Why It Works
- Grinding the walnuts to the size of coarse cornmeal before simmering them adds velvety body and rich nutty flavor to the final dish.
- The pomegranate molasses adds acidity and a bit of sweetness, resulting in a unique sweet-and-sour flavor.
- Extensive variation notes explain how to make this recipe with chicken, duck, or as a vegetarian meal with eggplant or butternut squash.
Persian cuisine is famous for its slow-cooked meat braises. For centuries, braises have been an integral and expansive class of dishes within the Persian culinary landscape. The Persian word for a meat braise is khoresh (also called khoresht). There is a wide range of Persian khoreshes incorporating different types of meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, beans, and legumes, in addition to regional specialties and those requiring fresh short-lived seasonal ingredients.
One of the most famous khoreshes is fesenjān (a.k.a. fesenjoon or khoresh-e-fesanjān), a uniquely Persian sweet-and-sour meat braise that incorporates ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. The contrasting textures and flavors of the pomegranate molasses and the ground walnuts come together to create a thick and rich braise with an eye-catching dark brown color and subtle sweet-and-sour flavor. This type of gentle sweet-and-sour flavor is characteristic of several Persian dishes. In fact, there is a single word for it in Persian: malass.
The dish’s fame comes in part from the fact that prior to the 20th century, fesenjān was known as the “food of royals” because its ingredients were considered luxurious and therefore beyond the reach of most people. Since the early 20th century, with the inclusion of its recipe in early contemporary Persian-language cookbooks specifically written for home cooks, and as some ingredients have become more widely available and affordable, fesenjān has become one of the most famous and popular Persian khoreshes, both in Iran and the Iranian diaspora. As such, some refer to fesenjān as the queen of Persian dishes.
Despite its royal reputation, fesanjān can be a simple dish to make. There are only three key ingredients: pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and meat, which collectively create a uniquely sumptuous dish. Although the most famous (and ancient) version is made with duck, it is equally delicious with lamb, beef, chicken, turkey, other fowl, fish, and even with tiny meatballs. Don’t be discouraged about the amount of time it takes to make this dish. Once everything is cooking in the pot, all you have to do is let it simmer gently on the stovetop.
For those who subscribe to ancient culinary humoral principles and practices, as some Persians still do (where warm, cold, dry, and moist temperaments were assigned to ingredients and dishes), Fesenjān is considered a neutral dish, as the “coldness” of pomegranate is balanced by the “warmness” of walnut.
History of Fesenjān
Fesenjān and its key ingredients have a long legacy in Persian cookery. In the 1930s, archaeologists from the University of Chicago found clay tablets at the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 CBE), that listed pomegranates, walnuts, and poultry among the pantry staples of the early people of Iran.
The earliest documented description and recipe for the dish itself, as we know it today, are in two historical Persian-language cookbooks from the 1800s. One of these provides detailed recipes for two different versions of fesenjān and gives credit for the dish’s creation to the people living on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, where there were plenty of wild ducks. The second describes ten different versions of the dish.
Since ten different versions of fesenjān were well known back in the 1800s, it is safe to assume that the dish had been around much earlier than that. In fact, although not called fesenjān, there are descriptions of multiple braise-type dishes incorporating ground walnuts and pomegranate juice or syrup in the two oldest surviving Persian-language cookbooks from the 1600s.
In addition to its inclusion in historical Persian-language cookbooks, there is also a charming folktale about how fesenjān came about. It is said that Shah Tahmasp I, the second monarch of the Persian Safavid Dynasty (c. 1501-1736), having gotten tired of the green-colored dishes he was fond of, ordered his royal cook to prepare a brown dish for the next day’s lunch. That evening, the cook, in collaboration with his wife and their young daughter, came up with fesenjān, which was very much liked by the monarch the next day.
