|Fesenjun - pestle & mortar and saffron to the left.|
When I was a wee boy, probably about the age my son is now (7), I remember being confronted by a dish that my aunt had made at her home in London. "That's mud, isn't it?" I said, without meaning to be funny, but everyone laughed and they still laugh about it. The mud was an ancient dish from Iran called Fesenjan. It was by far the most delicious mud I had ever tasted.
I don't recall eating Fesenjan again until a few years ago when I spotted it on the menu of an excellent restaurant called Paradise in Glasgow. That was very different from the one my aunt had made, much more sweet and sour, so much so that I imagine that it would over- challenge too many people's palettes. Sadly it probably did, as it doesn't appear on their menu any more.
Some months back I started cooking recipes I found in a Persian cookbook my wife had bought on a trip to California (where there are many Iranians). At first I didn't spot the recipe for Fesenjan, but when I did I had a go at cooking it. The first try was good, but not quite as dramatic and intense as I had wanted, so I tried again and ended up with the recipe I described below. I've cooked it for quite a few friends now and it seems to go down very well and it really is quite different from anything they've tried before.
Fesenjan is really made distinctive by the combination of walnuts and pomegranate. It is most commonly served with chicken, but duck, beef or vegetables can all be substituted. I don't recall what my aunt put in it, but there were no large lumps of meat, so I wonder if she used minced beef or even lamb. I intend to experiment with that for the true muddy consistency.
Fesejan - serves 6
- 2 finely sliced medium onions
- 1kg of chicken, legs and thighs preferred
- 1 litre of pomegranate juice
- 300g of walnuts, ground in food processor
- 1 tsp saffron, ground in a pestle and mortar
- 1 butternut squash cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1 tbsp of muscavado sugar
- juice of one lime or lemon
- some pomegranate seeds and some unground walnuts for garnish
- In a large deep-sided pot, fry the onion in a few tablespoons of olive oil, and add the chicken and butternut squash after a few minutes. After a few more minutes of stir frying, turn the heat down and cover it while you prepare the sauce.
- Put the ground walnuts in a bowl with the pomegranate juice and lime or lemon juice and sugar.
- Dissolve the saffron in a tablespoon or two of hot water (as much as it will dissolve) and pour into the bowl and mix it.
- Pour the contents of the bowl into the pan with the onion, squash and chicken.
- Cook on a low heat, uncovered for 2 hours. Stir every 15 minutes or so to avoid the walnuts burning. The sauce should reduce and thicken quite a bit, but if you like it a bit more runny and less intense in flavour, you can put a lid on it for some of the time.
- Garnish with pomegranate seeds and unground walnuts and serve with rice.