Festive White Rice. Photo: Dan Perez | Styling: Nurit Kariv
Festive White Rice. Photo: Dan Perez | Styling: Nurit Kariv
Recipe

אורז לבן חגיגי

This is a basic recipe for Persian-style white rice, colored with saffron and beautifully garnished with orange rind, rose petals, and nuts

Festive white rice dyed with saffron is such a celebratory dish, especially when you make it in the shape of a cake and decorate it with orange rind, rose petals, blanched almond slivers and pistachios. Without the bells and whistles, this is a basic recipe for white rice, a popular accompaniment for many dishes and the bread and butter of Persian cuisine.

Rice is a cornerstone of Persian cuisine. Iran, located on the trade route connecting the East to the West, was already exposed to rice about two thousand years ago. Rice in Persian is called Berenj and the origin of the word is in Sanskrit (an ancient Indo-Iranian language).

Rice made its first appearances in the Jewish community during the Babylonian exile (modern day Persia), and it is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud. Rice spread throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, and one Spanish community after another adopted it.

Each community adopted a different cooking method indigenous to the area, and in each community, rice became part of Shabbat Dinner. Various methods were developed to dress it up for festive occasions – dying with saffron or turmeric, adding almonds or pistachios, cooking in a mold or baking in dough. Each community utilized several different strains of rice, some of which were grown locally. In Iran “Domsiah” was the most popular – a thin, delicate, long-grain rice, with a black spot on one end, which gave it the name (domsiah is “black end” in Persian). The most similar rice sold internationally is Basmati rice.

The cooking method of Persian rice is a little longer and more elaborate, it includes washing the rice beforehand (and even soaking it overnight), cooking in boiling water and steaming. The result is light, soft rice whose grains are famously separated from each other. After that, take the rice out of the pot and fry a layer called tahdig (which in Persian, literally means “the bottom of the pot)”, this is the layer of rice that absorbs all the flavors and is considered a delicacy in Persian cuisine. After removing the rice from the pot, scrape out the tahdig, whole, and serve on a separate plate. Tahdig is also synonymous for the word “guest” in Persian, expressing the importance of hospitality in Iranian culture, as the the guest who spends the night also receives the tahdig – the tastiest part of the rice.

Saffron water: a basic recipe that goes well with many Persian dishes, for example sweet rice, rice pie with legumes or rice with carrots, raisins and caraway. It is prepared fresh, and in small amounts as needed. This way the flavor and color are at their best. The addition of sugar is not mandatory, but it helps in caramelization (for example, of the tahdig). So you shouldn’t omit it when preparing saffron water for use in dishes that might benefit from a subtle addition of color and sweetness, such as this festive white rice. Note that the saffron threads are first crushed in a mortar and pestle.

Ingredients for Festive White Rice

For the rice:

  • 4 cups rice
  • 1 heaping tablespoon Salt
  • oil
  • 1 tablespoon saffron water (see recipe)
  • 4.5 oz (130 grams) Greek yoghurt

For the festive garnish:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/3 cup orange rind cut into matchsticks
  • 1/3 cup sliced (slivered) blanched almonds
  • 1/3 cup pistachio nuts Roasted (in a pan without oil) and halved
  • 1/3 cup rose petals (Available in specialty spice shops and markets)

For 1 cup (1/4 liter) saffron water:

  • 5 saffron threads
  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) Sugar
  • 4 tablespoons water boiling

Instructions

Prepare the rice:

  • 1. Prepare the saffron water: Place the saffron threads and sugar in a mortar, grind into a powder and transfer to a glass. Add the boiling water and mix well. Set aside for 15 minutes, until you get a bright orange liquid.

  • 2. Soak the rice in water for 30 minutes in a bowl. Every 10 minutes, strain and wash the rice, until the water runs completely clear.

  • 3. In a large pot, bring water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil over high heat. Add the rice and cook for 7 minutes, until half done. Drain and place in a bowl.

  • 4. In a wide pot with a thick bottom set over medium heat, pour a little less than a 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) of oil.

  • 5. In a bowl mix a 1/3 of the rice, saffron water and yogurt. Add to the pot with the hot oil and press into an even layer.

  • 6. Add the rest of the rice without compressing and use the handle of a wooden spoon to poke holes in the rice to release steam.

  • 7. Cover the pot with a clean kitchen towel, place a lid on top, and cook on high heat for 6-8 minutes, to create the tahdig, the crispy bottom of the rice. Reduce the heat and cook for another 40 minutes.

Prepare the decorative garnish:

  • 8. Heat the oil in a pan. When hot, add the orange peels and fry for 2-3 minutes.

  • 9. When the rice is ready, cool the bottom of the pot with cold water. The temperature difference will help loosen the rice from the pot. Turn the pot over onto a large serving tray.

  • 10. Arrange the fried orange rind, the sliced slivered almonds, roasted pistachios and rose petals on top and serve.

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