Fesenjān’s Role in persian Culture
Fesenjān is often served for family special occasions or to honor notable guests. It is also an essential part of some Persian wedding meals. Above all, fesenjān has a prominent place in the evening meal during Shab-e-Yaldā which is the Persianate world’s celebration of the winter solstice—the longest night of the year. Shab-e-Yaldā, which literally translates to “the night of Yalda,” is the second-most important cultural celebration in Persianate societies, second only to the Persian new year.
In addition to secular occasions, fesenjān is often served at a range of important religious ceremonies. It is a popular dish for the evening meal during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims, who are observing daily fasting, break their fast. For some Iranian Christians, it is a component of the Christmas Eve dinner. Fesenjān is also an important component on many Iranian Jewish Rosh Hashanah tables. In fact, recipes for fesanjān appear in many popular Jewish cookbooks, such as The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden, as well as in some Jewish community cookbooks, including one published by the Persian Hebrew Congregation of Skokie, Illinois, in 2015.
People living in the northern Iranian provinces of Gilān and Māzandarān, where fesenjān is said to have originated, like their fesenjān as dark as possible—almost black. Over centuries, they have come up with techniques and tricks to achieve the highest levels of darkness desired. The most interesting method involves the use of an iron horseshoe or an iron railroad track nail. After thoroughly cleaning the horseshoe or nail, the cook heats it over an open fire before throwing it into a simmering braise. The idea is that the acid of the pomegranate molasses and the tannins of the ground walnuts interact with the chunk of iron, darkening the color of the dish. I do not recommend you do this at home.
Beyond Iran and Iranian diaspora communities around the world, fesenjān is eaten with some frequency in neighboring counties of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, and the Parsi communities of India.
Fesenjān’s Key Ingredients
Pomegranate Molasses (Robb-é-Anār)
The pomegranate has been a player in the culinary habits of Persian societies for centuries. The most important pomegranate-based ingredient in Persian cookery, made from pomegranate juice, is robe-é-anār, known in the West as pomegranate molasses. Although it has been extremely popular in Persian communities for centuries (as well as Turkish, Azerbaijanian, Indian, and other cultures in these regions), it is lesser known to Western palates.
Culinarily speaking, pomegranate molasses is a juice that has been concentrated by very gentle boiling, which explains its Persian language name, robe-é-anār, where “robe” means thickened fruit and “anār” means pomegranate. This magical sweet-and-sour substance is made by gently boiling pure fresh pomegranate juice over an extended period until a deep, dark crimson syrup is formed. Pomegranate molasses is a key ingredient in Persian dishes including braises, soups, vegetable dishes, kabābs, fish dishes, condiments, and marinades.
High-quality, pure pomegranate molasses has a vibrant dark-crimson color. At room temperature, it has the consistency of a pourable thick syrup, similar to light corn syrup or honey. It has a sweet-and-sour taste, but it is more tart than sugary compared to that of other fruit molasses, such as date or grape molasses, because pomegranate fruit has less sugar than those. Its sourness also depends on the variety and ripeness of the pomegranates it was produced from.
Commercially produced pomegranate molasses is readily available in glass bottles from Persian and Middle Eastern markets, as well as in the international food aisles of well-stocked grocery stores. Unfortunately, many commercial producers add sugar to their bottled pomegranate molasses, and some boil theirs too fast and/or too hot, resulting in a color that is more dark caramel brown than the desired vibrant dark crimson. Since there is no enforced standardization for pomegranate molasses, you will find brands that label their products as molasses, concentrate, syrup, or paste. Moreover, some brands have multiple versions with different viscosities and different sugar contents. For example, Sadaf brand has both a “concentrate” and a “molasses” version, whereas Cortas brand has both a “no-sugar-added” and a “sugar-added” version. Examine the list of ingredients for added sugar, then tip the bottle while holding it against a light source to get a feel both for its color and its consistency. My recommendation is to look for a product that has little-to-no added sugar, a thick but pourable consistency (not like ketchup but more like honey), and a gorgeous dark crimson color.
