“It is one of the ancient dishes, it predates Islam, and today you can find fesenjan in every region of Iran,” says Iranian culinary historian and cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij. “In some regions, it’s made with meatballs or lamb or even fish. In some parts they add orange zest, whole pomegranate seeds, butternut squash or dried apricots. But it originated in the north of Iran.”
Northern Iran, where the country kisses the Caspian Sea, is fertile land. Wild ducks are hunted along the shores and fruit and nut trees thrive there, so it’s not such a surprise that, centuries ago, these three ingredients ended up in the same dish.
When Batmanglij was writing her newest book, “Cooking in Iran,” she visited the home of a cook in Rasht, the capital city of Gilan province in Northern Iran, who served her an especially memorable fesenjan. “It was made with poultry, sour pomegranates and no sugar, and — this was very special — they like their fesenjan almost black, and do you know how they achieve that dark color?” Batmanglij pauses.
“They drop an iron horseshoe into the pot! It is said that the iron increases the oxidation of the nuts and fruit, and adds nutrition,” Batmanglij says, noting that some cooks make the dish in an unglazed cast-iron pot for a similar effect. The dark-as-night fesenjan was then served over smoked rice, creating an intoxicating, alchemical aroma, incense-like, holy and fortifying.
Although fesenjan is defined by its complex flavors, it’s not a difficult or particularly time-consuming dish to make at home. In its most basic form, walnuts are toasted and ground into a fine powder or paste. They go into a pot along with pomegranate molasses or reduced pomegranate juice, water and a few spices. Seasoned and sometimes seared meat or poultry is added — though this is not strictly necessary, as the walnuts add plenty of protein — and the mixture is cooked over a low flame until the meat is tender, the liquid has reduced, and the nuts have thickened the sauce and released their fat and flavor.
Seasonality is central in the rule book of Persian cuisine — which shares elements with other Asian cuisines that originated in the same era. Foods are categorized as sardi (cooling) or garmi (warming). Cooling foods are meant to be eaten in the summer, whereas warming foods, including fesenjan, are to be eaten during the cold days of winter.
The pomegranate harvest is here — it’s the season for fesenjan.
Traditionally, Iranian khoreshts are simmered for hours. But if you start with a couple of shortcuts, there’s no need to spend so much time at the stove. Pomegranate molasses — which can be found in the sweetener or syrup section of most supermarkets — helps reduce the cooking time, as does using chicken legs instead of larger cuts of meat.
This dish is good when freshly made, but it’s even better the next day. If you’ve never made fesenjan before, it’s worth preparing this recipe as-written at least once before playing around with it. When you’re feeling comfortable with the technique, here are some options:
- For a vegan fesenjan >> omit the chicken and use olive oil instead of ghee and date sugar instead of honey.
- I love the caramelized onions in this, but if you are sensitive to onions >> don’t use them.
- If you cannot track down pomegranate molasses >> in a large pot over medium heat, reduce a quart of pomegranate juice down to 8 ounces. (This may take awhile!)
- Can’t eat pomegranates? >> It won’t be traditional, but you can use cranberry juice or puree instead.
- Allergic to walnuts? >> This dish will also work with pistachios, cashews, pecans or blanched almonds, though the flavor will be different.
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- 1 1/2 cups (5 ounces) walnut halves
- 2 pounds chicken drumsticks (4 to 6), patted dry
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea or table salt, plus more as needed
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons ghee or olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces), coarsely grated
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup (8 ounces) pomegranate molasses (see headnote)
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon honey or granulated sugar, plus more as needed (optional)
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more as needed
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Toasted walnut halves, fresh pomegranate arils and thin strips of orange zest for garnish (optional)
- Cooked white rice, preferably basmati, for serving
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
Spread the walnut halves on a large, rimmed baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes, or until fragrant. Let cool completely, then grind them to a fine powder or paste in a nut grinder or food processor.
Meanwhile, season the chicken with the salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
In a large, lidded pot or Dutch oven over high heat, melt the ghee or heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the chicken, nestling the pieces into the pot in one layer, and let them brown on one side, 2 to 4 minutes, before flipping and cooking on the other side for another 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer the partially cooked chicken to a plate/bowl.
Add the grated onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until light golden brown, about 4 minutes. Stir in the ground walnuts, letting them warm up until you can smell them, about 1 minute.
Add the water, pomegranate molasses, tomato paste, honey or sugar, if using, lemon juice and cinnamon. Stir, to ensure the sauce is homogeneous, then add the chicken back to the pot. Bring the sauce to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover and bring to a steady simmer. Cook, adjusting the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, uncovering to stir periodically so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot, until the sauce is reduced by about one-third, thickened and some of the fat has risen to the surface, about 45 minutes. The sauce should coat the chicken pieces, be quite thick and deep burgundy in color and when you drag your spoon through it, you should be able to get a glimpse of the bottom of the pot. If your sauce isn’t as thick as it should be, simmer uncovered a little longer. Taste, and adjust the flavor with more salt, honey or lemon juice, if desired.
Remove from the heat, garnish with the walnut halves, pomegranate arils and orange zest, if desired, and serve family-style, with rice.
Per serving (1 or 2 drumsticks and 1 cup of sauce), based on 4
Calories: 787; Total Fat: 47 g; Saturated Fat: 11 g; Cholesterol: 140 mg; Sodium: 429 mg; Carbohydrates: 58 g; Dietary Fiber: 5 g; Sugars: 21 g; Protein: 37 g.
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
From staff writer G. Daniela Galarza.
Tested by Jim Webster; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Catch up on this week’s Eat Voraciously newsletter recipes:
Monday: Turkey Tortilla Soup
Wednesday: Sweet Potato, Corn and Jalapeno Bisque