• Steamed saffron rice (chelo). (SBS Food)Source: SBS Food
From a Spanish paella to Korean dolsot bibimbap, the highlight of many rice dishes is actually that golden crisp crust.
By
Rachel Bartholomeusz

19 Jul 2016 - 12:03 PM  UPDATED 7 Jun 2021 - 2:53 PM

Don’t throw out that golden, crispy crust of rice at the bottom of the pan: it’s a fought-over delicacy in many rice-eating cultures around the world, considered the best part of the rice because of its crunchy texture and toasted flavour. We don’t even have a word for it in English, and we’re missing out.

The crust is created by cooking rice in a pan over a flame, and it can take years to perfect.  The method varies by culture, but all require a delicate balancing act, an exact ratio of rice to liquid, the right heat, the right pan and the just right amount of time.

In Iran, it’s called tah-dig, meaning “bottom of the pot”. A Persian chef’s reputation is staked upon their ability to produce the perfect crust on chelow (chelo), or rice.

Buttery, golden and crisp, it’s so loved that other ingredients such as thinly sliced potatoes or pieces of lavash bread are cooked in the same manner, by adding them to the bottom of the rice pan.

“It’s not hard to make after a while, but to find the exact time and temperature is hard,” says Forough Najar Behbahani of Sydney’s Din Din Persian Kitchen. The process involves heating oil in the bottom of the pan, and then adding the bread if you’re using it, or rice. The rice steams, while the tahdig cooks. It’s all about timing: “if you keep the rice in there too long, you risk the tahdig,” says Forough.

“A good tahdig is crispy but not black, the colour is not too dark. If you know tahdig, you’ll be able to judge if it’s good or bad straight away,” she laughs.

At Din Din Persian Kitchen, people call ahead to ask if they have tahdig because it’s not something that can be quickly made to order. While it’s often served on the side of a bowl of rice at home, Forough likes to bring out a complimentary plate of tahgid, when she’s got it, as a surprise for her customers.

“At home, you always want more – you’ve got to share it, and there’s usually not that much,” she says.

In neighbouring Iraq, it’s called hkaka, and is often broken up so that everyone gets a piece.

Over to the east, in Central Asia, pilaf becomes plov, and the bottom of the dish is called gazmakh, but it’s just as special.

In Spain, it’s known as socarrat. Rice came to Spain via Arabia, and with it, a weakness for the crispy, toasted layer at the bottom. It’s the secret to the perfect paella, with each grain of rice perfectly cooked, and a golden crust underneath.

The invention of the rice cooker has been a triumph for convenience throughout Asia but turns out it’s not so great at creating that crispy-rice-at-the-bottom-of-the-pan. Many home cooks have learned how to trick their rice cookers into creating an inferior substitute, while in some countries, commercial versions of this crust – what was essentially a fortuitous by-product – are now made for retail sale.

Guoba is the Chinese word for this “scorched rice”, added to sauces, soups and stews for a toasted flavour. In Vietnam, the rice-at-the-bottom-of-the-pan is known as cơm cháy, in Indonesia, intip, and in the Philippines, it’s dukot. Walk the streets of Cambodia, and you’ll see baskets of rice crusts left out to dry so that they become even crisper. These are then turned into bai kdaing, or rice cakes.

The Korean word for “blackened rice” is nurungi, and this is most celebrated in the form of dolsot bibimbap – mixed rice served in a sizzling stone pot that toasts the already-cooked rice. In Japan, rice crust is known as okoge, and is often eaten in tea or hot water.

The American and African continents get in on the action too: crispy concón is the way to a Dominican Republican heart, and Cuba, Colombia and Puerto Rico all have their own celebrated versions. In Senegal, it’s known as xoon.

The thing that unites all these crispy bottomed delights is that they are home-cooked specialities that elevate the humble into something prized.  It’s not just a matter of putting on a saucepan of rice and burning the hell out of it – it’s a learned skill to get the rice cooked and the crust perfectly golden, but not blackened. It can take many years of cooking rice until you earn your crust.

try your hand
Claypot chicken rice

‘In Malaysia this claypot rice recipe is always cooked outdoors and over charcoal,’ says Cheong. ‘The flame and the smokiness from the charcoal goes into the flavour of the rice… the smokiness permeates into the ingredients you’re cooking with. You get a crust on the bottom of the rice and my grandma would pour some Chinese tea over it and that’s what they’d have for supper.’

“Cooking icon Cheong Liew loves a claypot. While it costs next to nothing in Asian supermarkets, you can create wonderful dishes with it, which he describes as ‘one-pot weekend dishes to share with family’.” Maeve O’Meara, Food Safari Fire

Tahchin

Translating to “arranged at the bottom”, this traditional Persian dish features crisp saffron-infused rice layered with chicken, yoghurt and tangy barberries (zereshk).

Persian steamed saffron rice (chelo)

You will need to soak the rice for at least 2 hours, or overnight if possible, for a fluffier result. Once you smell the rice toasting, you know a good crust (tahdig) is forming.

Rice balls and sour pork salad (nam khao with som moo)

This popular Laotian salad recipe requires an extensive list of ingredients and a bit of preparation, including four days marinating time, but the results are well worth the effort. You can shape and crumb the rice balls a day ahead and deep-fry them just before serving. This recipe serves 10 as an appetiser, or 6 as an entree.

Black beans and rice (arroz congri)

Rice and beans is a staple accompaniment in Cuba. This version is also known as Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians), alluding to the outdated comparison of the two peoples represented in this dish.

Iranian lamb and herb stew with barberry rice (khoresh ghormeh sabzi bah zereshk polo)

Iranian rice is first par-boiled, then cooked with oil or butter to form a crust known as the tahdig, which literally translates as ‘the bottom of the pot’. The rice is tinted yellow with saffron; a prized spice in Iran that is so precious, it inspires folk stories. Iranian tables always house bowls of fresh herbs and pickles so that guests can add to their dishes as they please.

Dolsot bibimbap

This is the most delicious mix of rice, beef and vegetables cooked with garlic and sesame oil, topped with an egg yolk and gochujang (Korean chilli paste). The ingredients are cooked individually then beautifully arranged in a stone bowl called a dolsot, which is heated until the rice turns golden and crispy on the bottom. You mix everything together when you eat it. You will need four dolsot bowls, available from Korean grocery stores. The amount of garlic used in this recipe might seem high but remember that this is a culture in which most people eat seven heads of garlic a week! You can use less garlic if you like but once cooked it is delicious and not overpowering.