Saturday, 8 August 2015

Fesenjoon - فسنجان - Walnut and Pomegranate Duck

If you are under the impression that Persians eat a lot of chicken, well, unfortunately you have not experienced a proper Persian feast.  All over Middle East, lamb is the preferred red meat but we don't hear much about duck. Please don't get images of Chinese roast duck or duck confit in your head.  Duck is a beautiful meat and is perfect when cooked with tart fruits such as tart cherries, tart plums and pomegranate.

I grew up eating duck cooked with dried pomegranate seeds.  Let me make one thing very clear about pomegranates.  There are two types of pomegranates; the sweet Californian ones we get in NZ and the sour wild variety which is not available in NZ.  The sour wild variety is only used for cooking and the sweet variety is only eaten as fresh or juiced.  The sour variety seeds are dried whole and used as ground, whole seeds in stews or cooked into a paste. 

The most popular way to use the sour variety is as pomegranate paste.  Again, let's not confuse "pomegranate paste" with "pomegranate molasses", as they are completely two different products.  Pomegranate molasses is reduced pomegranate and lemon juice. Pomegranate paste, as the name suggests, is pure pomegranate paste with nothing added to it.  Persians traditionally do not use pomegranate molasses, but if the paste is not available then the molasses will do.  Commercially prepared pomegranate paste is reduced pomegranate juice (photo below), still a better alternative than pomegranate molasses.  


Many years ago, my family made a foraging trip to a thick sandy pomegranate bush.  It was near the sea so, the day trip was worth it.  In a hot autumn day, we helped ourselves to bag after bag of tiny pomegranates before realising that we lost one of our crew members.  After a little panicking and spending some time finding everyone, we ran into a local man who very wisely told us that someone was murdered in this bush not long ago.  That was our first and last pomegranate foraging trip! 

Fesenjoon (or properly known as Fesenjan) is a sweet and sour stew traditionally cooked with duck or chicken and thickened with ground walnuts. Its an autumn dish when pomegranates are ready for picking and walnuts are in season.  Duck, wild turkey, goose or any wild birds are the preferred meat for this dish in the Caspian region.  There are regional varieties of Fesenjoon in Iran, and our favourite is what our grandmothers and mothers cooked for us - with duck.

I have been patiently waiting for my photography skills to develop to write a blog post about this dish.  Sadly, Fesenjoon is not very photogenic but don't let the unappetising colour of the dish put you off.  Fesenjoon usually doesn't get a bad review unless you serve it in the heat of summer.  You'll need hours and hours of simmering until a thick layer of walnut oil appears on top.  I haven't tried this in a slow cooker but I suspect it can work.  Fesenjoon tastes better the next day as Persians say it will "fall into place" meaning perfectly executed.  

1 Duck (or chicken)
500g Walnuts, ground (smooth)
1 Onion, grated
1 teaspoon Turmeric
5-6 Cups water
1/3 cup Pomegranate Paste
Brown Sugar, salt and pepper to season


  1. Heat a large pot (to fit the duck) on high heat.
  2. Cut off a little duck fat and fry it until completely golden.
  3. Place the duck slowly in the pot and fry the duck until golden.  Turn occasionally until all sides are golden.
  4. Remove the duck from the pot and set aside.
  5. At this stage, there should be about 1/3 cup of duck fat in the pot.  Pour the fat into a bowl and leave a 1-2 tablespoons for frying the onion.
  6. Add the grated onion and turmeric, continue to fry for a few minutes.
  7. Add ground walnuts and fry for 3-5 minutes.  Walnuts burn very quickly, when you start to smell roasted walnuts then its time to add water. (this stage depends on how much oil is in the walnuts).
  8. Whisk until smooth, reduce heat and place the lid on.
  9. When the walnut mix comes to a boil, remove the lid and wait for the mixture to slightly thicken (approx. 15 minutes).
  10. Place the duck in the walnut mix, place the lid on and simmer for 2 hours.
  11. By now, it should be thick and duck should be cooked. A thick layer of walnut oil should be sitting on top.
  12. Add the pomegranate paste and taste it after 15 minutes.
  13. Adjust the flavour to your liking with brown sugar, salt and pepper. (approx. 1/3 cup of brown sugar should be sufficient).
  14. Serve with rice.
  15. Hint: if using chicken, fry the chicken with olive oil and use 4 cups of water. It will take a much shorter time to cook.

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