Persian-Style Jewelled Butternut Squash Rice

Today I have a lovely jewelled butternut squash and rice recipe for you that can double as turkey or chicken stuffing. The idea for this awesome recipe came from a conversation with my friend last week. She asked for a Persian vegetarian rice recipe with pumpkins she could make for Thanksgiving. I thought I could make up a recipe for her she could serve as a main for her vegetarian guests  that would also double as a delicious stuffing for her turkey for the carnivore. So here we are with this delicious butternut squash recipe!

But wherever I looked I couldn’t find a single pumpkin. Halloween is only a few weeks from now.Where is all the pumpkin? Can’t there be at least a few early ones in the shops? Maybe I just wasn’t lucky. I found a nice butternut squash though and it worked beautifully in my dish.

Butternut squash can be substituted for pumpkins in many dishes.
Butternut squash can be substituted for pumpkins in many dishes.

I took the inspiration for my dish from one so popular in Iran’s Caspian Sea region. The beautiful Caspian Sea area has so many culinary delights including a rice dish with squash called kehi pelaw or kadoo polo. This dish usually comes with tiny beef or lamb meatballs, or each serving is topped with a fried egg. Some people make it with raisins too. I like to make mine with spices and serve it with saffron-braised chicken. But this time I wanted it to be vegetarian and to look very festive, too.

My first thought was to use a basmati-wild rice mixture. I love the nutty flavour of wild rice. But I wanted more crunch to contrast with the soft texture of the squash so I mixed in some slivered pistachios and almonds too and threw in a few gorgeous barberries for a little splash of red and tangy flavour as well. The berries really complemented the flavour of the squash and the final result looked really pretty and colourful.

Barberries are gorgeous tiny jewel-like tangy red berries. They go into lots of Persian dishes. I usually order online or buy from Persian or Middle Eastern groceries but if I can’t find any I use chopped cranberries. Will work in most dishes.

Tangy barberries add colour and a lot of flavour to many dishes.
Tangy barberries add colour and a lot of flavour to many dishes.

So I cubed the squash and fried it in a little oil in a non-stick coated frying pan until it was lightly caramelised while I was boiling the rice. Pistachio and almond slivers went into the same frying pan at the end with the barberries.

Add the pistachio and almond slivers with the barberries and spices to the lightly caramelised squash and sauté until the berries are shiny.
Add the pistachio and almond slivers with the barberries and spices to the lightly caramelised squash and sauté until the berries are shiny.

Pistachio and almond slivers may be a bit hard to find too unless you order online or have a good Persian or Middle Eastern grocery around you.  But don’t give up making this delicious dish if that’s not the case! Your rice will be just as delicious and beautiful if you use almond flakes and chopped pistachios or even substitute lightly toasted pine nuts for both.

This dish can come with a bonus too. If you keep the rice on low heat for longer than twenty minutes you’ll get a very tasty crust in the bottom. It takes some practice to get the heat and time right to have a beautifully golden crust (tahdig in Persian). When done, the rice can be turned onto a plate like a cake to show off its golden crust.

PS: Jewelled squash rice will make a very lovely stuffing for turkey and chicken. You just need to skip the steaming stage. Toss the squash mixture with the rice and fill the cavity of the bird. The rice needs to be a little undercooked (firm bite in the centre after boiling) so it doesn’t get mushy when the bird is cooking. The following will stuff a large chicken. For Turkey double or triple the amounts as required.

To serve four people as a main you will need the following ingredients:

  • 1 medium butternut squash (about 700g), cut into small cubes
  • 2 tbsp olive oil (or extra virgin rapeseed oil) to sauté the squash, nuts & barberries
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 tsp whole cumin seeds (or 1/2 tsp ground)
  • 1 tbsp light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tbsp barberries, rinsed and drained well on kitchen paper
  • 1 tbsp slivered almonds
  • 1 tbsp slivered pistachios
  • 250g basmati and wild rice mix (or 200g plain basmati and 50g wild rice)
  • 1 1/2 litre water
  • 1 1/2 tbsp salt for boiling the rice
  • 2 tbsp olive oil (or extra virgin rapeseed oil) for the rice
  • A little more pistachio slivers to garnish (or substitute finely chopped parsley)


  1. Bring the water to the boil in a medium non-stick coated saucepan over medium heat with the salt.
  2. Meanwhile, use 1 tablespoon oil to fry the butternut squash cubes with the oil in a frying pan (preferably non-stick coated too) over medium heat until the cubes are lightly caramelised. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and the spices and sauté until the spices are fragrant (about two minutes). Add the sugar and stir gently to coat the cubes. Remove the squash to a separate dish.
  3. Sauté the nuts and barberries with another tablespoon of oil for a minute or until the barberries puff up a little and look shiny and vibrant. Return the squash to the pan and stir gently to mix the ingredients. Turn off the heat.
  4. Add the rice to the boiling water and cook until soft but with a slight bite in the centre. Drain in a colander or sieve and rinse with lukewarm water.
  5. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in the pot over medium heat. Cover with one-third of the rice, then cover with 1/3 of the squash mixture. Repeat until all the rice and squash is used up. When the side of the pot is hot to the touch drizzle the rest of the oil and two tablespoons of boiling water on top of the rice. Cover with the lid (wrapped in a clean tea towel) right away to keep the steam in the pot. Steam the rice on very low heat for about twenty minutes or until there is a lot of steam when you lift the lid. Enjoy!

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