This barberry rice (aka zereshk polo) is a popular Persian side served commonly with chicken, but pairs well with any flavorful main.
Fluffy spiced rice combined with barberries and saffron create a dish that's as vibrant in taste as it is in appearance.
Here are some helpful notes on ingredients you'll need. See the recipe card below for exact quantities.
- Rice – I prefer basmati but any long-grain white variety will do. A parboiled variety of basmati (called basmati sella) is what's used in most Middle Eastern restaurants but it needs at least 2 hours of soak time (I've used it here).
- Saffron – not only imparts a beautiful golden hue but also adds a delightful aromatic flavor. A tiny amount goes a long way so don't be deterred by the price. But beware of the fake products. I get mine from Middle Eastern grocery stores or Costco.
- Dried barberries (aka zereshk) – these tiny, tart, ruby-red berries are a staple in Persian cooking. They add a delightful, surprise-in-your-mouth kind of sourness. Look for them in the Iranian or Middle Eastern grocery stores – or online.
- Cooking oil – olive oil or any cooking oil you prefer.
- Rose water – for a subtle floral note. Make sure it's food-grade. Widely available in Middle Eastern, Indian and Pakistani stores – and online. If looking for more ways to use it, check out my cardamom milk and rose hot chocolate recipes.
- Chicken bouillon – for some depth of flavor. I use paste/concentrate but granules, powder and cube work too. Just make sure you're using the right amount to get one cup of broth for each cup of rice you're making (read the label).
- Seasonings – this includes salt, ground black pepper, garlic powder, ground cumin and ground cinnamon. They work together to give this dish its amazing taste.
- Water – for soaking and cooking rice, rehydrating barberries and preparing saffron-infused water.
- Butter – unsalted is better, but salted will be fine too as we are using a very small quantity.
- White sugar – a small quantity is needed to balance the tartness of the barberries.
How to make barberry rice (aka zereshk polo)
Follow these simple, photo-assisted instructions to prepare this recipe. Check out recipe card below for a printable version that has quantities, instructions and notes in one place.
Step 1 – add olive oil, rose water, bouillon paste/granules, salt, pepper, garlic powder, ground cumin, ground cinnamon to a saucepan with 1.5 cups water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Then add pre-soaked and drained rice. Stir briefly, cover with lid and cook 5 to 7 minutes or until most of the water is absorbed.
Step 2 – to check if it's time for next step, remove the lid and look for small holes with bubbles on the surface (like you see in the photo above). If present, mix the rice gently, cover and reduce heat to low. Let it steam exactly 10 minutes. Then turn off the heat, remove the saucepan from burner but keep it covered. Rest it for 10 minutes.
Step 3 – meanwhile, melt butter in a pan over low heat. Add soaked and drained barberries and stir 2 minutes.
Step 4 – add sugar and saffron infused water and stir for 1 more minute. Turn off the heat.
Step 5 – spoon out around ¼ cup of cooked rice from the saucepan (after the resting time is finished) and add it to the pan containing barberries. Gently mix and continue until all the rice has turned yellow.
Step 6 – transfer the cooked white rice from the saucepan to a serving dish/plate, top with the yellow barberry rice and serve!
- Rice overcooked or undercooked – it's super important to get the heat and timing right. If your rice is mushy, you may have cooked it longer or used more water than mentioned. Also important is to not skip the soaking step and to avoid removing the lid during the steaming and resting steps. Trust the process.
- Burnt barberries – use low heat and stir constantly as you cook them. They can burn quickly because of their small size.
- Very tart barberries – these are naturally sour but feel free to add a bit more sugar as you cook them.
Substitutions and variations
- Saffron substitute – a pinch of turmeric can be used for color – but it won't taste or smell the same.
- Barberry alternatives – dried cranberries or currants can be used – flavor will change though. Chop them up a bit for a balanced taste in each bite.
- Rose water replacement – you can skip it or use a few drops of orange blossom water instead.
- Seasoning tweaks – feel free to add a pinch of ground cardamom or nutmeg for an interesting twist.
- Broth instead of water – if you don't have bouillon paste/granules, use chicken or vegetable broth instead of water.
