Persian Rice: Plain to POWABUNGA!!


I hope you’ve been practicing the art of making Persian rice, because it is time to amp up the volume and foray into the eclectic wonderland of Persian mixed-rice, and making a good bed of fluffy white Persian rice (polo sefid) is its delicious prerequisite.

I’m excited to finally share with you the afore-promised “how to hack a plain Persian rice” installment of Fig & Quince’s “Persian Rice 101 series” — so named because my mom has a simple, genius method of hacking a plain Persian saffron rice into an impressive, gorgeous and sublime mixed-rice dish that is fit for any festive occasion:

What my mom does is to layer spatula-fulls of the plain rice with a mixture of sautéed barberris and candied orange peels when plating the rice on the serving platter. Sometimes, she also likes to add candied & spiced matchstick-cut carrots to the mix as well (to wit, see the sunset-colored spectacle of the rice dish below.) Optional final touches are to garnish the pyramid of rice with slivers of almond and/or pistachio, and no matter what, she always ends with a devastating coups de grâce flourish of dousing the platter with a couple of tablespoons of melted butter.

The end result is basically a modified and hybrid zereshk polo (berberry rice,) shirin polo (sweet rice,) javaher polo (jeweled rice) and havij polo (carrot rice) all in one. A stunning crowd-pleaser. Something that makes you happy to be alive when you look at it and inhale its fragrance, and the kind of food you close your eyes when you eat it.

This picture is of the dish my mom made this past Norooz and I swear by all that I consider sacred that it was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. I boldly take some of the credit for making the candied orange peels that came out just the perfect cut and texture and taste – slightly sweet but with just the right hint of bitter zing. The combo of the candied peels with tangy berberis and soft, sweet carrots alongside with the fluffy saffron & butter imbued rice and let’s not forget to mention the crunchy tadig and the perfectly roasted rosemary chicken was … honestly: everyone was in a trance! A truly memorable dish. And so pretty!

Here’s a step-by-step how-to guide to please and entrance a crowd of your own with a gorgeous Va Va Voom Powabunga Persian rice dish:

Step #1 Make polo sefid aka Persian rice.

Follow the directions to make the perfect Persian rice as detailed here. [Introduction to Persian rice and tadig and pictorial how-to tutorials also at your disposal here and here should you need a friendly reference.]

Step #2 Make Candied Orange Peels.

Wash, scrub, and dry a large orange. Score skin with knife in 4 sections and peel out neatly without tearing off the skin. Using a small sharp knife, cut out the white spongy layer of the peel. Scrape any stubborn white pith clinging to the peel by running the edge of the knife against the peel in a back and forth scrubbing motion. (Do leave a thin film of the white pith otherwise the orange peel won’t withstand the several boiling baths that awaits it.) Cut into even-sized matchstick-shaped, thin, long-limbed strips.

In a small pot bring 1 cup of water to a boil, add orange peels, boil for 3 minutes, then drain in a colander. Do not rinse! Repeat this exact step two more times, each time using a freshly rinsed pot and fresh batch of water. After the 3rd boiled-water bath, bring 1 more cup of water to a boil in a clean pot, and cook orange peels and 2 tablespoons of sugar on medium heat until all the liquid has been absorbed. Keep a watchful eye to avoid burning the peels. Once finished, sample a taste and if you find it still too bitter, add more sugar to your liking and stir to mix. Sugar liquifies and it will be absorbed by the orange peels. (A hint of bitterness is a wonderful contrast with the rest of the dish’s ingredients.)

Step #3: Sauté Barberris.

Rinse 1 cup of barberries several times; then soak in cold water for 5 minutes. After a final rinse, spread on a paper towel and allow to completely dry. Then sauté for just one minute in a mixture of olive oil and butter with 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon and a hint of ground saffron. Keep a watchful eye as barberries burn easily.

Step #4 : Make Spiced & Glazed Matchstick-Cut Carrots.

My mom recommends only a store-bought one pound bag of very thinly-matchstick-cut carrots for this technique:

Bring 1 cup of water, 1 cup of sugar, 1 teaspoon of lemon zest and 1″ sized cube of peeled ginger to a boil. Add carrots, bring to a boil again, then reduce to medium heat and cook for 30-45 minutes or longer until the syrup is entirely absorbed. At the last 5 minutes of cooking, add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon to the carrots. When done, fish out the ginger and discard.

This step is optional. If you skip it, you’ll end up with zereshk polo (rice with berberis) pictured on top; which is elegant and delicious in its own right and a classic Iranian rice dish.

Step #5. Roast a Chicken.

My mom likes to serve this dish with a roasted chicken that she prepares quite simply:

Coat chicken (washed & dried first) with a mixture of lemon juice and grated ginger and let sit for several hours. Just before roasting, pat dry the chicken with a paper towel, rub its skin with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add a twig or two of a fragrant herb such as sage or rosemary. Roast in an oven preheated to 375 degree. Depending on the oven, the chicken will be roasted within 30 minutes. Once roasted to your satisfaction, baste it with its own juices and serve alongside with the rice.

