Sabzi polo ba mahi

(pan-fried fish with herbed saffron rice)

Fish with herbed saffron rice is a classic, symbolic dish every Iranian family makes for Persian new year. The herbed rice represents rebirth, and the fish symbolizes life. I’ve eaten it every year as long as I can remember, and though some families roast a whole fish, my grandmother’s method (below) of simply coating fish fillets in an egg wash and pan-frying until crispy is the most delicious way of preparing fresh whitefish from Iran’s Caspian Sea. It’s light, delicately flavoured, and tastes like spring in your mouth. Squeeze a Seville orange on the fish right before serving. Noosh-e Jan! (bon appétit!)

Rice (tah-dig)

It might seem like more work, but this three-step process (long rinse, short boiling time, then steaming in shape of a pyramid) not only results in perfectly cooked rice, it also creates a crispy, buttery golden crust called tah-dig (bottom of pot) that my family fights over every time.

  • 3 c basmati rice
  • ½ c chives or scallions, chopped
  • 2 c fresh dill, chopped
  • 2½ c parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 2 c fresh coriander, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • ¾ c clarified butter ghee, or oil
  • 2 T plain yogurt
  • 1 t ground saffron, dissolved in 4 T hot water

Wash and rinse the rice in warm water, 3-5 times. Soak the rice in 8 cups water, with 2 tablespoons salt for at least 2 hours.

In a large bowl, combine chopped herbs and crushed garlic.

Bring 8 cups water and 2 T salt to a boil in a large, non-stick pot. Pour the washed and drained rice into the pot, and boil briskly for 6 to 10 minutes, gently stirring a couple of times to ensure none sticks to the bottom of the pot.

Bite a few grains. If the rice feels soft and al-dente, it’s ready. Drain it in a large fine-mesh colander, and rinse with lukewarm water.

In the same pot, heat butter and 2 T water.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine two ladles of rice, the yogurt and one drop of saffron water. Spread the mixture evenly over the bottom of the buttered pot to create a golden crust.

Place two more ladles of rice in the pot. Top with one ladle of herb-and-garlic mixture. Repeat, alternating layers of rice and herbs, into the shape of a pyramid. The shape allows the rice to steam properly and expand.

Cover, and cook for 10 minutes over medium heat.

Pour remaining melted butter and half the remaining saffron water and another ½ cup hot water over the pyramid.

Place a clean tea towel over the pot and cover firmly with its lid, to prevent steam from escaping. Cook for 45 minutes longer over low heat.


  • 1 lg white-fleshed fish, about 3 pounds, cut into 6 fillets (or buy 6 fillets of basa or halibut)
  • ¼ t each salt, black pepper, turmeric, chili powder
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • juice of 2 bitter (Seville) oranges, or 2 limes to spritz on the fish

Wash and pat dry fish.

Lightly beat the eggs in a shallow bowl, along with the spices.

Pan fry fish on both sides in 3-4 T oil or butter in a skillet over medium heat, until crispy on the outside, and tender inside, about 3-5 minutes per side, depending on thickness; add more oil if necessary.

To serve, place the fish over a large platter of herbed rice, drizzle rice with remaining saffron water, and sprinkle fish with the orange or lime juice.

Serves 6.