- Vegan modifications – replace the chicken bouillon with vegetable bouillon and use vegan butter instead of regular one.
- Nut topping – garnish the rice with slivered almonds or pistachios for a very traditional Persian style presentation.
- Spice – add a pinch of red pepper flakes or a small amount of diced fresh chili in the rice for a little heat.
What to serve it with
- Chicken – Persian style chicken cooked in a saffron and tomato sauce is my go-to pairing. But baked or pan cooked chicken works too.
- Veggies – opt for a colorful array of roasted vegetables like bell peppers, zucchini, carrots and/or cherry tomatoes.
- Kebabs – skewers of succulently grilled kebabs (beef, lamb or chicken) seasoned with a blend of spices.
- Stews/curries/tagine – because saucy dishes are the perfect accompaniment to this rice side.
- Fish/seafood – think baked fish or pan cooked shrimp – with bright and fresh flavors.
Storage and reheating
- Storage – put leftover barberry rice in an airtight container and refrigerate up to 4 days. For longer storage, freeze in a freezer safe container or resealable bag for up to 2 months.
- Reheating – sprinkle some water on top and microwave in 30 second intervals until warmed through. Mix after each spurt. For frozen rice, increase microwave time as needed. You can also reheat thawed rice on the stove with a bit of water on low heat – just stir occasionally.
Just so you know
- Barberry rice (zereshk polo) holds a special place in Persian cuisine and is often served during celebrations and family gatherings. It's mostly paired with chicken but can also be served with lamb, beef or fish.
- Barberries are also used in other Iranian dishes like Morasa Polo (jeweled rice), Khoresh-e Zereshk (barberry stew) and Tahchin (saffron rice cake).
For barberry rice
- 1 cup (185 g) long grain white rice - I prefer basmati
- 10 threads saffron
- 3 tablespoons dried barberries - aka zereshk (Note A)
- 1.5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon rose water - (Note B)
- 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon paste/base - or granulated/powdered bouillon
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 pinch ground cinnamon
- 1.5 cups (355 ml) water - for cooking rice
- 2 teaspoons (10 g) butter
- ½ teaspoon granulated white sugar
- Rinse the rice under cold running water using a fine mesh strainer until the water runs clear. Soak it in room temperature water for 30 minutes, then strain.
- Grind the saffron threads in a mortar and pestle or crush in a small bowl using the back of a spoon. Then add 2 tablespoons warm water and set aside to steep.
- Also rinse the barberries using the strainer and soak in ½ cup room temperature water for 15 minutes. Then drain the water and set aside.
- Add olive oil, rose water, bouillon paste/granules, salt, pepper, garlic powder, ground cumin, ground cinnamon and 1.5 cups water to a saucepan.
- Bring to a boil over high heat. Then add drained rice, give a quick mix and cover with lid.
- Cook for 5 to 7 minutes or until the rice has absorbed most of the water (not all). Be watchful during this time – if it starts to spill, briefly lift the lid to let steam escape – then cover again.
- To check if it's time for next step, remove the lid and look for small holes with bubbles on the surface. If you see this, give the rice a gentle mix and cover again.
- Now reduce the heat to the lowest setting and let the rice steam exactly 10 minutes. It's important not to remove the lid during this step.
- Next – turn off the heat, remove the saucepan from burner but don't remove the lid. Let the rice rest covered for 10 minutes so it can finish cooking with the residual heat.
- Meanwhile, melt butter in a pan over low heat. Then add drained barberries and stir continuously for 2 minutes – careful not to burn them.
- Add sugar and saffron infused water and stir for 1 more minute. Turn off the heat.
- Spoon out roughly ¼ cup of cooked rice from the saucepan (after the resting time is finished) and add it to the pan containing barberries.
- Gently mix the rice and barberries. Continue until all the rice in the pan has taken on the yellow color from saffron water.
- Transfer the cooked white rice from the saucepan to a serving dish/plate, top with the yellow barberry rice and serve!
- Step-by-step photo instructions
- Recipe troubleshooting
- Substitutions and variations
- Serving ideas
- Storage and reheating
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