Special Ingredients: Barberries

Barberries (photo from Chow)

Barberries (photo from Chow)

I have many reasons to thank my friend Sepideh, and perhaps at, or near the top of that list, I am forever in her debt for introducing me to barberries.  These little flavor bursts of goodness are wonderful, especially paired with the ingredients that compliment the tartness that these little berries provide.  My first impression of the taste was of tamarind, or cranberries.  The berries are common in Persian and Afghan cuisine (my introduction to them) but have also seen action in European and American cooking, so you may have tried them without knowing. 

Barberries also answer to:

  • Agracejo (Spanish)
  • Berberis (Arabic)
  • Epine Vinette (French)
  • Zeresk (Farsi)
  • European Berberry
  • Holly Thorn
  • Sowberry
  • Pipperbridge bush

The Italians named the barberry the Holy Thorn, because it is thought to have been part of the crown of thorns made for Jesus’ Crucifixion.  The Arabs name of berberis means shell, which linguists speculate is because the leaves are glossy, like the inside of an oyster shell.

barbarries (photo from paghat)

barberries (photo from paghat)

You can find barberries as ornamental bushes in the UK, and parts of Europe, as well as North Africa and temperate Asia.  Animals such as cows, goats and sheep will eat barberries, horses and pigs turn up their noses, and birds avoid them altogether on account of the acidity.  Parts of the plant, including the bark, were used in many parts of Europe as a dye for cloth and leather.  When the plant is boiled in lye, it imparts an intense yellow color to the fabrics.

Barberries grow in elongated clusters.  When dried, as you can see from the image, they look like small, red currents and are used in cooking, prized for their tart taste and fruity aroma.  Like sumac, many species of barberries abound, and some are poisonous.  One reason, barberries may not be as common as they should is because farmers claim they are a host to a type of rust that affects wheat, so do not plant them or allow them to grow near their wheat.  This assumption has been proven incorrect.  

Early American settlers preserved barberries in syrup or vinegar and made them into jelly and jam.

They used to be used in sweetmeats and sugar plum confits.  From the confits, the Confiture d’epine vinette, a famous French recipe from Rouen and Dijon, made from a seedless form of barberry, was developed.



In Afghan and Iranian cooking, barberries flavor rice dishes, with a famous Iranian dish of zereshk polow (barberry rice).  In India, barberries are pickled and served with curries or used like raisins in desserts.

When you are ready to try barberries for yourself, keep the following tips in mind:

Barberries are one item that you want to purchase only from a reputable merchant, because some barberry species are poisonous. Look for moist, red to dark red dried barberries; the red color darkens with age as they oxidize.

Store barberries in an airtight container in the freezer to maintain their bright color and freshness.  Use only berries that are red, if they are dark in color, this is a sign that they are past their prime.  Dried barberries can contain a lot of sand, so make sure to rinse them before you use them. 

Some serving suggestions include adding to stewed fruits or to apple pie filling.  Substitute a few barberries for raisins or dried cranberries in fruitcakes and pies.

Alica Green, in her Field Guide to Herbs and Spices identified some food affinities for barberries: almond, apple, chicken, duck, game, lamb, onion, orange, rice, saffron, veal, venison, yogurt.

Zereshk Polow (photo from hanifworld) similar to what you might find at Moby Dick's in DC

Zereshk Polow (photo from hanifworld) similar to what you might find at Moby Dick's in DC

Zeresk Polow 

(This recipe modified from Najimieh Batmanglij’s incredible book  New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies.  This was the first dish I had with barberries and it set my expectations very high for the future.)

Serves 6

  • 3c basmati rice
  • 1 (3#) frying chicken
  • 2 peeled onions, 1 whole, and 1 thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground pepper
  • 1 tsp saffron dissolved in 4T hot water
  • 2c dried barberries, cleaned, washed and drained
  • 2/3 c clarified butter (ghee)
  • 4 T sugar
  • 2 T plain yogurt
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp cardamon
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 2 T slivered almonds
  • 2 T slivered pistachios

Rinse rice 5 times in warm water

Combine cumin, cinnamon and cardamon.

Place whole chicken in backing dish, stuff with whole onion, garlic, salt and pepper, and on tsp of saffron water.  Cover and bake in 350 F oven for 11/2-2 hours.

Clean barberries, by letting them soak and then rinsing in colander.  Set aside.

Saute sliced onion in 2 T butter, add barberries and saute for 1 minute.  Use low heat as barberries burn easily.  Add sugar and set aside. 

Bring 8 cups of water to boil in a large non-stick pot.  Add rice, and boil briskly for 6 to 10 minutes, stirring a few times to loosen any grains stuck to the bottom.  Drain rice in a fine mesh colander and rinse in 2 c lukewarm water.

In same pot heat 4 T butter and 2 T water.

In a bowl, mix 2 scoops of rice, yogurt, and a few drops of saffron water and spread mixture over the bottom of the pot to form a tender crust (tah-dig)

Place 2 spatulas full of rice in the pot, then sprinkle 1/2 tsp of spice mixture over the rice.  Repeat steps, arranging rice in the shape of a pyramid.  This shape allows room for the rice to expand.  Cover and cook for 10 minutes over medium heat.

Mix remaining melted butter and saffron water with 1/4 c of water and pour over the pyramid.  Place a clean dish towel or paper towel over the pot.  Place the lid on top to prevent steam from escaping.  Cook for 50 minutes over low heat.

Remove pot from heat and allow to cool, covered, for 5 minutes on a damp surface to free crust from the bottom of the pot.

Remove lid and take out 2 T of the saffron flavored rice and set aside for garnish. 

When chicken is done, carve into serving size portions.

Take 1 spatula full of rice at a time and place on a large serving platter in alternating layers with the barberry mixture.  Mound the rice in the shape of a cone.  Arrange the chicken around the platter.  Finally, decorate the top of the mound with the saffron flavored rice, some of the barberry mixture and the almonds and pistachios.  Nush-e-Jan!

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7 comments for “Special Ingredients: Barberries

  1. February 18, 2009 at 4:10 AM

    This dish sounds awesome and I am very curious to try barberries. Thanks for all the neat info!

  2. oysterculture
    February 18, 2009 at 4:09 PM

    Its a fantastic dish. I bet you’ll love the barberries, please let me know what you think when you try.

  3. dailyspud
    February 18, 2009 at 9:31 PM

    I’m intrigued by the sound of those berries (especially the comparison to tamarind, which is an ingredient I love). I will have to see if I can find any!

  4. oysterculture
    February 18, 2009 at 9:39 PM

    They are great, and according to Harold McGee unusual for their tartness. It sounds like you are amassing a great collection of spices and will be cooking some incredible meals soon with those new ingredients!

  5. giverecipe2009
    February 20, 2009 at 9:12 PM

    You made me so corious about barberries. Even though I’m from Turkey, which can be called an Asian country, I’ve never heard it. I’ll definitely go ask it to a spice shop tomorrow.

  6. oysterculture
    February 20, 2009 at 9:23 PM

    Please do, and let me know what you think. I love trying knew ingredients, and I am sure based on the fantatic recipes you provide that you’ll come up with some fantastic ideas.

  7. May 2, 2010 at 1:30 PM

    Yay…….cause yesterday, I saw Barberries in a superb Turkish shop where I buy loads of spices. The lady behind the counter mentioned rice but not wanting to add yet another ingredient to my larder full of nice-to-haves, I stopped myself. Surely, this one dish is worthy of the purchase now!

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