Fesenjan is an easy and delicious Persian stew. The pomegranate and walnut sauce makes it hearty and with an unusual sweet-tangy flavor. Plus, it's great to make ahead.
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One of the things I love about the colder months is enjoying comforting soups, stews and braised dishes. Not only are they great to warm you up, but so many of them are ideal to make ahead as well.
Some favorites include braised lamb shanks, Catalan fish stew and youvetsi, but we're always happy to add new ones. I've wanted to try fesenjan for a while and as I predicted, we loved it. The sauce is rich from ground walnuts and with an unusual sweet-tart flavor from pomegranate molasses.
It's a classic Persian dish which deserves to be better known.
Where is fesenjan from?
Khoresh-e Fesenjān, or fesenjan for short (sometimes spelt fesenjoon), is a stew (khoresh) from Iran. It is believed to originate from the Gilan region near the Caspian sea and has been around since the Persian empire.
The Gilan region is known for it's ducks, and so it's maybe no surprise that this dish is sometimes made with duck. Chicken, as I have used here, is also popular, or you can find a meatball version. You will also find it made with fish or vegetables, but these are less common.
I feel like I say this with nearly all traditional recipes, but as might not be a surprise, ingredients vary. You'll find onion, ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup (also called molasses) in virtually all versions. Some also add aromatic spices and maybe some garlic.
Pomegranate in Persian cooking
Some food historians believe pomegranates originated in Iran. They have certainly taken on broad cultural significance in the region, symbolizing immortality and fertility in Persian culture. Ancient Greeks apparently considered the pomegranate a royal fruit and it has religious significance in both Islam and Christianity as well.
The fruit is often part of the Persian Yalda festival, which celebrates the shortest day of the year in December. You may also find them as part of the "haft seen" for Nowruz.
Fesenjan may indeed be served around that time if the weather is cooler. It is often considered a special occasion dish.
Tehran hosts a pomegranate festival every year in October which celebrates the fruit. Iran is the largest exporter of pomegranate in the world and second-largest producer. There are apparently over 700 varieties, varying from very tart to sweeter.
Iranian cuisine uses pomegranate in all forms - the fresh fruit, as juice and as pomegranate syrup/molasses.
What is pomegranate molasses?
Pomegranate molasses, or pomegranate syrup, is made by reducing pomegranate juice down until it is a thick syrup. Since pomegranates can vary in how sweet or tart they are, so too can pomegranate molasses. Some brands are also thicker than others.
As a result, how sweet or tart fesenjan is can vary depending on the pomegranate molasses that you use. Some people also prefer it a bit sweeter and may add a little sugar along with the other ingredients if the pomegranate is not as sweet.
As well as being used in this stew, you'll find pomegranate molasses used in other Persian dishes, such as as a glaze and in salads. It's a popular ingredient in Turkish cooking as well, such as in kisir, a Turkish bulgar salad.
Walnuts are also popular in Persian cooking. They used to be traded along the Silk Road route and appear in dishes like salads as well as Persian walnut cookies (nan-e gerdui).
The key to using walnuts in this dish is that you need to cook them long enough to release some of their natural oils. This gives them a more rounded, slightly sweet flavor to balance out the tartness of the pomegranate.
You do need a lot of them for this dish, since you grind them and they thicken the stew. As a result, this is not exactly a low calorie meal, but the slight indulgence is worth it.
How to serve fesenjan
You typically serve this with rice, a popular Persian side. Here you might serve steamed white rice, saffron rice or a more complex Persian rice dish with tahdig (a kind of crisp topping taken from the bottom of the pan).
Fesenjan may not be as well known in the West, but I can completely understand why it's so popular in Iranian culture. It's hearty, comforting and with a deliciously different flavor that's easy to enjoy.
Try these other Persian recipes:
- Persian herb rice with fish (sabzi polow mahi)
- Kuku sabzi (herb frittata)
- Persian sweet rice - shirin polow
- Dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves)
- Plus get more Persian recipes in the archives.
Fesenjan (Persian pomegranate and walnut stew)
- 1 ½ lb chicken thighs - on the bone 675g
- ½ large onion
- 1 cup walnuts 100g
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- ½ cup light stock 120ml, eg chicken
- Salt and pepper to taste may not need salt, depending on your stock
- ½ cup pomegranate molasses 120ml, also called pomegranate syrup, or a little less, if it is very thick
- Remove the skin from the chicken and trim any excess fat. Dice the onion.
- Put the walnuts in a food processor and grind until they are relatively fine, like breadcrumbs.
- Warm the oil in a pan wide enough to hold all of the pieces of chicken in a single layer and brown the chicken on all sides. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Add the onion to the pan and cook a few minutes, stirring now and then until it has softened. Then, add the ground walnuts and cook a minute or two to toast slightly.
- Add the stock to the pan, stir to mix and season with a little salt and pepper, then add back the chicken. Press the chicken pieces under the sauce then bring to a simmer, cover and reduce the heat a little. Allow to simmer around 20 minutes until you see oils coming to the surface a little.
- Add the pomegranate molasses, stir well then simmer gently for an additional 10 minutes. Take care not to let the mixture burn on the bottom of the pan. Serve, topped with fresh pomegranate if you like for decoration.
You can make the dish ahead and reheat. You can either make it up to just before you add the pomegranate molasses, or make it completely. If the latter, just take care re-heating as the pomegranate molasses can burn if they get too hot.
I initially made this with ¾ cup of stock rather than ½ cup. This ensures the chicken is better submerged as it simmers, but I think gives a little too much sauce in the end so needs a bit of time uncovered to allow it to reduce, before adding the pomegranate molasses. Choose whichever way you prefer.
You can use boneless chicken thighs, if you prefer, but the meat on the bone adds to the flavor.
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I first shared the recipes for Fesenjan (Persian pomegranate chicken stew) on Curious Cuisiniere where I am a contributor.