Today is the shortest, darkest day of the year. Depending on who you are, that is either cause for despair or a winter solstice celebration. If you live in Iran or are part of the Iranian diaspora, that celebration is Shab-e-Yalda. Also referred to as Chelle, Yalda is a Zoroastrian festival that marks the longest night of the year, one that typically stretches into the morning hours. “You’re celebrating the light winning over darkness, and triumph and rebirth,” says Nilou Motamed, the television host and judge.
A crucial part of Yalda is food, specifically those symbolic of health and vitality. Red fruits like watermelon and persimmon are synonymous with the Yalda table, as is khoresh fesenjan, the glorious Persian pomegranate and walnut stew. “What I love about it is that it has a flavor like nothing else,” says Motamed. “It sort of looks like brownie batter. The most compelling part of it is the way it tiptoes between sweet and sour; it ricochets around your palate. It’s one of those symbolic Iranian things: The sweet comes with the sour.”
Motamed, who was born in Tehran but fled to Paris with her family in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, grew up eating the fesenjan that her mother, Mahin Gilanpour Motamed, had been making all her life. The recipe, which is reprinted below, calls for pomegranate molasses and juice; using both makes the stew lighter and less acidic, says Motamed. She also loves the “floral quality” of the juice. But if there’s one rule about fesenjan, she says, it’s this: “Always eat it with rice.” Fesenjan inspires strong opinions, and for good reason: It’s one of the oldest dishes in Iran, and also one of the most prized. And for Motamed, it is also somewhat entwined with her own history: It originated in the north of Iran, which is where her mother’s family is from.
Motamed, who lives in New York, has been thinking about Iran lately. Ever since the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died after being arrested by Iran’s religious morality police for wearing her hijab “improperly,” which many blame on the police, the country has been roiled by widespread anti-government protests and accompanying crackdowns by security forces. The humanitarian crisis spurred Motamed to become actively involved with #CookForIran, an international campaign that seeks to build community and awareness through food. Numerous restaurant chefs and home cooks have taken part in the initiative, which also raises funds for the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s Iran program.
“Our aim is that by cooking and celebrating Persian food, [cooks] can support the brave Iranian women and men fighting for their basic human rights,” Motamed says. “We hope that every meal someone makes and hashtags allows more people around the world to experience what we think is one of our signatures, which is hospitality.”
In her own life far from Iran, “it’s always the food that gets us a little closer despite the overarching distance,” Motamed says. Each bite of fesenjan is a bit of light triumphing over darkness. Just remember to eat it with rice.
Khoresh Fesenjan (aka Khoresh Fesenjoon): Persian Pomegranate and Walnut Stew
1 pound chopped walnuts
3 tablespoons neutral oil, divided
1 sweet onion, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric, divided
1 teaspoon salt, divided
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided
3 cups pomegranate juice, such as POM
4 to 5 tablespoons pure pomegranate molasses, such as Al Wadi
1 small chicken, cut into pieces, or 2.5 to 3 pounds skin-on chicken thighs and legs, preferably bone-in
Juice of ½ lime
1 tablespoon sugar (to taste)
½ cup pomegranate arils
Rice, for serving
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and bake until toasted, about 10 minutes; be careful not to burn them. Remove and allow to cool completely. Reserve a handful of nuts for garnish.
Step 2: Add 2 tablespoons of oil to an 8-quart nonstick Dutch oven. Add the onion and shallots and ½ teaspoon turmeric, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Turn the heat to medium and slowly saute until the onions and shallots are translucent. Remove half the mixture and set aside. Continue to saute the remaining onions and shallots until golden, about 15 minutes.
Step 3: While the onions are sauteing, blend the walnuts with the pomegranate juice, in batches if necessary. You’re looking for as smooth a consistency as possible here.
Step 4: Add the walnut and pomegranate mixture to the golden onions in the Dutch oven and cook on low for 15 minutes, stirring regularly.
Step 5: Add the pomegranate molasses and cook over low heat for at least 1 hour, stirring frequently. A good trick to avoid scorching the bottom of the pot is to leave a flat-bottomed wooden spoon resting in the pot, so that the heat is conducted away from the bottom. You really can’t walk away from this, which is good because you have chicken to cook.
Step 6: While the stew is reducing, season the chicken pieces with the remaining turmeric, salt, and pepper. Add 1 tablespoon of oil to an enameled cast iron skillet and brown the chicken pieces in batches until they are light golden. Do not crowd the pan or your chicken will steam. Then add the reserved onions from Step 2 and cook together for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add ½ cup of water. Cover and cook for 30 minutes until cooked through. Transfer the chicken to a clean plate and remove the skin.
Step 7: By this point the stew will be well on its way; the consistency you’re looking for is like a thick and glossy porridge. A sheen from the walnut oil should be emerging. This is your chance to taste the fesenjan and adjust the balance of sweet and sour with lime juice and sugar to taste.
Step 8: Add the chicken and some of the chicken broth to the walnut and pomegranate sauce. Cover and cook on low for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Step 9: Serve in a large bowl and garnish with pomegranate arils and handful of chopped walnuts. I also recommend serving with basmati rice with tahdig and chopped Shirazi salad as an accompaniment.
Note: All Persian stews taste better the next day, so you can make fesenjan a day ahead and reheat.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Ivy Manning