Persian herb rice with fish, sabzi polo ba mahi, is a popular dish served for Nowruz, making use of fresh herbs that are a big part of the celebration. It's also a tasty, fresh and healthy meal that's delicious any time.
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Over the years, I have taken to making recipes that are traditional for various seasonal festivities, with Nowruz being up there as a favorite. I have gradually made various traditional favorites, from savory dishes like Persian herb fritatta, kuku sabzi and dolmeh barge mo - stuffed vine leaves, to sweet treats like Persian walnut cookies and Persian rice cookies.
This tasty fish and rice dish is another common part of the festivities, but it's definitely something you could enjoy any time.
What is Nowruz?
Nowruz (‘now’ meaning ‘new’ and ‘ruz’ meaning ‘day’ or originally ‘light’) is the celebration of the Spring Equinox. It originates in Iran, but is celebrated by a number of countries in the region, and is recognized by the UN.
You’ll find events for the festival in a number of major cities around the world - I'm hoping to maybe get to some of the events in Boston's MFA and I know New York and San Francisco also have things on. But even if you don’t have one near you, you can enjoy some of the foods for Nowruz at home.
Nowruz is an ancient tradition, and as such the specific celebrations vary from place to place and family to family. But there are some things that the majority of people do in some way.
Spring cleaning, public festivities, visiting family and neighbors and a decorative centerpiece in homes and public places (‘Haft Seen’) are part of most. Foods also vary, but many are symbolic such as eggs representing fertility, herbs for rebirth and fish for life.
The various visits to friends and family are often accompanied by cookies and other sweet treats. Legend goes that one of the Persian kings discovered sugar on Nowruz, and candy comes from the Persian word ‘qand’ for sugar.
Choosing and cooking the fish
The fish part ("mahi") of this dish varies a lot from one house to another. Some choose to bake, others grill or fry. The kind of fish can vary, too. Traditionally, it would be a kind of white fish found in the Caspian Sea, but other white fish or salmon are common as a replacement.
Here, I’ve gone for pan-frying fish fillets dredged in a seasoned flour with a little turmeric for color. I have made this with both salmon and pollock and both work well. I would say, the salmon holds together better but both work.
Generally, a relatively firm fish is best but you can use a range, such as haddock, bass or bream, as well as those mentioned.
Cooking Persian rice
The Persian method for cooking rice is a little different from most other places. It is a multi step process which may feel intimidating at first, but is really not that hard.
In short, you first par-boil the rice, drain it and rinse to stop the cooking. Then you cook it a second time but this time steaming slowly. This makes the bulk of the rice light and the grains separate well, while you get a crisp layer on the bottom.
Top tip: help the rice steam
When you add the rice for the second cook, make sure you make holes in the rice pile to help steam come out. Also, it's worth wrapping the lid of your pot with a dish cloth to help absorb steam and form a seal.
That crust on the bottom of the pan, the tahdig, becomes the top when you tip it out. In some cases this is just crisped rice, other times you add something to be the crisp layer such as thinly sliced potatoes or bread (lavash or pita). In all cases, it's probably the most prized part.
Here, I stuck with plain rice. I admit, the tahdig is something I still need to perfect but there’s a little of that here that is a lovely contrast to the tender fish and soft rice below.
Many choose to layer the rice and herbs, but I went for the easier and quicker mixing through. Do as you prefer, but make sure you don't skimp on herbs. Use at least what is listed below, more if anything.
Colorful, flavorful, and something the whole family can enjoy, Persian herb rice with fish, sabzi polo ba mahi, makes a tasty meal. It's easy to add to with salads (like shirazi salad), pickles and more and while you need a little patience, it's still easy and worth the wait.
Try these other fish dishes:
- Baked swordfish with asparagus, lentils and chermoula
- Goan fish curry
- Chard, lemon and couscous stuffed fish
- Plus get more seafood recipes in the archives.
Persian herb rice with fish - sabzi polo ba mahi
For rice -
- 1 cup basmati rice or other long grain rice
- 2 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro coriander
- 2 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoon finely chopped dill
- 2 tablespoon finely chopped green onions/scallions or chives
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon butter cut into chunks
For fish -
- 1 lb firm fish fillets eg salmon, pollock
- 2 tablespoon flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt or part/all garlic salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- 2 ½ tablespoon vegetable oil
- Wash the rice well in a number of changes of water until the water is almost clear when you rinse (around 4-5 changes of water). Finely chop the herbs and set aside.
- Boil a pot of water, at least 3 cups, and add the salt and the rice. Cover and bring to a boil, reduce heat so that the pot doesn’t boil over and cook for around 5min.
- Test the rice - it should be a little soft on the outside but still firm inside (‘al dente’). Drain in a colander, run under cold water (but on gentle pressure so it doesn't break up the rice). Mix the herbs through the rice.
- Return the pot to the heat and warm the oil over a medium heat. Place a layer of the rice over the bottom and flatten down slightly, then add the rest in a slight pyramid over the top. Make three to five holes in the rice to allow steam to escape such as with the handle of a wooden spoon. Dot the butter on top, put a cloth over the lid of the pan to catch the steam then cover.
- Start the heat on medium-high for around 5 - 10 minutes then reduce the heat to very low and cook for around 30 - 40 minutes in total.
- Meanwhile, mix together the flour, salt, pepper, turmeric on a plate (if you like, you can also add a little dill). Dredge the fish fillets in the seasoned flour on both sides and shake off any excess.
- Warm the oil in a large skillet and cook the fish for around 5 minutes on each side, depending on thickness of fillets, until cooked through.
- To serve the rice, try to cover the pan with a plate and invert it so you get the crust on top, or else make sure you get the crust (tahdig) from the pan to enjoy alongside everything else.
See some of my favorite cooking tools and ingredients in the Caroline's Cooking Amazon store.
This post was first shared in March 2018 and has been updated, primarily with new photos and added vided.