A Persian Roast Chicken: From Mom, With Love

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Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.

As my maman was running her hands through the ruby-red barberries to sort out any small pebbles or sticks, she took a glance at me and said, “I think I’m going to make these with shredded chicken today. I’m feeling like it.”

She was talking about zereshk polo morgh, a traditional Persian dish made from barberries, chicken, and saffron and served with, of course, rice. The combination of barberries and saffron rice with perfectly seasoned and cooked chicken is so hard to resist. As a kid, the sourness of the barberries was the best part of the whole dish, as it beautifully balanced the other base flavors. Not to mention that the bright red color made the dish look glorious.

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As simple as zereshk polo is, it taught me so much about cooking. Every time my maman would make it, I’d learn a new aspect of cooking, and in turn a new aspect of life.

We’d go through each grain and berry, because sometimes we’d find small sticks and stones among them. While doing this, Maman used to say, “Make sure you pick and throw away all the bad stuff.”

The next step was washing the rice and barberries. My maman would rinse each item separately, soaking the rice for about 30 minutes to an hour and, meanwhile, letting the barberries dry in a colander.

After the rice was soaked, my maman would cook it in a pot with some salt and oil. If we had time and were craving tahdig, then she’d make the saffron-scented rice with the delicious scorched bottom. Meanwhile, we’d sauté the barberries in some butter or oil and a pinch of sugar and salt to balance the flavors. We always had some freshly brewed saffron on hand, but if we didn’t, my maman would ask me to grind saffron threads and sprinkle them over a few cubes of ice (this is her iconic saffron-blooming method). Once the rice was ready, we’d take a few tablespoons of it and mix it with the bloomed saffron, saving it until we were ready to serve the meal.

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Maman would make the chicken for zereshk polo in different ways. Sometimes she’d shred a couple of cooked chicken breasts and mix them with the barberries and sometimes she’d cook a whole chicken or chicken pieces seasoned with spices, including, of course, saffron. This would completely depend on what we had on hand and what my maman felt like cooking that day.

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This one simple dish taught me so many of the techniques I use in my kitchen every day: from making the rice to cooking the barberries and making the most flavorful chicken. It also taught me that good food comes with so much love and you can show people you love them by simply pouring your heart into a dish you’re making.

Once I got married, the first dish I made for my husband Kyle was this barberry rice with chicken. It instantly became his favorite dish because it was cooked with lots of love and lots of saffron.

Years later, as I’m cooking this dish thousands of miles away from my maman, I hear her words in my head: ”Barberries burn quickly so keep stirring and lower the heat.” I picture my 5-year-old self trying to reach up to the counter while standing on my tippy toes so I can get a spoonful of that gorgeous sautéed barberries before lunch. My maman would look at me with a smile, grab a spoon and fill it with barberries and saffron rice and give it to me.

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If there were ever a dish that could sum up my mother’s love for me, then it’d probably be zereshk polo.

Maman taught me how to make food, but more importantly, she taught me how to be myself in the kitchen, how not to be afraid of going my own way. She taught me to put a little bit of myself into each of my dishes, even the ones I’ve learned from her, and to always cook with love.

For that look on my loved ones’ faces when they have their mouths full of barberries and rice, I’d do anything. It’s worth the whole world, and then some.

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