Persian saffron rice, tahchin, is a deliciously scented dish that hides delectable treat at the bottom: tahdig, the crispy, near-burnt layer of scorched rice. This recipe gets it right, and easily, every time.
My childhood rice
My mother liked rice but she couldn’t cook it at all well. I recoil with horror at some memories, which naturally didn’t freak out a nine-year-old me as I didn’t have a clue at the time.
She’d boil it in plenty of water, like pasta; and like pasta it would be al dente except al broken dente. If it was inedibly tough, she sometimes tried boiling it for the second time – here’s to innovative double cooked rice.
On other occasions it was mush, soup, goo, unintentional congee. And sometimes she’d steam it covered, as you do, except she’d forget to turn the heat off and it would catch and scorch at the bottom on the residual butter she added in copious quantities (butter compensates for the lack of skill was her motto).
And that was the only time I enjoyed my mum’s cooking – scraping the nearly burnt solidified rice from the bottom of the pan.
Little did I know then what I know now: that it’s the to die-for, fight-for, chef-reserved-for bits of cooked rice at the bottom of the pot in many countries, with Spain and Middle East in the fore.
Soccarat at the bottom of the paella dish, tahdig in the Persian rice dishes, nurungji - Korean scorched rice, pega or pegao in South America – the list is seriously long. One thing is certain – it’s a delicacy.
Well, what do you know? Maybe Mummy was onto something?
Making Persian rice with tahdig
Persian saffron rice, tahchin, is a wonderful combination of fluffy, fragrant rice with a solid, crunchy base. As I said above, it’s the bit beloved of every Iranian.
Some recipes advise to place a layer of flatbread at the bottom of the pan to serve as tahdig, but surely that’s shameless cheating? Plus, half-burnt bread underneath the rice is nothing like the crunchy, caked grains forming the base of the fluffy, uncaked grains.
The most common method of achieving the real deal seems to be cooking the rice on the hob.
Parboiled rice is piled into a sturdy, buttered pan with vents jabbed in the rice for steam to escape. And it cooks covered until, at least in theory, a crunchy bottom layer forms and the remaining rice is tender and fluffy.
But even though this method is recommended by Samin Nosrat, who I limitlessly respect, I struggled with it. Take one was burnt-charcoaled. Take two was hardly coloured. Take three looked okay but refused to leave the pan. Am I my mother’s daughter after all?
Baking turned out to be the solution, and according to Persian Mama it’s a legit cooking method. The tahdig is so good I hardly wanted to touch the remaining – delicious – rice.
How to bake Persian rice?
The rice for the dish can be long grain or basmati, or just everyday rice. It needs washing to rinse out the starch, then soaking for half an hour to speed up the cooking process. Thus parboiling it, in a large pan of plenty salty, saffron-scented water, won’t take longer than ten minutes. After draining, it needs rinsing again with cold water to stop the cooking process.
Tahchin can be made plain, just with saffron and herbs or else it sometimes has added chicken, fish, lamb or vegetables. I like it with a handful of mushrooms and courgettes, cut into small dice and baked in the rice.
Those additions should be cooked until softened and lightly sizzling in butter, before being stirred into the rice, with all the aromatics, herbs and seasoning. About a quarter of the rice will now be decanted into a separate bowl and mixed with yoghurt – that’s going to be the tahdig.
The best dish to use is transparent, glass or Pyrex, so you can peek underneath by the end of the baking process to check for browning. It should be heated in the preheating oven, with butter and oil, generously, melting and foaming over the bottom.
Remove it from the oven carefully and spread the yoghurt-rice mix over the bottom. Pile the rest of the rice on top and poke some chimneys down to the bottom with the handle of a wooden spoon or with chopsticks, for steam vents. Butter dots on top, then a double layer of foil but pierced in places, and into the oven it goes for about an hour and a half.
You can start peeking underneath the dish after about an hour, but it might take much longer than that. What you’re looking for is deep browning, without any burning.
How does it turn out?
It’s a bit of a luck of a draw whether your tahchin slips out of the dish seamlessly into a perfect, crispy dome onto a serving platter, or whether it will decide to stay in the dish no matter what. Run a thin sharp knife around the edge to ease it along before turning it out.
But I promise, even if you have to scrape tahdig out of the vessel with a spoon, it will still be divinely delicious.
More rice recipes
My baked rice pilaf is a veggie dish, with three kinds of mushrooms just for variety; and because there aren’t many things that can’t be improved with dried porcini flavour.
Chicken and prawn paella, an absolutely foolproof recipe. For best results use paella rice, Bomba or Calasparra and an ordinary large frying pan.
Yaki onigiri, grilled Japanese rice balls glazed with miso and stuffed with pickles. They taste like cooked sushi and are considerably easier to make, shaped with a pastry cutter.
More Persian recipes
Mast-o-khiar is Persian yoghurt and cucumber dip with fresh herbs, walnuts and raisins. Samin Nosrat’s recipe suggests using labneh, strained yoghurt cheese, and that is a complete winner.
Persian rice with broad beans, baghali polo, is fragrant, green and yellow with dill and saffron. It’s a classic Iranian side dish for lamb shanks but who cares about lamb? Baghali polo is all you will want.
Persian cucumber and radish salad, sabzi khordan, is the healthiest plate imaginable. Sabzi khordan means 'eat your greens' and it's piled high with fresh herbs over sliced cucumber and radish.