parboiled. This helps the grains not stick together and stay nice and separate. She soaks the rice in luke warm salt water for 2-3 hours before cooking.  She insists the salt water helps the grains not break when cooking. Then she boils the rice like pasta for ten minutes, strains it, and steams it in a pot with the lid on. 

Now starting the chicken dish, saute the onions in oil and then add the chicken pieces.

She grinds her saffron threads into a powder with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and a little sugar to help with the grinding. She gets the most flavor out of the saffron this way, which is important because it's arguably the most expensive spice in the world.

 Saffron needs to steep in hot water for about twenty minutes to maximize its flavor release.

Pomegranate molasses (below) is pomegranate juice cooked down into a syrup. It's sour, sweet, and almost black. Here she pours into the pot with the chicken and lots of ground walnuts.

Here is a picture of the label so you can look for it in Middle Eastern markets. 

She adds a bit of saffron powder to the walnut chicken, and saves the small dish of steeping saffron for coloring the rice.

She lines the bottom of the rice pot with oil and potatoes so they fry and get golden and crunchy.

Here she is piling the rice that's been boiled for 10 minutes and strained back into the pot over the oil and potatoes.

She nestles that bowl of steeping saffron on top of the rice to keep the saffron warm, which helps it release its flavor.

Here is her version of Shirazi salad - cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce (which is not usually in there, she says,) with sumac, dried mint, salt, pepper, lime and olive oil.

Once the rice has steamed with the lid on, she mounds it up on a serving platter.

She fills the small dish of steeping saffon with rice. And then spreads the saffron-soaked rice all over the top of the mound, making it gorgeous!

Here's the whole spread clockwise from left: the saffron rice, Shirazi salad, the tadic (the crunchy rice and potatoes from the bottom of the pot) and the chicken in walnut sauce.

Photos copyright Lindsay Sterling. 
Permission required for use.

The Recipe

Iranian Chicken in Walnut-Pomegranate Sauce

As Parivash Rohani, from Ardestan and Shiraz, Iran, taught Lindsay Sterling in Portland, Maine, March 2016

Serves: 8
Cooking time: 2 hours active + 2 hours soaking rice
note: gluten-free, dairy-free

for chicken in walnut sauce:

1 yellow onion
2 Tbsp + 3 Tbsp olive oil
2 pounds skinless boneless chicken breast
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp + 1/8 tsp powdered saffron  (Iranian saffron preferred)
3 Tbsp hot water
1 lb. walnuts
17 oz. pomegranate molasses
1-6 Tbsp sugar, depending on the sweetness of your Pomegranate molasses (sometimes it has sugar in it, sometimes not)

for saffron rice:
4 cups basmati rice (Aahu Barah super sela brand preferred)
4 tsp salt
2 medium potatoes
1/4 cup olive oil plus more for drizzling
1 dash rosewater (optional)

for Shirazi salad:
1 head lettuce
1 lime
1 cucumber
3 tomatoes
3 Tbsp sumac
3 Tbsp dried mint
1/2 tsp salt
4 Tbsp olive oil

food processor or blender
large bolw
measuring spoons (or eyeball it)
s large pots with well-fitting lids
cutting board
chef knife
mixing spoon
liquid measuring cup
salad bowl
serving bowl
large serving platter
small plate or 2nd mixing spoon
medium bowl
tea kettle or small pan
small glass or ceramic dish

Two hours or more ahead time, put the basmati rice in a large bowl, add 4 tsp salt, and cover the rice by a couple inches with cold water.

About two hours before you want to eat, cut onion into small dice. In a large pot with lid, saute onion in 2 Tbsp olive oil on medium high heat until soft. Cut chicken into 1-inch pieces. Add chicken pieces to the onions and saute until golden. Add salt, pepper, and 1/8 tsp powdered saffron, and 2 cups of water. Wash cutting board, knife, and anything else that touched raw chicken with soap and water.

In a separate small glass or ceramic dish, cover 1/8 tsp powdered saffron with 1/3 cup hot water and let steep.

