Khoresht Fesenjan ~ Persian Pomegranate and Walnut Chicken Stew
Right from the heart of the ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of modern civilisations, many Middle Eastern dishes today hold the secrets to culinary traditions which have existed for more than two millenia. Yet, they count perhaps as one of the least travelled cuisines around the world in their original forms, discounting Turkish kebabs and ice-cream that is whose success stemmed from these foods being entertaining to watch as they are delicious to eat. However, probably unknown to many, Middle Eastern ways of cooking have helped albeit unwittingly to shape many cuisines which are now so ever popular. One classic example is Pilaf, a rice dish cooked in broth which evolved from Old World Iran during the times of Alexander the Great or perhaps even older. Power shifts throughout the ages of conquer and conquest brought its influence far into Europe to shape world renowned dishes like the Spanish Paella and Italian Risotto, while the Silk Road and other ancient trade routes brought it eastwards into India and subsequently Southeast Asia to become our local Biryani and Pulao. So for me, many dishes from Middle Eastern cuisine are exotic and yet strangely familiar at the same time.
I’d not eaten Khoresht Fesenjan before, let alone cook it. This chicken stew cooked with pomegranate molasses and walnuts is a very classic Iranian dish and apparently a very old one as well, evolved from the days of the Great Persian Achaemenid Empire which existed about 2500 years ago. Several things drew me to this dish and fueled the desire to make it. First is the list of things that go into it. Walnut and pomegranate are the two key ingredients in this dish, both of which I’d hardly if not never used in cooking before. Walnuts are highly celebrated in Middle Eastern cuisines with many dishes both savory and sweet being dedicated to them. Pomegranate molasses are extensively used in the cuisines from this region, likening soya sauce in the Far East. So this dish provided the perfect opportunity to explore these two ingredients at the same time. The second thing that struck me is the simplicity of this dish. Surely for something which has existed for so long, many variations have evolved over time. Some recipes for Fesenjan incorporate a long list of spices like cinnamon amongst other things but I’d deliberately chosen the shortest recipe I’d come across, one which is voided of spices. And this is only to be expected from foods of the Old World where the natural flavours from the ingredients are presented in the most original and minimalistic form. Some may choose to disagree with me as spices when used appropriately do aid in teasing out and elevating the flavours of meat. However, void of unnecessary distractions from the arsenal of auxiliary items added, hopefully the taste of this dish holds true to what it would have been like long ago.
The ingredients used at one glance and that is apparently it!
Walnuts are first sent to the oven for roasting to bring out all that wonderful nutty aroma and flavours from them.
Chunks of chicken are first pan-fried to a lovely golden brown before being added into the rich concoction of ground walnuts and sauteed onions.
The dish during the initial stages of cooking before prolonged simmering takes place.
And this is what it looks like after reducing the liquids. The stew thickens naturally on its own without the need for any starch. Flavours too mellowed considerably and become more rounded and balanced. Being tart, sweet and savory all at the same time, it is surely appetising to say the least. Given a day to mature, the flavours built up further and became richer than ever. So I would advise those who are keen in trying this dish to chill a portion overnight for the flavours to develop.As with most if not all stews, the flavours got really more intense than the day before!
8 chicken thigh and drumstick pieces
1 large onion, cut into thin strips
4 bay leaves
2 cups walnuts
4-6 tbsp pomegranate molasses （for recipe please refer here)
2 tbsp brown sugar
2-3 tbsp cooking oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Pomegranate and chopped parsley and mint to garnish (optional)
Roast walnuts in oven at 120 degree Celsius for 20 min. Bring temperature up to 150C for the last 5-10 min. Leave to cool down slightly before grinding with food processor.
Rinse and pat dry chicken pieces.
Pan fry chicken pieces over medium high heat with cooking oil in a pan. Reserve leftover oils and rendered chicken fat for later use.
To a large cooking pot, add oil from frying chicken and saute onion strips until slightly translucent. Do not allow the onion to catch or brown. A bit of salt can be added to prevent this from happening.
Add ground walnut and stir fry slightly until it exudes the characteristic nutty aroma.
Add water into pot and stir the ingredients until a slurry is formed.
Add pan-fried chicken chunks, bay leaves, pomegranate molasses and brown sugar
Top up with more water until the chicken are just submerged.
Stir the mixture evenly and bring mixture to a rapid boil.
Lower flame and simmer with lid on for about 20 min.
Remove lid and continue the simmering until chicken chunks are nicely soften.
Turn up the flame to evaporate away excess water until the mixture is considerably thicken to stew consistency. Adjust flavours with salt and pepper.
Garnish with pomegranate, chopped parsley and mint if desired.
Serve with steamed basmatic rice and a simple Iranian salad like Shirazi.
Leftovers can be chilled for reheating the next day. Otherwise, it freezes well for up to 3 months.