You know you are a special guest when your host serves you Fesenjan. It’s a real treat, as it takes longer than most dishes to prepare. This medieval stew comes from the Caspian region of Iran. Traditionally, it was made with wild duck and scattered with small lamb meatballs. Now it’s more commonly made with chicken. This is a perfect example of a hearty ‘hot’ dish (see Garmi-Sardi, page 16), served in autumn and winter. The pomegranate, a winter fruit, adds acidity to balance and bring all the flavours together. I’ve used chicken breasts to cut the cooking time and very little oil as walnuts are so rich in fatty oils. Jazz up the stew’s murky brown colour by scattering it with ruby-red pomegranate seeds just before serving, with either simple steamed basmati rice or smoked rice. I’ve even served it with very un-Iranian mashed potatoes.

250g (8oz) 4 cups ground walnuts
375ml (13fl oz) 11⁄2 cups hot chicken stock or hot water
6 chicken breasts
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1⁄4 tsp turmeric
1⁄4 tsp white pepper
200ml (7fl oz) 1 cup freshly squeezed pomegranate juice or shop-bought unsweetened juice
31⁄2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (Persian brand only)
11⁄2 tsp brown sugar
4–5 x 10cm (4in) squares of lavashak (Persian fruit roll)
pinch of saffron threads, pounded then dissolved in 2 tbsp hot water
1 tsp sea salt, plus extra to taste
twist of pepper
fresh pomegranate seeds and gold leaf (optional)

Place the ground walnuts in a heavy saucepan and stir constantly over a medium heat until light and golden, about 5–7 minutes. Don’t let them burn. Slightly lower the heat, add the chicken stock or hot water, cover and cook for about 20 minutes. In a frying pan, sear the chicken breasts with the oil, onion, turmeric and pepper until just golden. Add to the walnut mixture, cover and cook for a further 30 minutes on the lowest setting. An old lady from a village in the Caspian region taught me to leave a wooden spoon in the pot so that it conducts the heat and doesn’t allow the stew to catch at the bottom. Add the pomegranate juice, molasses, sugar, lavashak if using, and cook for another 45–50 minutes with the lid on. Add the saffron liquid 10 minutes before the end. The sauce is ready when it’s a lovely dark colour and the chicken is tender. Season with salt and pepper. The stew should be a perfect balance of sweet and sour. If it’s too sweet, add a bit of lemon juice; if it’s too sour, add a tad more sugar. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and gold leaf before serving.

TIP: If you can’t buy lavashak, add 10 Persian golden dried plums or 2 extra tbsp pomegranate molasses sharpened with lemon juice. Substitute firm tofu, roasted aubergines, shiitake mushrooms or potatoes for the chicken, for a vegetarian alternative. Or make the sauce by itself to serve with turkey at Christmas: omit the chicken, sauté the walnuts with the onions and reduce the stock by half.