Saffron cod, or Mahi ba Zafferan, is a classic Persian dish known for its simple yet memorable flavor. The dish is made with white fish like cod or tilapia and is flavored with turmeric, saffron, and lemon juice.
Although I make this recipe all year round, it's extra special around the Persian New Year, Nowruz, when we begin to enjoy all the special things spring has to offer like the start of the fishing season.
Why this Recipe Works
It's a versatile dish and can work with many different types of skinless white fish, and works best with fish cuts that are between ¼ and ¾ inches thick, which are usually on the less expensive side and cook up quickly. If you're looking for a similar dish but one that I make with salmon, you can try this sabzi polo ba mahi.
The batter is a simple mix of turmeric and flour. You coat the fish in this to give it a crispy-crunchy outside texture when fried. And we shake off the excess flour so the fish doesn’t stick to the pan.
This is meant to be a simply flavored dish, so if you’re looking for an extra kick of flavor, you can take it up a notch by seasoning it with a fish seasoning, Persian 7 spice, or Old Bay in addition to the basic salt and pepper.
Ingredients & Substitutions
Saffron – You should be able to get saffron at your local Middle Eastern Market for the best price and quality. If not, you can find saffron online.
Cod – You can substitute with another skinless white fish, like tilapia. Best if it's ¼-3/4" thick.
Turmeric – Use dried, ground turmeric. This helps enhance the yellow color of the dish, and is optional.
All-purpose flour – You can dredge the fish in breadcrumbs or panko for a breaded fish as an alternative.
Oil – You can use any flavorless oil for the frying oil, like vegetable or canola. It's also common to fry in butter or ghee.
Lemon & juice – This dish is often made with narage, also known as bitter orange.
How to Make this Recipe
Start by grinding and blooming the saffron in 2 tablespoons of hot water and set it aside. You can do this the night before over ice or in ice water for extra aroma.
Next, dry the fish on both sides, especially if it was previously frozen.
Frozen fish is okay to use, but there will be excess water. Make sure you pat them completely dry so they don’t stick to the pan.
Mix together the turmeric and flour on a large, shallow plate. Dredge the fish in the flour mixture, making sure it is well coated, and shake it to remove excess flour.
Next, heat a cast iron skillet or heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat with enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan.
While the oil heats, add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to the steeped saffron and set that aside.
When the oil is hot, add the fish. It should start frying immediately. Move the fish around with your spatula to make sure it isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Cook the fish for 2 minutes until golden brown and crispy. Then flip, pour over the lemon saffron mixture, and cook the second side for 2 minutes until golden brown and crispy.
Serve immediately with lemon wedges for a fresh squeeze of lemon just before enjoying. This dish is delicious served with baghali polo, Persian Dill Rice.
Steeping saffron helps to bring out its flavor and aroma. Hot water also helps to intensify the classic yellow color of the saffron, making it more vibrant. You can also steep it overnight on ice or in cold water for an even more intense aroma.
It is best and easiest to use a thermometer to help you keep the oil between 350F and 375F. If you don't have one, you can cook a test piece to make sure the temperature isn't too hot (the outside will burn, and inside left raw) or too cool (the food will absorb the oil and you will be eating more oil than food).
You could use any skinless white fish such as haddock, sole, flounder, halibut, grouper or trout.
Saffron comes from the filament of the stamen of the Crocus Sativus flower. Harvesting saffron is really tricky, as the flower is in bloom for a short period of time. The saffron must be collected on the same day the flower blooms to be used. Its scarcity makes saffron the most expensive spice by weight.
Pair your saffron cod with some of these incredible Persian recipes.
Saffron Cod - Mahi ba Zafferan
- 1 12-inch cast iron skillet or similar (you can use smaller, but will need to fry in batches)
- 1 pinch saffron
- 1 lb. cod ¼-3/4" thick cod, tilapia, or similar
- salt and pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon turmeric optional
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoon oil vegetable, canola, or other flavorless oil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice or narage aka bitter orange
- 1 lemon cut into wedges, for serving
- Grind and bloom the saffron in 2 tablespoons of hot water and set it aside*.
- Dry the fish on both sides, especially if it was previously frozen.
- Season well on both sides with salt and pepper.
- Mix together the turmeric and flour in a large, shallow plate. Dredge the fish in the flour mixture, and shake to remove excess flour.
- Heat a cast iron skillet or heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat with enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan.
- While the oil heats, add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to the steeped saffron and set that aside.
- When hot, add the fish. It should start frying immediately. Move the fish around with your spatula to make sure it isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook for 2 minutes until golden brown and crispy.
- Flip, pour over the lemon saffron mixture, and cook the second side for 2 minutes until golden brown and crispy.
- Serve immediately with lemon wedges for a fresh squeeze of lemon just before enjoying.