Although it’s a bit time consuming and requires patience, pomegranate molasses can be made at home, either from whole pomegranates that you juice yourself or from commonly available pomegranate juice such as those from the Pom brand. The advantage of homemade pomegranate molasses is that you are certain it has no added sugar, and if you take your time cooking it down, it will have a beautiful scarlet color. As a side note, if you end up making your own pomegranate molasses, in addition to using it to make a fesenjān, you can also use it to drizzle on top of fresh green leaf salads or over grilled vegetables.
After pistachios, walnuts are the most important nut that one would find in a typical Persian pantry. This is not surprising, as the origin of the common walnut that you find in a grocery store goes back to ancient Persia.
Ground walnuts are a key ingredient of fesenjān. Among Persian home cooks, regional and personal preferences dictate how finely the walnuts are ground, ranging from pea-size bits down to a paste. My preference is someplace in between—about the size of coarse cornmeal. I want my tongue to feel the ground walnuts, but I don’t want to have to use my teeth to chew them!
Choice of Meat
I do not know of any other Persian khoresh that is amenable to so many different kinds of meat—duck, beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, other fowl, fish, and even tiny meatballs. Yes, the duck version is the most famous and most prestigious. However, it is somewhat involved and time-consuming to prepare and trickier to get right, given that it involves breaking down a whole duck and cooking its different parts for different amounts of time (that said, you will find instructions for how to use duck in the variations section below). If this is your first time making fesenjān, it’s better to try lamb or beef, as they are quicker and easier to prepare.
The best cuts of lamb for Persian-style braising are leg, shoulder, neck, and shank. My everyday go-to cut for braising is lamb leg. It is a hardworking muscle with plenty of intramuscular fat and connective tissue that breaks down during a long braise, creating a texture that is moist and tender.
If you decide to go with beef, the best cuts of beef for braising include chuck, bone-in short rib, shanks, and as a treat, oxtail.
Signs of a Proper Braise
An important concept in Persian cookery—particularly with braising—is called “ja-oftādan.” There is no single good English word that it translates to. It is that ultimate desired stage of a braise where all the ingredients are thoroughly integrated, or “married” together. There is no free-flowing watery clear liquid, ingredients do not sink to the bottom of the pot, all meat has reached the “falling off the bone” stage (even if there is no bone in the dish), and any fat in the dish has become stained by the pigments of other ingredients, appearing as shiny pools on the surface of the braise.
You can tell fesenjān has reached its desired final stage when it has achieved a deep brown color similar to that of dark brown sugar; chunks of meat are poking out of their thick surroundings; and pools of translucent, shiny, almost neon-green oil, released naturally by the walnuts, are circling the pot.
People living in the Iranian northern provinces of Gilān and Māzandarān, where fesenjān is said to have originated, tend to like it sourer than others, and therefore they use locally sourced pomegranate molasses made from wild pomegranate trees of the region, which have a much more tart juice. People who live in and around Tehran are known to prefer their fesenjān slightly sweeter, so they add a bit of sugar to the braise. In the central and southern regions of Iran, fesenjān has a sweeter taste from the addition of date or grape syrup. My recipe is more like the version preferred by the Tehranites.
Make sure to take good notes while making fesenjān for the first time, so that you can adjust things in future batches. In particular, keep track of the tartness and consistency of the pomegranate molasses you use, the resulting sweet-tart flavor of the final dish, and the coarseness of the walnuts you grind.
Common Fesenjān Variations and How to Adapt This Recipe to Make Them
I do not know of any other Persian khoresh (braise) that has so many proven variations. Here are examples of how this braise may be adapted.
- Other Types of Nuts: Various regions of Iran make fesenjān using other types of nuts. Pistachios, almonds, or hazelnuts can be used in place of the walnuts to make an extraordinarily flavorful braise.
