In Persian cooking, all roads eventually lead to rice. The holy grail of making polo (Persian-style rice) is a bed of aromatic fluffy rice, not one single grain sticking to another. Like all tasks demanding finesse, this accomplishment takes practice and patience and some luck. Of course, you couldn’t make polo without making tah digh or “bottom-of-the-pot crunchy rice” or rather, you could, but then everyone at the dinner table would look at you in disbelief – crestfallen and heartbroken. If at all possible, breaking hearts must be averted while you cook. We will tackle the toothsome topic of tah digh at another time though. For this post we will stick to just rice.
Iranians are quite proud of their rice dishes and truthfully, there is a just basis for the bragging rights. Conjure this for example: candied carrots, barberries, slivered pistachio and almonds layered inside a bed of fluffy rice steaming fragrant with saffron and a touch of butter. Sounds great, doesn’t it? These are the delectable building blocks of a crowd-pleasing rice dish called shirin polo or sweet rice.
Shirin is an adjective that means sweet, and in Iran it is a retro-popular name for girls, girls who may or may not grow up to be entirely sweet. Sweet rice is somewhat of a misnomer as well, in that the sweetness of this dish is punctuated with the most wonderful bursts of contrasting tangy flavor courtesy of the barberries, and is nicely balanced with the nutty flavor and crunch of the almond and pistachio garnish.
Shirin polo, in its most elaborate and meticulous incarnation, is a dish served on festive occasions, including weddings. This simplified version is Maman’s go-to for a nice dinner at home – and we thought a jolly way to debut Fig & Quince‘s inaugural polo post. Hope you’ll agree!
- 2 1/2 cups best-quality Basmati rice
- 1 pound julienned carrots (using pre-cut matchbook carrots is A-ok!)
- 1/2 cup barberries (soak in cold water for at least 5 minutes, rinse a few times, drain)
- 1/4 cup slivered or chopped pistachio
- 1/4 cup slivered blanched almonds
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- large pinch of ground saffron
- 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
- small pinch cumin
- small pinch coriander powder
- olive oil, butter, salt and pepper
- Wash the rice (rinse with cold water a few times until the water runs clear) and drain. In a large pot bring 4 quarts of water and 2 tablespoons of salt to a boil. Add the rinsed rice – gradually instead of in one fell swoop. Boil the rice for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally & gently. Drain in a colander. Pour 2 to 3 cups of tepid water over the rice in the colander. Drain. This step helps de-starch the rice which in turn prevents rice grains from sticking to each other. (Remember, in Persian cooking, the gold standard of rice is obtaining a bed of individual grains of rice, none sticking to another.)
- Rinse the pot you used to boil the rice. Bring 1/2 cup water and 2 tablespoons oil (plus an optional generous dab of butter) and heat till boiling. Then, one spatula of rice at a time, spread rice in pot, first fully covering the bottom of the pot, then layer rice tapering off on the top to create a pyramid of sort. With the end of a wooden spoon make a few holes in the rice pyramid. Cover and cook over medium heat until detecting steam – usually around 20 minutes. Lower heat and continue to cook for another half hour – until done. (One test for when the rice is done is to moisten finger tip and touch pot, if you hear a little “pssst” sound, the rice is ready.) Turn off heat and let rice rest undisturbed in the pot for 5 minutes. Then wet a kitchen towel with cold water and place pot on top of the towel. (The pot will go “psssszzzt” again! This step helps release the “tah digh” which we’ll tackle in another post but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it presently. The rice is now ready to be layered, plated and served.
- While waiting for the rice to cook, heat olive oil (plus an optional tablespoon of butter) in a large skillet. Add carrots and saute over medium heat until pliant – usually around 5 minutes. Then season carrots with a tiny pinch of saffron, cumin, coriander, and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon. Also add 1 tablespoon sugar (some people add more sugar but we prefer a jot rather than a wealth of sweetness.) Stir to mix, lower heat, place lid ajar on top of pan to capture steam, and cook for another 5 minutes. (This allows sugar to liquify and carrots to really soak up the sugar.) Set aside.
- Heat olive oil (with an optional touch of butter) till hot, hot, hot; then lower heat and saute barberries with 1 tablespoon sugar on low flame, stirring frequently, for no longer than a minute. (Barberries are delicate so mind you don’t go over one minute.) Set aside.
- Mix a tiny pinch of ground saffron with 1 teaspoon of hot water.
- Once rice is ready to be served, set aside 2 spatulas of rice in a small dish and sprinkle with the saffron water, using a fork to fluff the rice and making sure it evenly colors with saffron water. You will use this yellow-saffron-colored rice to add to the top of the rice as a decorative dome. Set this aside for now.
- Spread a layer of rice on a serving platter, top the layer with a sprinkling of carrots and barberries. Repeat this process (a layer of rice then topped with carrots and barberries) till done. [Do leave one tablespoon each of carrot and barberries for the garnish.] Top this with the saffron-colored rice, using your hands or a spatula to shape the rice into dome-like construction. Sprinkle this with pistachio and almonds and the barberries and carrots you saved for garnish. And voila, you’re ready to eat.
- NOTE: To make this dish more scrumptious and moist, you can melt 2 tablespoon of butter and pour evenly over the serving platter.
Typically, shirin polo is served with (roasted or otherwise cooked) chicken. Chicken pieces can be diced, cubed, or fillet. Whatever is your preference.
Also, there is no ordinance against enjoying this delicious rice as a vegetarian dish – in which case you could use a more generous portion of almonds and pistachio to layer the rice as well as use as garnish.
Make it and enjoy it and noosheh jaan!