Sabzi Polo ba Mahi means herbed rice with fish. Sabzi is herbs, polo is rice and Mahi is fish. Sabzi polo is a popular Persian mixed rice that is usually made with basmati rice steamed with chopped fresh herbs. The traditional herbs used in this rice are tareh (green nira, also called garlic chives), cilantro, parsley, and dill. I love the flavor of fresh herbs mixed with fluffy basmati, so I prepare Sabzi Polo as a side dish all the time; however, it is particularly amazing with fish. Growing up Sabzi Polo ba Mahi was a tradition in our house for Nowuz (also pronounced Norooz and Norouz), or Persian New Year which is celebrated with the arrival of spring. Sabzi Polo ba Mahi is a New Year favorite in Iran, but bearing in mind that Nowruz has been celebrated since the beginning of civilization, it is a new tradition because in ancient times due to limited transportation only those with access to bodies of water would be able to harvest fish. This means the rest of the population must have prepared different dishes with the ingredients that were available to them in their own region. Some other foods that are prepared for Nowruz today are Kuku Sabzi, Aash e Reshteh, Dolmeh Barg, Zereshk Polo ba Morgh, and Shirin Polo.
Nowruz has been celebrated in Iran since the time of Zoroaster ‘Zartosht.’ Besides Iran, this ancient ceremony is celebrated in several other countries that used to be part of the old Persian Empire. The celebrations have remained practically unchanged through time. The preparation to welcome spring and the start of a new year, begins in the month of Esfand, the last month of Iranian calendar (February-March).
Just as nature is about to awaken from its winter sleep, there is excitement and activity in Persian households in anticipation of spring. These activities for most part resemble what used to be done all those years ago. The ancient Persians believed in cleaning their homes from top to bottom to get rid of any trace of dust from the old year with a meticulous detail, called ‘khooneh tekooni’ which translates to, shaking the house. They also replaced any frequently used, replaceable items, with new ones. For instance if the rooms needed a facelift by getting a fresh coat of paint, it would be done before Nowruz. Buying new clothes for the entire family would be put off until Nowruz. Couple of weeks before the arrival of spring Persians sprout unpelted wheat called ‘sabzeh,’ but sprouting some other grains and legumes such as barley, lentils, mung beans are also common. Sabzeh is one of the main items on ‘haftseen’ table, and it is kept until the 13th day of the New Year, or ‘sizdeh bedar.’
The last Tuesday evening of the old year is called Chahar Shanbeh Suri, which is the festival of fire. In Kurdish language ‘suri’ means red, symbolic of the red color of fire. The ancient Persians valued fire for its light, warmth, purification, energy, and health. Plans for this festivity include preparing large amounts of food, sweets, and fruit for family and friends. Of course no chahar shanbeh suri would be complete without ajil e moshgel gosha, also called ajil e chahar shanbeh suri. This delicious and nutritious snack is a mixture of unsalted shelled nuts such as pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and cashews mixed with dried white mulberry ‘toot,’ raisins and other dried fruit. The name moshgel gosha translates to, ‘resolves difficulties.’ The festivities begin shortly after sunset by lighting small fires on the streets and backyards and taking turns jumping over the fire with friends, family and neighbors while singing ‘zardi ye man az to, sorkhi ye to az man.’ This song wishes for the energy of fire to purify and symbolically burn the difficulties of the past year to ash. This ceremony is fun and for some the belief is so strong that the older people assist the very young by holding them while jumping over the fire.
A few hours before the arrival of spring ‘sofreh haftseen’ with 7 symbolic items beginning with the sound of ‘seen’ in Farsi is set up. These seven items along with several others such as: Live gold fish in a bowl, colored eggs, mirrors, Seville orange in water, and candles, each represent a wish for a happy and prosperous new year. Depending on the exact time that spring arrives, ‘tahvil e sal’ could be in the wee hours of the night, but that doesn’t matter to the traditional Persians. Everyone in the family wears their new clothes and sits around the table or ‘sofreh.’ The traditional belief is that whatever that you are doing at that precise moment, you will continue doing for the rest of the new year; so being together with the loved ones in health and happiness is very important.