Final Step – Putting it all together:

Once rice is cooked and ready to be served, set aside the saffron colored crown portion for a last-step garnish. Plate the remaining rice, a few spatulas of rice at a time, on a serving platter, and sprinkle each layer with a mixture of berberis and orange peels. Repeat this process till you are only left with the crunchy bottom-of-the pot yummy tadig. Form the rice plated on the serving platter into the shape of a mound and top it with the saffron-colored rice that was earlier set aside. If using candied carrots, arrange it in the shape of a thick halo around the rice. Sprinkle the remaining berberis and candied orange peels over the rice. If using slivered almonds and pistachios, artfully sprinkle those on the rice as well. Douse rice with a few tablespoons of melted butter.

As for the tadig, use a spatula to lift and remove the tadig layer out of the pot – ideally in as intact a shape a possible. Cut the crunchy bottom-of-the-pot tadig into serving wedges. Garnish with berberis and/or candied orange peels. Serve alongside with the rice and the roasted chicken.

That’s it. You’re now a Persian-rice-making superstar. Prepare to be adored by all those who get to eat your food.

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Comments (52)

  • Lizzy (Good Things) 11 years ago Reply

    I am so going to try your recipe… just need to find some berberis here in Australia!

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Lizzy try finding it online if you can’t find it in actual stores … it is relatively hard to find here in the U.S. as well. If you do get some, also try munching on some mixed with nuts, it makes for a kind of a good trailmix bit.
    I’d love to see you make this rice dish!

    Ross 11 years ago Reply

    If you are close to any Iranian/iraqi/Afghan food shop (Auburn, Lakemba, Parramatta in Sydney) try them. Often labelled zhereshk. Imported by Aust-Aria Mascot NSW Ph. 612 9700 9678 from Iran. Don’t buy from “gourmet” joints like Herbies online, prices are ridiculously high.

  • LFFL 11 years ago Reply

    That looks lovely. Something new to try.

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    It’s nice – do try it! & Thank you for visiting and commenting!

  • peppersandplums 11 years ago Reply

    Another winning piece!
    Sent from my iPad

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    thank you!

  • apuginthekitchen 11 years ago Reply

    Gorgeous rice, beautiful post. I agree with your Mom a simple roasted chicken is the best with that jeweled rice. YUM.

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Thank you! It is also good without the chicken but yeah, the combo, is a delicious match.

  • Dear Azita,
    what a feast for the eyes…gorgeous colors..but most of all fabulous flavors!
    Thank you thank you, I hope I’ll find some time to apply myself into the art of cooking persian rice and be able to share this with some friends.
    I wish you a lovely afternoon/evening

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Lou, you are a new friend who feels like an old one! I so wish we could exchange visits at our tables. I would similarly love to somehow/sometime find a way to dive into the art of baking and maybe even attempting to make a millefeuille of my own! 😉
    je t’envois biosus aussi

  • Azita, what a WONDERFUL post! So much colour in this festive rice dish, and I can imagine how perfect it is served with your roast chicken!

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Thank you dear Celia, I like the sunset colors of this dish as well.

  • Anne ~ Uni Homemaker 11 years ago Reply

    That looks so flavorful and delicious! YUM!

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    🙂 thank you for visiting!

  • Ross 11 years ago Reply

    Do you have any thoughts re breed of orange? I ask because Sevilles should be coming into season in the Southern Hemisphere soon. The greengrocers always advise–because they are a little bitter (yum!)– that they are best used for marmalade. I like the bitterness myself, perhaps it would set off the sweet elements in this dish?

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Hi Ross, any breed of orange will do, but Sevilles oranges sound mighty nice. I have such fond memories of Seville! Do let me know how the rice turns out. Curious minds want to know.

  • Tina 11 years ago Reply

    Thank you Azita! I am looking forward to cooler weather to try some new Persian recipes. And I love cooking with ginger, happy to use it with roasted chicken.

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Hi Tina, my pleasure. You’re in luck re the ginger as my mother just loves using ginger whenever possible! 🙂

  • Tina 11 years ago Reply

    Also, going to try fesenjan this Fall for the first time. Have you blogged about that dish? Would love to learn your version.

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Ooh, you’ll be making it for the first time? That’ll be fun! It’s really not a very hard khoresh to make. I did post a recipe for it here: Hope it’ll come in handy for you as a reference. Do let me know how it all turns out and: Noosheh Jaan in advance 🙂

    Tina 11 years ago

    Thank you for the reference, I’ll check it out. You know I have been dating my Persian boyfriend for 10 years and I am just beginning to delve into the cuisine. I am very appreciative of your sharing.

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago

    So you held out for 10 years? 😉 I hope you’ll enjoy delving in and my mom and I are both thrilled if we can be of help in any way shape or form, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. Good luck Tina with your delicious adventures!

  • Turmeric and Terrine 11 years ago Reply

    That looks so great Azita! Persian Jeweled rice is on my must-try lists. As usual great post!

