The Zereshk Pilao is one of the most stunning rice dishes one can possibly serve. The dish has a warm ruby glow with the burberries studding the rice with colour and the saffron with fragrance. This gives this Pilao a superiority and magnificence that is not easily replicated. It is one of the great dishes of Iran and many unfamiliar with Iranian cuisine will only have heard of it through the iconic berry pilao served at Britannia, the last of the great Irani restaurants in Mumbai at Ballard Estate.
By Javed Gaya / DNA India
What are the berries? The barberries belong more to the family of decorative plants, rather than berries for eating. They were traditionally used in medieval English cooking until about the 18th century and abandoned because the plant was considered a carrier of mildew and other diseases. In Iran it is widely regarded as a delightful addition to pilaos and stews, giving the dishes a biting tart flavour.
This is one of the dishes which I make and in my humble opinion knock the restaurant versions for a six. It would be untrue to say that this boasts extends outside Mumbai. I cannot, even in my cups, dream of saying my berry pilao is in the same league as that served by that great marvel of an Iranian restaurant in Dubai on the creek known as Shabestan. To eat at Shabestan is to eat the foods of the gods, from the egregiously generous portions of fresh salad with nan-o-panir, subzi-kharbkhan to the Persepolis, a banquet in itself, of fish, chicken and mutton kebabs with saffron rice. No, Shabestan is a different league and an eye opener for those unfamiliar with Persian cuisine, too often stereotyped as possessing the chelo kebabs and rice and not much else.For those who appreciate herbs, subtlety of spices and are into healthy eating, Iranian cuisines offer much.For those interested in discovering more about the cuisine, there is a truly splendid book called The Food of Life — a knowledgeable book as exquisitely and as delicately as produced as a Persian carpet from Isphafan — written by Nanjimieh Batmenghj and published by Maya Publishers in Washington for the serious foodie.
If we leave aside the glories of Iranian food (incidentally possessing the oldest recipes written on clay tablets over 4000 years ago on a cuneiform script), we come back to the humble berry pilao as served at Britannia. This is the last of the great Iranian eateries and combines contemporary Persian ingredients like the Zeresht with contemporary Parsi cooking, the patra ni machhi, dhansak; dishes that owe little to the Persian heritage.Even the Pilao is different in that it is not cooked in the Persian style.Traditionally, the Persians would cook the meat separately, and the spices would be used sparingly; cumin, for garnishing, otherwise the mainstay being chillies, garlic, seasoning and saffron making it, too bland for Indian taste.The Britannia’s chicken pilao with berries, is cooked like a traditional Indian pilao with the rice and chicken mixed and with Indian spices making it quite unlike the Persian original.Different, but enjoyable and at least one gets a chance to eat the berries and have a whiff of an otherwise great cuisine.