The celebrations continue for 13 days with ‘eid didani’ which means holiday visits and catching up with family and friends, including the acquaintances whom you might not have seen since the last Nowruz! The 13th day is spent outdoors with friends and family in the countryside or the mountains, and it is called ‘sizdeh bedar.’ This is another day of celebration with music and laughter, eating, drinking, and playing soccer ‘football.’ The sabzeh, which by now is starting to look very long and shaggy, is brought to this outdoor activity and thrown in a running water to symbolically return the goodness of the sprouted grain back to earth, to enrich the growth of next year’s crop.
I have posted another fish and rice dish in the past which is Blackened Salmon with a Sticky Herb Rice. Today’s Sabzi Polo ba Mahi is steamed herbed rice with grilled salmon steaks. Grilling gives the salmon an incredibly fancy look and an out of this world flavor, which is simply delicous! If you don’t feel like firing up the grill, the salmon steaks may be cooked in a skillet over stove top, using the same blackened technique described in the above mentioned recipe.
Prepare the herbs as described in the recipe. Par cook the rice according to instructions here, drain and rinse under cold water in a colander and gently mix with the herbs. Once you layer the bottom of the pot with the Tahdig (the golden crust) of your choice (I’ve used lavash tahdig here), use a spatula to add the rice and herb mixture in a pyramid shape. sprinkle the top with optional dash of saffron, cover the lid with a Damkesh and steam the rice for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until steam rises and the tahdig is golden.
Meanwhile preheat the grill to medium high heat. Take the fish out of the fridge. Drizzle some olive oil in a pan, large enough to fit the salmon steaks in a single layer. Lightly season one side of the salmon steaks with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Place the salmons season slide down in the pan. Drizzle more olive oil on top of the steaks and season lightly. Cover the pan loosely and leave the fish in room temperature. If using charcoal grill the coals are ready when all of them are covered with a layer of white ash. Grill the salmon steaks 7-8 minutes on each side; flip once with a large spatula. Keep covered and warm until ready to eat.
Serve the grilled salmon steaks with the steamed Sabzi Polo with a good squeeze of a Seville orange or lemon.
SABZI POLO BA MAHI
Preparation time 10 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour Equipment needed: Outdoor grill (stove top instructions also available)
- 4 salmon steaks (1- 1½ inch), drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
- 2 Seville oranges, cut in half (may also use fresh lemons)
- FOR THE RICE:
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 1 cup roughly chopped fresh dill
- ½ cup packed sliced fresh tareh (nira, garlic chives), or green parts of the scallions
- ½ cup packed chopped fresh cilantro
- ½ cup packed chopped parsley
- A dash of ground saffron powder (optional) for the top
- Par cook the basmati rice following the instructions here.
- Drain in colander and rinse with cold water. Add the prepared herbs and gently toss together to combine.
- Decide on the type of Tahdig (bottom of the pot) for your rice.
- Add the herbed rice over the tahdig, sprinkle the top with the optional saffron powder. Cover the lid with damkesh and steam over medium low heat for 45 minutes to one hour, or until the steam rises and the tahdig is golden.
- Meanwhile take the salmon out of the fridge, lightly drizzle some olive oil in the bottom of a pan large enough to fit 4 steaks in a single layer. Lightly sprinkle the salmon steaks on one side with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Place the salmon steaks seasoned side down in the pan; drizzle more olive oil on top and lightly season. Cover the pan loosely and leave it out in the room temperature.
- Preheat your outdoor grill to medium high. When the coals are covered with white ash, your fire is ready. Brush the grates with oil to prevent sticking. Grill the salmon steaks 7-8 minutes on each side; turn once with a large heat proof spatula.
- Serve with Sabzi Polo with a good squeeze of Seville orange or fresh lemon.