There’s an enchanting aura around the winter solstice that I’ve found irresistible for as long as I can remember. It might be the promise of longer days or the enchantment of twinkling stars against the backdrop of an inky sky. Yet, for me, it’s about a cherished family tradition, an ancient celebration we call Shab-e-Yalda, and the array of delectable dishes it brings along. One such dish, which holds a special place in my heart and my Yalda night spread, is the vibrant Ash-e-Anar.
Shab-e-Yalda, also known as the “Night of Birth”, is an ancient Persian celebration that marks the longest and darkest night of the year. It’s a time for family gatherings, poetry, love, and of course, food – the language of celebration in our Persian heritage. Among the plethora of dishes that grace our table on this night, is my mother’s Ash-e-Anar.
Ash-e Anar is a traditional Persian dish, a thick and hearty soup (also referred to as a stew) that’s known for its vibrant flavour profile and distinct ingredients. The term “Ash” in Persian refers to a thick soup, usually made with a combination of grains and legumes. “Anar,” on the other hand, translates to pomegranate.
The dish is so named because one of its key ingredients is pomegranate juice, which lends a unique sweet-tart taste to the soup and gives it a beautiful, deep red colour. This flavour is further enhanced by adding pomegranate molasses, a concentrated form of pomegranate juice with a tangy, robust flavour.
Ashe Anar also includes a medley of fresh herbs, along with basmati rice and yellow split peas for substance and texture. Meatballs are often added to the stew, making it a complete, protein-rich meal. These meatballs are usually seasoned with a blend of traditional Persian spices like turmeric, cardamom, and saffron.
As the winter winds begin to whistle, I can’t help but be transported back to my mother and grandmother’s kitchen. The deep red hue of the pomegranate juice melding with aromatic herbs created a symphony of colours and fragrances that became an integral part of my memory. It was more than just food. It was a symbol of family and love, of tradition and heritage, of Yalda and joy.
Basic Ingredients for Ash-e-Anar
Onion and Garlic: These two are the aromatic backbone of most savoury dishes, providing a depth of flavour and the initial layer of savoury goodness.
Turmeric and Black Pepper: These spices lend a beautiful colour and a warming, earthy taste to the soup.
Yellow Split Peas: A common ingredient in many Persian dishes, they give the stew body and heartiness.
Basmati Rice: This fragrant rice adds texture and helps thicken the stew, giving it a satisfying, substantial feel.
Pomegranate Juice: The key ingredient of Ash-e Anar, it imparts a unique sweet-tart flavour and a vibrant red hue symbolic of life and vitality.
Herbs (Coriander, Parsley, Chives, Mint, Green Onion): These herbs add a burst of freshness and complex flavors, providing a beautiful contrast to the rich pomegranate base.
Pomegranate Molasses: This concentrated pomegranate syrup adds depth, tanginess, and a touch of sweetness to the stew.
Meatballs (Minced Beef, Onion, Spices): These tender morsels add protein to the dish, making it a complete meal. The use of traditional Persian spices like turmeric, cardamom, and saffron infuses the meatballs with rich, aromatic flavours.
Garnish (Onion, Dried Mint): The garnish of crispy fried onions adds texture and an extra layer of flavour. The dried mint gives a final aromatic and fresh note, balancing the richness of the stew.
- Pre-soak the grains: Pre-soaking the basmati rice and split peas can reduce cooking time and result in a better texture.
- Fresh juice: If possible, use freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. It has a superior flavour to the store-bought versions, which can be too sweet or artificially flavoured.
- Simmer slowly: Allow the soup to simmer slowly. This will allow the flavours to meld together and the split peas and rice to soften perfectly.
- Saffron: To maximise the flavour of saffron, grind it into a powder and dissolve it in a small amount of hot water before adding it to the dish.
- Accompaniments: Ash-e Anar can be served with a side of flatbread and a fresh herb salad.
- Garnish: Don’t forget the garnish of fried onions and dried mint. It not only makes the dish look appealing but also adds an extra layer of flavour.
- Heat: Serve Ash-e Anar hot. This dish is meant to bring warmth and comfort on a cold night.
Refrigeration: Leftover Ash-e Anar can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days.
Freezing: If you want to make a large batch and save some for later, you can freeze Ash-e Anar. Divide the cooled stew into freezer-safe containers and freeze. It can be stored in the freezer for up to 2-3 months.
Reheating: To reheat, let it thaw in the fridge overnight if it’s been frozen. Reheat on the stove over medium heat, adding a bit of water if necessary to loosen it up.
Ash-e-Anar (Pomegranate Soup)
- 1 large onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, roughly minced
- 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1 tsp. turmeric powder
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- ½ cup yellow split peas
- ½ cup basmati rice
- 6 cups of water
- 5 cups fresh pomegranate juice
- 50g fresh coriander, finely chopped
- 50g parsley, trimmed and finely chopped
- 50g fresh chives, finely chopped
- 50g fresh mint, finely chopped
- 100g green onion
- ⅓ cup pomegranate molasses
- 500g minced beef
- 1 onion, finely minced excess liquid drained
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- ¼ tsp. cardamom powder
- ½ tsp. turmeric powder
- pinch of ground saffron
- 1 onion, finely sliced
- Dried mint
- Wash and soak the rice for 30 minutes, drain and keep on the side. Wash and soak the split peas for 30 minutes, drain and keep on the side.
- In a large pot, saute the onions until they have softened and become light golden brown. Add roughly minced garlic and season with turmeric powder and black pepper, stir. Add the yellow split peas and saute for 1-2 minutes. Add 4 cups of water, bring to a boil and reduce heat; leave to simmer for 20 minutes. Add the rice and allow to cook for an additional 20 minutes. After boiling, add additional 2 more cups of water.
- Add the mixed herb and pomegranate juice, stir the ingredients, cover the pot and allow to cook on medium heat for an additional 45 minutes.
- To prepare the meatballs, in a medium-sized bowl, combine the minced beef, onion, salt, black pepper, cardamom powder, turmeric powder and saffron; thoroughly knead together. Shape the beef mixture into 5g of meatballs and place them on a large frying pan. On medium-high heat, fry meatballs until the meat have browned; remove and keep to the side.
- Add the meatballs and pomegranate molasses to the soup mixture and season with salt; allow to simmer for an additional 30 mins.
- Prepare the garnish. First, fry the dried mint and turmeric in a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil, and set aside. Deep-fry the onion in vegetable oil until it turns crispy and golden in colour, and set aside.
- Serve the soup in a bowl, and garnish with the fried mints, crispy fried onions and pomegranate jewels.