Sabzi Polo va Mahi: Persian Herbed Rice with Fish

Sabzi Polo va Mahi: Persian Herbed Rice and Fish

When I decided to move from Texas to New York, I created a list of all the things I had to look forward to in the Big Apple. At the top of the list, right under “winter boots!”, I had scribbled down “seasons”.  This was because I had yet to live in a city that had four distinct seasons and now I was finally getting my chance.

Growing up in the Middle East, before I lived in Texas, I was very familiar with summer. There were different variations of it throughout the year: January to April we had a mild summer; May to September was a hot-as-hell summer; and October to December was a cooler summer. But now in New York, I would experience the turning of leaves in Fall, powdery snow in Winter and that “just right” weather in Spring. And with these distinct seasons, I would learn to eat with the seasons.

Parsley, Cilantro, Dill, Scallions

Parsley is one of the many bright green herbs that flourish in Spring. On a recent visit to my local farmer’s market I went a little overboard and ended up with tons more parsley than usual. I’ve been using it in everything from eggs to pastas to green juices and in a recipe for herbed rice and fish, Sabzi Polo va Mahi, to celebrate the Persian New Year, Nowruz.

Sabzi Polo - Herb Rice

Nowruz celebrates the first day of Spring and is held in late March, just as the seasons change and things start coming back to life. The festival originated in an area called Persia but is celebrated by Christians, Persian Jews and Muslims in many countries including Iran, Iraq, Asia and the US. It is a celebration that crosses national and religious borders.

Sabzi Polo va Mahi is a very traditional meal prepared for this celebration. In Persian, Sabzi refers to the herbs and greens – parsley, dill, cilantro, scallions – and Polo to the style of cooking rice. The rice is first soaked in salt water for a few hours to remove as much starch as possible. It is then parboiled, added to a large pot in alternating layers with the herbs, and steamed.

Fried Branzino

The herbs in the rice symbolize renewal, while the fish represents life. This meal epitomizes spring and, as an Iranian friend of mine says, “it tastes alive.” The rice is meant to be served with a white fish, either fried like they do in northern Iran or stuffed and baked like they do in the South. I chose to sprinkle rice flour on the fish and lightly fry it with parsley and garlic, to add a crispy texture to the meal.


Speaking of texture – this method of cooking the rice results in a heavenly crusted layer of rice at the bottom of the pan. This tahdig (Persian for “bottom of the pot”) is one of most coveted parts of the dish. It’s a crunchy layer of spiced rice similar to the rice in Korean bibimbap or Indian biryanis.

I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I do. I’d also love to hear about all the ingredients you like to cook with to usher in Spring.

Wishing you bright blue skies and that “just-right” weather.

A printable list of ingredients and directions are at the end of this post,
along with an image of this Perfect Morsel.

Chopped Herbs

Add the finely chopped parsley, cilantro, dill and green onions to a bowl and mix together. I used a knife to chop the herbs but you can also use a food processor; rinse and dry the herbs, pulse each one individually, and then combine.

Basmati Rice

In a large bowl, rinse the rice in 3 or 4 changes of cold water until the water runs clear. Add enough water to cover the rice along with 1/2 tsp of salt. Stir and let soak for 1 to 2 hours.

Boiled Rice

Bring 10 cups of water to boil in a large pot. Drain the rice and add it to the hot water. Boil uncovered for 7 minutes over a medium heat. Pour the water and rice from the large pot into a strainer to drain the water. Rinse the rice with cold water and set aside. The rice should be a little undercooked.

Oil with Cumin Seeds

Rinse and dry the large pot the rice was being boiled in, and place it back on the stove on medium heat. Add the 2 tbsp of canola oil, 1/2 of the cumin seeds and spread both on the bottom of the pan with a ladle.

Sabzi Polo: Layer of Rice

Gently spoon 1/3 of the rice into the pot in one even layer.

Sabzi Polo: Herbs

Next, spoon 1/2 of the herbs in a thin even layer over the rice followed by another layer of rice. Repeat until both rice and herbs have been used up, ending with a layer of rice. Sprinkle the rest of the cumin seeds on the last layer of rice. Pour 1/5 cup of water around the edges of the rice in the pot.


Add saffron to 3 tbsp of hot water in a small bowl and soak for 5 minutes.

Sabzi Polo: Saffron Rice

Pour the saffron water on the top of the rice.

Sabzi Polo: Steaming Rice

Cover with aluminum foil and a tight lid to lock in the steam. Cook for 30 minutes on a low heat.

Whole Branzino

Meanwhile, rinse and pat dry the fish. Lay it on a flat surface and brush a little oil on onside.

Salt, Pepper, Rice Flour

Sprinkle salt, pepper and 1/2 of the rice flour. Flip the fish and repeat on the other side.

Fried Branzino with Garlic & Parsley

Heat 3 tbsp oil in a wide saute or cast iron pan. Cook the fish, skin side down, for 4 minutes. Sprinkle sliver garlic, finely chopped parsley and salt on the fish and cook until the fish is cooked through. Approximately another 4 minutes.

Sabzi Polo Mahi: Fried Fish

Transfer the cooked fish to a platter.

Sabzi Polo va Mahi

Using a ladle, gently stir the rice and transfer it to a serving dish or a plate. Sprinkle with some chopped parsley and serve with the fried fish.

Perfect Morsel: Sabzi Polo va Mahi

Here’s a spoonful of the herb rice with a bite of crispy fish. Now I want more!

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