It is cherry season in Israel and I almost missed it, how could it be that I didn’t notice the ruby red fruits at the super market? When I went to the shuk in Tel Aviv all I saw were mounds of cherries, from bright red sour cherries, to deep purple and even swirled apricot and rose varieties. Here was cherry season, gorgeous, aromatic luscious cherries, not hidden under plastic boxes and stacked in industrial rows in the refrigerator.
For years now I have wanted to try an exotic recipe I first read in a Hebrew language Persian cookbook. Among the myriad of rice dishes was Persian cherry and saffron rice, albalu polow, which seemed to embody the mystic of the Silk Road. This recipe calls for sour cherries that were not always available in Israel so eventually it was lost to many in the Persian community. I have a neighbor whose parents are Persian but never tasted this rice before because he was born in Israel at a time when the cherries could not be obtained. The Russian and Uzbeks who had immigrated at a later date brought their own culinary traditions and with them sour cherries have become very popular. This I know from asking the vegetable merchants who tell me that the Russians prefer the sour cherries to the sweeter varieties. I also had a friend who worked as a food engineer in a family owned company creating jams and jellies marketed specifically to the Russians with flavors such as sour cherry. Perhaps now, after so many years, Persian cherry rice can again reign supreme in Israel.
The sour cherry (P. cerasus )has its origin in Iran and Turkmenistan. Israel now grows at least nine cherry cultivars, both sweet and sour including Ranier, Bing and Van.
Persian Cherry Rice
There are huge differences in the hardness of the basmati rice from one place to another caused by the growing conditions, cultivar type and age (basmati is usually aged for two years). In most cookbooks the rice is soaked for 30 minutes before it is cooked but I omit this step because the rice in Israel is soft and would disintegrate.
2 cups basmati rice
4 cups sour cherries, washed and stoned (sour cherries are the middle ones in the first picture)
1/2 teaspoon saffron ground and soaked in 2 tablespoons of water
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons yogurt (optional)
3 tablespoons clarified butter
3 tablespoons of pistachios, roughly chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons of slivered almond
4 teaspoon butter
Put the cherries in the pot and add 1/2 cup of sugar. Cook for 30 minutes. Drain the cherries, reserving the syrup.
Bring salted water to a boil and add the basmati rice. Add the rice and cook for 7 minutes, drain and rinse with cold water. Mix the cherries with one tablespoon of butter and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Rinse the pot clean and add the clarified butter and heat on high. Mix the yogurt with 3-4 tablespoons of rice and one teaspoon of saffron water. When the clarified butter is hot add the yogurt mixture to the pot covering the bottom with it with a wooden spoon. Add a thin layer of rice, alternating with a few tablespoons of cherries shaping the mixture into a pyramid. Using a wooden spoon poke holes into the rice all the way down to the bottom where the crust is forming. When steam begins to emit from the holes cover the pot with a towel and put the pot cover over that, folding the sides of the towel over the top. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes. Lift the cover and add 1/2 cup cherry syrup, the remainder of the saffron and two teaspoons of butter. Cover again and cook for another 10 minutes. Let stand for another 10 minutes with the cover on. Meanwhile, in a frying pan add 1 teaspoon of butter and brown the almonds and pistachios. In a large plate, mound the rice using a spatula leaving the bottom part of the rice intact. Decorate the rice with the nuts. In another dish place the crispy bottom part rice which is called tah-dig and is considered a delicacy.
Najimieh Batmanglij, New Food of Life
Iranian Cooking, Gideon Kalimian (Hebrew)