This is fesenjoon, another national culinary treasure of Iran. There aren’t many dishes that give you as much pleasure and joy of eating as fesenjoon! It’s inherently a simple dish, showcasing a perfect blend of simple and yet flavorful ingredients that are abundant in Iran, making it a celebration of natural resources.
The dish starts with walnuts that are ground into a coarse powder and features lightly-browned chicken pieces that are patiently cooked to tenderness in a pomegranate sauce. Choosing the best quality ingredients will ensure you have the best fesenjoon on the block!
The ritual of making homemade pomegranate paste continues to exist in some families, but more and more people are purchasing pomegranate products, even in Iran. Also, while this quintessentially Iranian fruit has made it onto the culinary scene here in the US and across the globe, it is on the expensive side: I appreciate that the pomegranate I purchased for this recipe was out of season, but I paid nearly $6 for just one. At that price, I will certainly not be making my own pomegranate paste, as I’d rapidly need a second mortgage on our house!
So what to do, what to do? Worry not! I feel incredibly proud that after teaching Persian cooking classes for over 20 years, I have influenced my local grocery co-operative to introduce pomegranate paste onto its shelves and into Americans’ homes. But not all pomegranate products are the same. Go to your local Middle Eastern or Iranian market and you will be met with all these pomegranate products: paste, molasses and concentrates. To make matters even more “interesting”, different brands offer different consistencies, and flavor profiles range from extra sour to extra sweet.
The two brands that I am most familiar with and use frequently are Cortas and Sadaf. Both are quite flavorful and rich in pomegranate essence, but there are notable differences between them. Cortas is on the thicker and denser side and comes through quite tart and sharp, while Sadaf is a thick, clear syrup with less acidity and more sugar. So when I use Cortas for this dish, I only use about 1/2 cup of it, and balance the tartness with sugar. When using Sadaf I use about 1 cup and do not add any sugar.
I buy my walnuts from the bulk department of my grocery co-operative, rather than the pre-packaged ones on the shelf. This is because items move much faster in the bulk department and are less likely to become old, stale, and rancid.
These days, with food allergies and sensitivities, nuts are on top of the list of foods some people have to avoid. So what to do if you have a walnut allergy or intolerance?
Let me tell you a story!
Recently, while traveling Asia, I met a lovely soul in Seoul with whom I discovered a shared, distant, and somewhat forgotten history. We both grew up in Iran in the mid-1970s, and she, a farangie (foreigner in Farsi) from Europe, was experiencing Iran and Tajrish, a neighborhood of Tehran, much as I was. We both remember our moms watching Julia Child’s cooking show on the American TV channel.
Since our encounter in Seoul, we have maintained our connection and we reminisce about what we each remember from our time in Iran, though hers was much shorter than mine. She tells me what food adventures she is up to and what Persian food she is making, and I tell her about the next recipe on the blog, and share pictures.
Talking with my “Seoul-mate”, I discovered recently that she cannot tolerate walnuts and is therefore unable to indulge in fesenjoon. So naturally, we explored how this recipe can be adapted to suit various dietary needs and restrictions.
Fortunately, fesenjoon is a highly adaptable dish that can be made with pistachios or almonds instead of walnuts. Chicken can be swapped out for duck or beef meatballs. And meat can be eliminated altogether and substituted with butternut squash or mushrooms.
As for the chicken, I am 100% for free-range, organically and ethically raised, and slaughtered chicken.
Eeeeyyyyy jaan, fesenjaan, you have something to offer for every palate and dietary preference!
- 4 tablespoons oil, divided
- 4 pieces chicken breasts and thighs, with skin and bone on
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 cups walnuts, ground
- 1/2 to 1 cup pomegranate molasses, amount varies based on different brands
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper, ground
- 1/8 teaspoon ground saffron, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, optional and as needed
- 1-4 tablespoons sugar, optional and as needed
- Saute the chicken pieces in a dutch oven with 2 tablespoons oil for 5 minutes on medium high heat. Rotate the chicken to lightly brown both sides.
- Add water, cover and reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.
- In a large frying pan, saute the onions with the remainder 2 tablespoon oil for 10 minutes until lightly brown.
- While the chicken and onions are cooking, in a food processor pulse the walnuts until finely ground. Don’t overdo it, otherwise, you will have walnut butter. Set aside.
- Add the ground walnuts to the pan with onions and stir over medium heat for a couple of minutes.
- Add the walnuts, pomegranate molasses, salt and pepper to the chicken. Gently stir to incorporate all the items into the pan.
- Cover, keep the flame on low and continue to cook for 75 minutes. Take extra care and stir occasionally to prevent this thick stew from burning on the bottom.
- The stew should have turned into a deep maroon color and the chicken should be fork tender.
- Add the saffron water, stir and taste for sweet and sour levels. Adjust by adding more sugar or lemon juice.
- Remove from the heat and allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving.
- Serve with steamed Persian saffron basmati rice.