Vegetarian Rice with Aubergine (Eggplant), Persian-Style

Will I ever stop posting recipes that use aubergines in one way or another? Never! I love aubergines so much I always have at least a couple in my fridge. So here is another recipe with aubergine playing a star role.

The now humble aubergine has been eaten in Iran since ancient times. There are references to dishes made with aubergines in 9th century books, like a dish called burani that was created for the very lavish wedding feast of Queen Buran, the Persian wife of Caliph al-Mamoun, the caliph of Baghdad. At that time the aubergine which originated in India was quite a novelty.

Medium-sized aubergines
Medium-sized aubergines. Aubergines were brought to Iran from India  in ancient times.

The list of Persian rice dishes has no ending. This one is not a particularly authentic one although there are some regional rice dishes that are layered with aubergines such as the bademjan polo of Qazvin (a city to the west of the capital, Tehran).

This dish is one of my “fusion” ones. It’s kind of a cross between bademjan polo and the Spanish paella. The cuisines of Iran and Spain  have a lot in common. Sounds strange? It does but food historians have established the connection between the two cuisines. The influence came through the Moors that ruled Spain for centuries. The Moors who had been influenced by the Persians in many ways took both rice and saffron to Spain with them.

Iranian rice dishes are usually made in deep saucepans but I like to make this dish in a big frying pan, much like in making paella. I also like to make it with Arborio rice. Arborio is short-grain and usually used for making risottos. If you are using other rice varieties, such as basmati, make sure you use less water as other types of rice can quickly get mushy unless they are of the “easy cook” type which needs even more water to cook thoroughly.

Cubed aubergines, mushrooms, tiny plum tomatoes, sliced jalapeño peppers, chopped onions and garlic give body , texture and lots of flavour to the rice.
Cubed aubergines, mushrooms, tiny plum tomatoes, sliced jalapeño peppers, chopped onions and garlic give body , texture and lots of flavour to the rice.


Turmeric and saffron give a bright colour, and lots of flavour, to the pilaf.

This dish can be flavoured with saffron, too. I usually use saffron (I’m lucky I always have a stash sent to me by family from Iran) but sweet smoked Spanish paprika is a great spice on its own. I sometimes use both. There are no words to describe the aroma of these spices when the rice is bubbling away on the stove!

I love to serve this scrumptious rice dish with plenty of tomato and cucumber salad (salad shirazi), a basket of herbs (sabzi khordan), yoghurt, olives and/or Persian relishes (torshi). With all these accompaniments the meatless dinner turns into a real feast!

To serve four people you will need the following ingredients:

  • 1 large white onion (or 2 small), finely chopped
  • 4 tbsp oil (extra virgin rapeseed oil works very nicely)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 large or 2 small aubergines, unpeeled, cut into cubes
  • 400g brown (or other) mushrooms, thickly sliced
  • 2 red pepper, seeded and cut into small squares
  • 2 jalapeno, thinly sliced (or substitute chillies, or omit if you wish)
  • A handful of tiny plum or cherry tomatoes
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp sweet smoked Spanish paprika
  • 1 1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds, lightly crushed
  • 400g Arborio or other risotto rice
  • 1 litre boiling water (or vegetable or other stock)
  • Pinch of saffron (ground)
  • 1 tsp salt (less if using stock)
  • Chopped parsley or coriander to garnish


  1. Put the rice in a sieve and rinse under cold water. Drain well and set aside.
  2. Heat half of the oil in a large frying pan with a lid. Add the chopped onion and sauté on medium heat until lightly golden (about six minutes). Add the minced garlic and red peppers and cook for 2 minutes. Stir from time to time.
  3. Add the cubed aubergine. Stir and cook for a few minutes until the aubergine is lightly golden. Add the mushrooms and cook for 2 minutes.
  4. Sprinkle all the spices (except saffron, if using) on the aubergine mixture. Add the sliced jalapeno (or chillies) and the rest of the oil. Cook for 2 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and 2 tablespoons water and cover. Cook on medium heat until water is evaporated and the tomatoes soften a bit.
  5. Add the rice to the pan and stir to cover the rice grains in oil and spices. Add 1/4 litre (one cup) boiling water (or stock) and stir gently. Cook uncovered over medium-high heat (or medium, depending on the size of your burner) until most of the water has evaporated. Add the saffron and the rest of the water (or stock) in the same way, one cup at a time and cook until the rice grains soften but still have a bite in the centre. Cover with the lid and lower the heat to low. Let the rice steam. If you like the slightly caramelised crust in the bottom of a paella pan or are a fan of Persian tahdīg continue the steaming on low heat until the rice in the bottom is slightly browned. The crust will be really yummy!
  6. Garnish with chopped parsley or coriander and serve with yoghurt, herbs and chopped tomato salad. Enjoy!

Cooking time: Anywhere between 45 to 60 minutes depending on the type of rice, size of frying pan and size of burner. 

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