Sabzi Polo is one of the more popular herb-rice mixture dishes in Persian cuisine, known not only for its use of abundant fresh herbs but also for its close ties to the Persian New Year celebration, Nowruz.
Iranian’s obsession with herbs in large quantities, fresh or dried, is no secret. You will find many dishes – ranging from yogurt to stews, to soups and rice dishes – that incorporate at least one herb, or more often a whole medley of them.
Sabzi Polo is truly a celebration of herbs! Mounds of dill, parsley, cilantro, and chives are chopped and blended into the rice as it cooks. The end result is beautifully aromatic and visually pleasing: a dish that has won the heart of many! As always, different traditions display variations in amounts and ratios, and in some cases the addition of another herb called fenugreek.
To fenugreek or not to fenugreek
Fenugreek is cultivated and used all over the world, but Iranians, Indians, and Pakistanis tend to use it the most. While other cultures use fenugreek both as a seed and as an herb, Iranians rely mostly on the use of the plant’s leaves, fresh or dried.
Fenugreek gives off a strong yet sweet smell and you may be surprised to learn that it’s bitter in taste. When used in rice dishes or stews, it adds a very distinct depth and flavor. A word of caution, however: a little goes very far, and too much of this herb will make your dish bitter and unpleasant.
Nowruz: Persian New Year
Persian New Year happens at the Spring equinox somewhere around the 3rd week of March, and many rituals and traditions go along with the Nowruz celebration.
Persians, food, and gatherings go hand in hand, and there is not a single celebration that doesn’t revolve around food. Many reflect and represent Persians’ deep belief in mythology and symbolism.
Nowruz is no different, and there are various traditional dishes that are served before, during, and for the 13 days after the equinox. With Nowruz, Iranians celebrate spring by eating food that highlights rebirth, fertility, and new beginnings. Herbs, fish and eggs satisfy these rituals and beliefs, and Sabzi Polo ba Mahi is one the most traditional dishes that Iranians consume the night before Nowruz.
Sabzi Polo ba Mahi
- 2 cups white basmati rice, soaked for 1 hour and rinsed
- 8 1/4 cups water, divided
- 3 tablespoons salt, for parboiling the rice and will be rinsed out
- 2/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh dill
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped Nira (garlic chives), or chives
- 1 tablespoon Fenugreek leaves, dried
- 4 tablespoons ghee, butter or oil divided
- 1/4 teaspoon ground saffron, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
- 1 white-fleshed fish, sea bass, trout, sea bream, branzino
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper, ground
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric, ground
- 3 tablespoons oil
- In a large covered pot, bring 8 cups of water and the salt to a boil.
- Add the rinsed rice and boil on high heat uncovered for about 5-7 minutes, or until the rice has slightly softened.
- Drain the rice in a colander and quickly rinse with warm water.
- Remove about one cup of the parboiled rice and place it in a small bowl. Combine with 1 tablespoon of the saffron-water mixture and gently mix. Set aside.
- Place the remainder of the parboiled and strained rice in a mixing bowl.
- Add the chopped herbs to the rice and gently stir until the rice and herbs are mixed.
- Melt 2 tablespoons of ghee in a non-stick pot over low heat.
- Spread the saffron rice evenly in the bottom of the pot. This will be the crispy rice referred to as the Tahdig.
- Pour the remainder of the rinsed rice and herbs mixture into the pot and lightly fluff with a fork.
- Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons of ghee into pieces and evenly spread over the top of the rice.
- Pour 1/4 cup of water evenly over the top of the rice. Wrap the lid with a clean towel and place on top of the pot. This will allow the rice to steam.
- Steam the rice over a medium-low to medium heat for about 45-50 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving.
- About 15 minutes before the rice is ready begin preparing the fish.
- Rinse the fish under cool water and pat dry with paper towels. Season the fish with salt, pepper and turmeric all over, including the inside.
- Heat the oil in a large enough frying pan to fit the size of your fish and fry on medium-high heat for about 3-5 minutes on each side. The times will vary based on the size of the fish.
- The fish will become crispy and golden on the outside and remain flaky and tender on the inside.
- Select a large tray or platter to place upside down on top of the pan and carefully and swiftly invert the rice onto the platter.
- There are many ways to serve this rice. You can keep the rice and Tahdig as is and place the fried fish on top. Or you can remove the Tahdig and place it on a seperate plate while decoratively arranging the fish on top of the rice.
- Sabzi polo is often served with Persian pickled garlic and bitter orange. Otherwise a squeeze of lemon would also do the job!