In food processor pulse walnuts in batches into a fine meal. You might throw in a tablespoon of sugar to help. Mix the ground walnuts into the chicken, along with 17 oz. pomegranate molasses. Mix. Add more water if you need to so the texture is loose and soupy. Cook this mixture on medium with the lid on, stirring occassionally, for about an hour until the liquid thickens into a thick sauce (think like the meat sauce on your spaghetti).

While the walnut sauce is cooking, peel the potatoes and slice into planks about 1/4 inch thick. Put potatoes in a bowl and cover them with water (so they don't turn brown before you use them).

After the walnut mixture has cooked for about 30 minutes, strain the soaking rice and put it in a large pot that has a lid. Cover the rice by 2 inches with water. Bring rice to a boil, and let it continue to boil like you would pasta - for about 10 minutes. When the rice still has a hard center, but is softening on the outside. Drain the rice in a strainer.

Cover the bottom of the pot that you used to boil the rice with olive oil and make a layer of potato planks in the oil. Pile the strained rice on top of the potatoes. Use the back of the spoon to create vertical holes in the rice, which presumably help the moisture get around evenly. Nestle the small dish of steeping saffron water on top of the rice. Drizzle olive oil over the top of the rice. Cover the pot and heat on low for about 30 minutes, until the rice is fully cooked and the potatoes on the bottom are crispy and golden.

Keep stirring the walnut sauce every so often. Taste it. It should taste tangy and delicious. If it's too sour, add more sugar. A little sour is good because it goes well with the rice.

Prepare the salad. Cut up lettuce, dice cucumbers and tomatoes and put in a bowl. Sprinkle sumac and dried mint generously to cover the top of the salad. Sprinkle salt as desired. Squeeze the juice of a fresh lime over the salad. Drizzle olive oil on top as you wish, about 4 Tbsp.

Taste rice to see if it is soft. When it is, fill the dish of saffron-water completely with rice and put it on the counter. Scoop most of the rest of the rice onto a large serving platter. Keeping the bottom layer of rice and potatoes in the pot for a minute.

Spread the saffron-soaked rice from the small dish over the top of the rest of the rice so the platter of rice looks beautiful yellow.

Fill a large wide bowl or your sink with cold water. Submerge just the bottom of the rice pot in the cold water for about 30 seconds. This helps the crispy rice and potatoes come up. Now loosen the fried potatoes and fried rice in the bottom of the pot with a spatula and put them on another platter.

Transfer chicken in sauce into a serving bowl. Serve yellow rice, crispy rice and potatoes, chicken in walnut sauce, and salad family style on the table. When making individual plates, Parivash likes to scoop the fesenjoon right on top of her pile of yellow rice.

If you like this dish, try it with lamb or beef meatballs instead of chicken.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2016

How to Powder Saffron

As Parivash Rohani from Ardestan and Shiraz, Iran, taught Lindsay Sterling in Freeport, ME, 2016

Note: Ground saffron releases its flavor into the food faster and more evenly than saffron threads.

2 grams saffron threads (preferably Iranian)
1/2 tsp sugar

mortar and pestle
small empty, clean, dry spice jar with tightly fitting lid
clean sheet of paper

Put all your saffron threads in a mortar and pestle with 1/2 tsp sugar. Pressing hard and putting your weight into the pestle, grind in a circular motion quickly for about a minute until you have a fine powder.

Pour powder into a pile on a clean sheet of paper.  Then lift two sides of the paper to create a channel that allows you to pour the powdered saffron into a storage jar without spilling any precious granules. Tighten lid on jar, and store for use in any dishes that call for saffron.

So as not to waste the saffron residue in the mortar, put a couple tablespoons of hot water in the mortar. This will create saffron water, which you can use immediately in a dish, or store in a jar in the fridge for use within 5 days.


Live Cooking Classes

Join me for a hands-on cooking class for 4-6 people in my home kitchen in Freeport, Maine. You'll spend about three hours making and eating an authentic dish from around the world. My immigrant cooking teachers join us as guests of honor as schedules allow. Learn something new and share the joy and camaraderie of making and eating something delicious together. In April and May I'll be teaching authentic Salvadorian, Guatemalan, and Bolivian dishes. I can't wait to cook with you!

For dates, times, dish descriptions and tickets, visit: