When I was seven or eight, I saw a recipe for saffron bread on Blue Peter and became utterly fixated on making it. When the saffron had eventually been bought (this was the 90s in Ireland, so it had to be specially obtained in town), I set to making a loaf with my mum. We were both surprised at how good the bread was – I made it again many times thereafter – and it opened me up to saffron’s exotic, enigmatic, surely magical flavour at a very young age.
I still adore saffron but now I find it perplexing whenever I try it. It doesn’t taste like any other spice: sometimes it tastes soothing and comforting; other times contrary and bolshy, repeating the same thing over and over again. It’s a funny one, because it’s so subtle initially that the temptation is always there to keep on adding more. But its flavour builds and builds; even the tiniest pinch can permeate a whole dish powerfully (and too powerfully, suddenly, if you add even a little bit too much).
So you need to be careful with it, but the same could be said for anything precious. And precious it is: it’s still one of the most expensive spices in the world, coming from the stigmas of crocus flowers grown mostly in Northern Iran.
It’s used in many parts of the world but is particularly prized in Iranian cuisine, as here in ‘Tachin’, a beloved rice-based dish with a crispy, crunchy bottom (the highly prized ‘tahdig’ layer) that’s richly infused with saffron and topped with dried sweet-sour berries.
Essentially, the way that you achieve the ‘tahdig’, that golden, crunchy layer at the bottom of the rice pot (‘tahdig’ translates as “the bottom of the pot” in Persian) is by oiling the base of the baking dish and then packing the rice in tightly on top so that it kind of fries the layer that’s in contact with it and eventually amalgamates to form a crust while the rice that’s on top of it continues to steam, making it crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, AKA a total heartbreaker of a dish.
I’ve made baked, crispy pilaf-style dishes like this before, but this one was my favourite yet, probably because of the saffron and the extra crispy bits I gave it. I based my tachin on a recipe from Bon Appétit’s Andy Baraghani, with a few changes (the addition of some stock, an onion, and dried cranberries, chopped nuts and mint on top rather than his barberries. I also cooked it slightly differently to make it crispy on the top as well as the bottom.
Tachin (Crispy Saffron Rice)
This crispy-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside Iranian rice dish would be perfect for serving as the starch for a Middle Eastern-themed meal. While it’s a great accompaniment to a chicken tagine, it tends to steal the show a bit: your guests may not have seen anything like it before, and as far as I can tell, everybody is hardwired to love crispy bits.
So, rather than fighting it, just let the tachin have its moment in the sun. Pile it high with whatever chopped herbs, nuts and jewel-like dried fruits you fancy, and only bring it to the dining table when everyone is seated and ready to appreciate its easy golden splendour. Tah-dig!
2 cups of basmati rice
Half a small onion, peeled and thinly sliced into circles
4 cardamom pods
50g butter, melted
Small pinch of saffron threads
3 free range egg yolks
1 cup of yoghurt
200ml chicken stock
Chopped herbs, diced nuts, strips of lemon zest, pomegranate seeds, dried fruit or berries…basically whatever screams ‘redolent’ to you
Without rinsing, start the basmati rice cooking in a large lidded saucepan over a medium heat with a pinch of salt, the cardamom and cloves and 3 cups of cold water. Once at a simmer, turn the heat down and continue to cook gently with the lid on until all the water has been absorbed (no need to stir!) and the rice is fluffy and cooked. Set aside once ready.
Liberally oil all sides of a medium-sized baking dish (ideally glass so that you can see the bottom of the tachin to check how brown it’s getting, but metal or ceramic would be fine either). Infuse the saffron threads in the chicken stock. Once the colour is rich, whisk in the egg yolks, butter and yoghurt. Mix the liquid mix through the rice, stirring well to ensure it’s completely incorporated.
Preheat your oven to 200ºc. Lay a few rings of onion into the base of the dish then pack the rice in, pressing down with a spatula or fish slice to ensure it’s pressed in tightly – this will help it to form a good crust, making it easier to flip the tachin out when you’re ready to serve. Place a metal saucepan lid on top of the dish, pushing down in hard so it’s fully in contact with all of the rice at the top. Bake for 35-45 mins, or until the bottom of the tachin is crisp and golden. When it’s cooked, remove from the oven and leave to sit for a few minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the tachin, place a dinner plate or serving plate that’s wider than the dish on top of it and carefully turn it over in a quick, decisive movement to flip it out, as if you were making a sandcastle on the serving plate. Be sure to wear kitchen gloves throughout this process. Serve steaming hot with whatever garnishes you fancy on top. Make sure you dole out the crispy bits fairly or fights will ensue.