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Love hearing that – do tell me how it turns out once you venture and make it!

    Turmeric and Terrine 11 years ago

    Will do. Thanks!

  • johnnysenough hepburn 11 years ago Reply

    Every time! Yes, every time I cook rice I feel guilty. As I’m not cooking rice the Persian way! Seriously, I should cover the windows in my tiny kitchen just in case the neighbours see. One of these days. Hoping.
    – This type of rice isn’t an everyday occurrence, right?!

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    in some crazy households it may be! there are a couple of short cuts. one is making it “kateh” style which doesn’t require the entire rigamorale but still delivers; and then there is this nifty thing called “polo paz” or electric rice maker and many people use those as well. I’ll cover both kateh and polo paz in the relatively new future. Flirt with Persian rice making when you have the time but until then: no guilt!

  • leduesorelle 11 years ago Reply

    Ah, I see where you inherited your love of cooking from! Is there an alternative to using non-stick but still be able to get the requisite tadig?

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Ok, so 3 ways to do this:
    1. layer bottom of pot with a thin type of flat bread such as lavash bread and oil (instead of a yogurt and rice mixture)
    2. cut potatos matchstick shape and layer bottom of pot with potatos and oil
    3. use your pot with the yogurt/rice mixture but when done cooking, place pot in a bigger container and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes n cold water which should help the tadig layer to lift.
    Good luck! Happy tadig ‘ing! 😉

  • chef mimi 11 years ago Reply

    Oh my god. this is the most beautiful rice dish I’ve ever seen. I so wish I could taste it.

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Chef Mimi, thank you! I’m so happy to hear that and I really really wish I could have shared this in real life with you and fellow bloggers.

  • radhika25 11 years ago Reply

    How did I miss this? The rice looks beautiful Azita! Wish I were there to taste it 🙂

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Wish you WERE HERE to taste it!! Come! : )

    radhika25 11 years ago

    Next time I’m in the US! When we came in May, we were in Houston, Miami and LA. Didn’t come to NY at all. But my son studied at Bard for 4 years, so we’d always come to NY.

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago

    Yes! We’ll grab Suzanne and will have a regular pow wow bloggers reunion, that would be so lovely!

    radhika25 11 years ago

    Yes, with the divine polo with candied orange peel! And tahdig! Drool!

  • Darya 11 years ago Reply

    I confess, I have NOT yet tried making polo of any kind; but I have an excuse, it was summer, and I felt like staying away from the kitchen as much as possible. Now that fall has fallen upon us (no pun intended) I will give it a try! And I have just purchased top-quality basmati rice; 1st step is done!
    Your dish here is absolutely gorgeous. I can imagine all the different flavors and textures. Wonderful!

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Stocking top quality rice is the pivotal step in the journey towards the perfect Iranian rice – so you’re half way there! Bon chance Darya, I know you’ll do a bang up job of it.

  • laurasmess 11 years ago Reply

    Oh Azita, this is one of the happiest rice dishes I have ever seen! Such beautiful, glossy carrots, barberis and orange peels! Definitely going to try this version of Persian rice. I did try the original; my pot doesn’t seem to create a very nice version of tahdig (not evenly browned and crispy, more patchy. It fell apart when I tried to remove it). I think I need to invest in a more solid-based pot to get a good, even result. Yum. Thanks so, so much for sharing your mum’s version of this dish. Delicious! xx

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Ok, Laura joon, try with a different pot but also it could be a heat thing – as in the initial amount when rice is on high heat … bottom line (no pun intended) tadig is a tricky thing. It really really is. But I hope you’ll enjoy the fluffy rice part of it. This particular rice is very popular with Iranians and non-Iranians and worth a try.

    laurasmess 11 years ago

    I loved the taste of both parts of it but I was disappointed not to get nice crispy triangles of tadig like yours! I will try again next time. Fingers crossed! Thanks for the tips! xx

  • bentehaarstad 11 years ago Reply

    Your posts are so enjoyable. I wish there was an restaurant around serving exactly your food.

  • Ross 11 years ago Reply

    Speaking of Cowabunga rice: Shipment of Basmati from India intercepted in Australia by Customs. Illegal ephedrine was mixed in, the smugglers hoping that it would resemble rice dust. NOT Lal Qilla brand, which I use.

    Fig & Quince 11 years ago Reply

    Oh MY! Yikes! I will forever remember this when rinsing rice dust out of rice, ha ha. Thanks for sharing Ross.

  • celestedimilla 11 years ago Reply

    Such wonderful photos!! They make it all look enticing! Celeste 🙂

  • This looks like the most glamorous, luxurious bowl of rice ever. I have never even heard of berberis, could you substitute them with something? Nuts? Pomegranate?

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Dear Tuscan Olive Grove Girl, Talk about a belated reply! I just now noticed your comment. Boy, am I red-faced!
    In answer to your questions, …., hmmm. Berberis look like tiny scarlet colored raisins and they have a tart taste. If you can get your hands on dried pomegranate seeds that you then sautee, that might be a suitable substitution.

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