For the three months I was in Al Khalil -or Hebron- in a team of five Ecumenical Accompaniers, our daily walk through the old souk or new market was the bright side of our morning ritual, as we accompanied children to school in safety or stood at military checkpoints through which people had to pass to go to the mosque. The juice-sellers between the mosque checkpoint and the old souk greeted us with a mixture of resignation and hope. To say that footfall was light there would be an understatement; the once-thriving stalls of this 13/14th-century souk are almost ornamental; years of Israeli occupation and an upsurge in violence in 2015 have turned away many outside visitors to the mosque, who fear harsh treatment – or worse – at checkpoints. The juice-seller there would squeeze fresh pomegranate and orange juice using a metal juicer like the one I remember my granny using. I can still see her standing on its long handle to get the last drops out of oranges or apples, and I’m sorry we didn’t hang on to this precious heirloom so that for today’s recipe I could, without the souk juice-sellers nearby, draw the delicious sweet-sour juice from pomegranates myself.
In contrast to the old souk, the new fruit and vegetable market situated in Palestinian Authority-controlled Al Khalil is a more bustling affair, and the stalls upon stalls piled-high with orange persimmons, yellow, red and green peppers, and ruby pomegranates are a sight for the weary eye. One of our regular stops was at the shop in which we bought our labneh, where the owner often stood outside in a less-than-white apron, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. As I remember, it was there that I learnt the Arabic word for walnut – jawz. It is similar to the words for husband – jawaz – and wife – jawza, because of the intimate union of two halves, I imagine, flourishing under the protection of a hard outer shell. In the right conditions, the walnut is a consummate nut. It took a while for it to woo me because it can be too bitter, but those sold in Al Khalil convinced me how good a walnut can be when its sweetness wins out over its bitter undertones.
All of this is by way of introduction to a recipe that is not Palestinian but Persian, in which the bitter sweetness of the walnut and the sweet tartness of the pomegranate lure the meat and vegetables into their complex depths. It is a stew called Fesenjan or Fesenjoon, which Iranians usually eat on the winter solstice, a tradition that dates back to Zoroastrian times. The pomegranate in the stew is said to herald the coming dawn.
Claudia Roden has remarked on the similarity between opposing tastes in Persian cooking and the Zoroastrian belief system, in which creation ex nihilo spawned a force of resistance, locking the cosmos into a struggle of good against evil until final judgement. Pomegranate molasses becomes the battleground, where sweet and sour sharpen their swords. The fruit has other life and death connotations too: while widely considered a symbol of fertility and new beginnings, in Greece its seeds are often added to a kind of porridge served at funerals, thus closing the circle.
It seems fitting to prepare this dish, with its contrasting tastes and simultaneous life and death drives, on the last night of the year. As we eat, we reflect on the highs and lows the year has served us with, and look forward in trepidation and hope.
This recipe was yet again a shot in the dark for me. After giving myself a headache researching lots of recipes for Fesenjan, I decided to go with something between this Thomasina Miers’ one and Greg and Lucy Malouf’s because they were essentially the same, although one is with vegetables and the other with duck. Many recipes suggest sweetening according to taste, and if you are using unsweetened pomegranate molasses, you may need to add more sweetener than indicated, which in most cases is sugar. I opted for Miers’ version of honey rather than sugar, but ended up adding more than the recipe called for, and a little orange juice (a tip gleaned from a recipe commenter) especially after I added the meat, to achieve what in my mind was the perfect sweet-sour balance. No doubt you will have your own idea of what that is, and perhaps a better one than mine if you are well acquainted with Fesenjan.
A note too on the walnuts: a lot of recipes boil the walnuts on their own in water before adding other ingredients. I couldn’t get to the bottom of why this is the case, and with the method below they still cooked and released their trademark oil after the designated time.
500g chicken thighs, ideally skinless and boneless
200g shelled walnuts
4 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground turmeric or 1/4 tsp of saffron threads diluted in 2 tbsp water
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp tomato paste
1-2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (preferably unsweetened)
300 ml pomegranate juice (freshly squeezed if available)
2 tbsp honey, or more to taste.
1 bay leaf
400ml oz good-quality chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp salt, or to taste.
Juice of lemon
Juice of half an orange (optional)
Preheat the oven to 190C. Roast the walnuts on a baking tray for 5-15 minutes until a deep golden-brown (check and mix every 5 minutes or so to ensure they don’t burn). Tip the nuts into a tea towel and rub well to remove as much skin as possible, then set aside to cool. Pulse the cooled nuts in a food processor, either until they are coarsely ground, or finer, if you prefer less texture.
Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan over a low heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and fry gently until soft and translucent. Stir in the spices and tomato paste and fry for another couple of minutes. Add the walnuts to the pan with the pomegranate molasses and juice, the honey, bay leaf and stock. Bring to a boil, then add the salt, lower the heat and simmer gently for 1 hour, stirring regularly, until rich, thick and a little oily. Add a little more stock if it is too thick.
Meanwhile, sear the chicken in 2 tbsp oil until it is lightly golden brown on each side, but not cooked through. Add it to the sauce above and simmer in the sauce for another half an hour to one hour.
At the end, add the lemon juice and adjust seasoning as you see fit. You can add some fresh orange juice to taste if more sweetness is required.
If you want to make this vegetarian, omit the chicken step and roast some vegetables in thyme and oil while the sauce is cooking. Serve on top of the thick sauce, as Miers suggests.