Iranians take a lot of pride in cooking rice. The recipe below may make you feel like you’re creating a really complicated dish rather than just plain rice. But, as the name suggests, it takes plain rice and elevates it to something special: an elegant aromatic dish that you would happily eat on its own. Iran grows some of the best rice in the world. Alas, there isn’t enough to export, so you must pay a visit to savour its wonderful varieties. The recipe, of course, works just as well with other rice.

600g (1lb 3oz) 3 cups basmati rice, such as Tilda or Pari
2 tbsp sea salt

For the taadig:
50–75g (2–3oz) 1/4– 1⁄3 cup melted butter, ghee or safflower oil, plus 1 tbsp extra for the topping
1 1/2 tbsp natural yogurt
1/4 tsp saffron threads, pounded

To decorate:
1⁄3 tsp saffron liquid, made from 1/4 tsp saffron threads pounded then dissolved in 1 tbsp hot water

Fill a large bowl with water and add the rice. Wash the rice by stirring it with your hands. Pour the water off and repeat 5 times until the water runs clear. For super-fluffy long-grain rice, soak it in the amount of water you are going to cook it in – that’s 2 litres (3½ pints) 8 cups – with the salt, for at least 2 hours and up to 24.

Fill a large non-stick pan with 2 litres (3½ pints) 8 cups cold water and bring to the boil. Add the rice, let the water come to the boil again and cook for approximately 6–8 minutes. (If you have pre-soaked your rice, add it to the pan with the cold water, bring to the boil and cook for 6–8 minutes.) The rice may take a little less or a little more time depending on the thickness of the pan and the power of the heat, so test the grains halfway through. Quickly pick out a few grains with a fork and crush them between your fingers, without burning them. The grains need to be soft on the outside but still hard on the inside, or al dente, and they should be double their original size.

While the rice is cooking, stir it ever so gently a couple of times so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. The next step is optional but worth noting: at this point you can add 250ml (8fl oz) 1 cup cold water to the pan to lengthen the grains. Bring back up to the boil.

Once the rice is cooked, without wasting a minute, drain it through a very fine-meshed sieve. Pour a couple of cups of cold water over the rice to cool it and set it aside. Whatever you do, don’t touch the rice, just let it sit there while you move on to the next stage.

In the same pan, briskly heat the melted butter, ghee or oil over a medium-high heat with 75ml (3fl oz) 1⁄3 cup water, the yogurt, saffron and 2 ladles of rice. Mix well and spread over the bottom of the pan to create the crust. Then start adding the rice a ladleful at a time. Gently shape the rice into a pyramid as you add it. That way the heat can circulate throughout the pan and won’t make the rice mushy.

Poke 4–5 deep holes in the rice, with a chopstick or the handle of a spoon, making sure it hits the bottom of the pot, then cover. Let the rice cook on a high heat for about 5–7 minutes. It will sizzle and make all kinds of sounds. Iranian women check to see if the rice is ready for the next step by wetting their fingers and ever so quickly touching the side of the hot pan. If it makes a ‘Jez’ sound as we say in Persian, remove the lid and add 125ml (4fl oz) ½ cup water and 1 tbsp butter, ghee or oil. Wrap the lid in a clean tea towel or 2–3 paper towels. Cover the pan, making sure the fabric or paper towel is wrapped up around the handle so that it doesn’t catch fire. Reduce the heat to its lowest setting. Allow it to cook for about 50–60 minutes undisturbed.

Fill the kitchen sink with 5cm (2in) of cold water. Remove the pan from the stove, and place it in the sink. This helps loosen the famous golden crust or taadig. Take the lid off, spoon out a ladleful of rice and mix with the saffron liquid. Gently ladle the rice on to a serving dish and decorate with the saffron rice. Using a spatula, lift chunks of the crust off the bottom of the pan and place on top or serve on the side.

TIP: You can make Polo Ba Taadig in a rice cooker, but make sure it is an Iranian one – other models (for example, Japanese) will not give you long separated grains and a golden taadig. Wash 600g (1lb 3oz) 3 cups rice 5 times. Place in the cooker with 900ml (1½ pints) 3½ cups water, the 75g (3oz) ¹/³ cup melted butter, ghee or oil, yogurt, and 1 flat tbsp sea salt. Turn the cooker on and gently stir the rice once, after the water has come to the boil, to mix the ingredients together. Cover with a cloth plus lid (see left) and cook for about 1½ hours. Tip the rice on to the serving dish (don’t plunge the cooker
in cold water). Your rice will come out perfectly, like a golden cake.