The Iranian Pilao: Berry at its Best

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.

  • What a lovely article. You have fired my imagination as a true foodie to visit Shabestan to taste the real berry pilao

  • Dolly

    Type your comment here…

    I would like a receipe please. Thanks

  • Delnavaz


    nice article. I wish I had heard of Shabestan a little earlier, I would have definitely visited the restaurant. Maybe someone can post the recipe on Parsi Khabar ? thanks

  • Phiroze

    I would certainly like to see a recipe for the Pilao posted on Parsi Khabar.

  • khorshed balchandani

    I would like to have the recipe and try out the pilao. thanks

  • Manek

    Fascinated with this article. I tried different seacrh engines for the recipe book mentioned above; The Food of Life by Nanjimieh Batmengh, no luck so far. Tried to trace this book through Publishers’ List in Washington, there is no entry for Maya Publishers.
    Any ideas?
    Thank you/Regards

  • Cyrus Bulsara

    Persian Rice Pilaf Recipe #124576
    A very fruity version of rice pilaf that makes an excellent companion to the 16th century recipe for Recipe #124579. It should be started before the chicken, so they are ready at the same time.
    by greenery
    2 hours | 1 hour prep

    SERVES 6

    16 cups water
    1 tablespoon salt
    1 cinnamon stick
    4 whole cloves
    6 peppercorns, cracked
    1 teaspoon cardamom seed (best to buy pods and break them open)
    4 Zereshk or juniper berries (mashed)
    2 cups basmati rice (or other long grained rice)
    3 tablespoons dried apricots
    3 tablespoons dried cherries
    3 tablespoons golden raisins
    1/2 large onion
    5 tablespoons unsalted butter
    2 pinches saffron (or one teaspoon turmeric)
    butter, for greasing
    3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
    Bring water and salt to a rolling boil in a large saucepan.
    Add cinnamon stick, cloves, cracked peppercorns, cardamom seeds, and juniper berries.
    Add two cups of basmati or other long-grain rice, slowly, so the water doesn’t stop boiling. Cook for about eight to ten minutes, stirring from time to time to keep the rice from sticking to the bottom, until the rice is just barely done.
    Pour everything into a strainer or colander and let the rice drain. Leave the spices in the rice.
    While the rice is boiling, chop the dried fruit. Throw the fruit on top of the rice draining in the colander.
    Thinly slice one-half of a large onion and sauté it until golden in 5T of unsalted butter with several pinches of saffron or one teaspoon of turmeric.
    While onions are cooking, grease a round casserole with a bit of butter and turn the spiced rice and fruit into a large bowl.
    Turn the golden onions into the bowl and mix everything up.
    Spoon the mixture into the casserole and pat the rice firmly in place with the back of a spoon.
    Drizzle 3 Tbsp of melted butter over the top and cover with two thicknesses of aluminum foil and seal the edges well. Add a lid if your casserole has one. Set the casserole in a preheated 350°F oven and let it bake for an hour.
    Then remove it from the oven and let it sit for 15 minutes or so before removing the foil and unmolding it onto a platter. (Lay the platter on top of the rice and, using a thick dishcloth or potholders, flip the thing over).
    Surround with the Persian chicken.

    Call me when you cook it…Cyrus Bulsara…

  • K. Tamboli

    Britannia, man oh I luv those old iranian bakeries & restaurants..

  • khorshed balchandaniName (required)

    Thank You Cyrus for the pilaf recipe will prepare it for our Navroz celebration and send you the feedback.
    Many thanx