- Vegetarian: There are two popular vegetarian versions where the meat is replaced with eggplant or butternut squash. For the eggplant version: In step 2, omit the meat and instead peel an equal amount by weight of eggplant. Cut them in half lengthwise, then pan-fry them until deep orange-brown color, about 10 minutes. In step 6, let the water, onion, and walnut mixture simmer for 45 minutes, then add the eggplant and continue to simmer for another 45 minutes. For the butternut squash version: In step 2, omit the meat and use about 1 pound of peeled and seeded butternut squash that’s been cut into 1-inch cubes. In step 6, let the water, onion, and walnut mixture simmer for 30 minutes, then add the squash and continue to simmer for another 60 minutes.
- Meatballs: Thoroughly mix 1 pound (500g) ground lamb or beef, 1 grated small onion, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric together in a large bowl, then form into 1-inch meatballs. In step 2, omit the meat and instead pan-fry the meatballs in batches until browned all over, 8 to 10 minutes. In step 6, let the water, onion, and walnut mixture simmer for 30 minutes before adding the meatballs. Continue to simmer for another 60 minutes
- Chicken Parts: Chicken fesenjān can be made with chicken drumsticks or boneless skinless chicken breasts, or a small whole chicken. If using drumsticks: In step 2, substitute 4 or 5 chicken drumsticks for the meat. In step 6, let the water, onion, and walnut mixture simmer for 45 minutes before adding the drumsticks. Continue to simmer for 45 minutes. Traditionally, if fesenjān is made with chicken or duck drumsticks in it, the drumsticks are prominently displayed in the serving platter. If using boneless skinless chicken breasts: Substitute 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks, for the meat. Omit the browning in step 2. In step 6, let the water, onion, and walnut mixture simmer for 45 minutes before adding the chicken breasts. Continue to simmer for another 45 minutes.
- Whole Bone-In Duck or Chicken: Cut up a whole bone-in duck or chicken into its primary parts (6 to 8 pieces). In step 2, omit meat and brown all poultry parts including the backbone and neck, in batches if needed. In a Dutch oven, add browned poultry pieces, 3 cups water, 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric. Bring to boil over high heat, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 1 hour. Remove the two drumsticks and set aside. Continue to simmer until meat is falling off the bone, about 30 minutes. Remove poultry pieces and let cool slightly. Remove the skin and bones from the cooked pieces, leaving the two drumsticks untouched. Proceed with step 1, skipping the browning of the meat and using the liquid that the poultry pieces had been cooked instead of water that has been called for in the primary recipe. Once the dish has been simmering for 45 minutes, add both drumsticks and the deboned cooked duck meat and simmer for another 45 min.
- Just the Sauce: It’s time to give away a semi-secret that is often used in some Persian restaurants in the diaspora. Follow the primary recipe and skip all references to meat. You will end up with a thick, savory, deep-brown, nutty, sweet-and-sour fesenjān “sauce.” You can make large batches of it days or weeks ahead of time. When you want to serve a fesenjān-sort-of-a-dish, warm up a couple of ladles full of the sauce and pour over pieces of cooked meat.
How to Serve Fesenjān
Like practically all other Persian khoreshes, fesenjān is best served with Persian steamed white rice (chelow), along with a few pieces of Persian crunchy rice (tahdig). Alternatively, fesenjān can be accompanied with a variety of Persian flatbreads (e.g., lavāsh, sangak, tāftoon, babari) or another type of flat bread such as pita.
Here is a secret for enjoying leftover fesenjān that I grew up with (although I have since seen a reference to it in one Persian language cookbook): Spread several spoonsful of leftover cold fesenjān on your favorite bread, making a cold sandwich. It’s perfect as a snack as well as for a picnic.
Given the richness of fesenjān, a side of Persian Shirāzi salad, Persian māst-o-khiār (chopped or grated cucumber, yogurt, crushed dried mint leaves), and/or the ubiquitous Persian plate of fresh herbs called sabzi-khordan (any combination of fresh mint, tarragon, Thai basil, watercress, scallion, radish) is customary, but not necessary.