Sabzi polo (which translates to “herbed rice” in Persian) is a traditional Iranian rice dish made with finely chopped fresh herbs. The show-stopping dish features fluffy rice topped with a crispy saffron layer.
Once you master the technique of Iranian rice dishes, it will be hard to return to any other cooking method thanks to the delicious crispy rice layer created in the cooking process—the tahdig!
What is Tahdig?
Tahdig, which translates to “bottom of the pot,” is the name given to the crispy layer of rice created by a specific Persian cooking method. The bottom layer of the rice is effectively fried in oil, butter, or ghee while the rest of the rice slowly steams.
The crispy tahdig can be formed using various ingredients, from rice (as seen in this recipe) to potatoes, lavash bread, pasta, and even lettuce.
Nowruz is the name given to Iranian New Year celebrations. Taking place on the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox, it welcomes the first day of spring (usually falling on or around March 21st).
Nowruz is also celebrated by Parsis in India, the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Turkey, in Afghanistan, and by diasporic communities around the world. It is estimated that 300 million people celebrate the holiday, which dates back 3,000 years and is rooted in Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion.
Sabzi polo is one dish that Iranians eat during Nowruz celebrations and it is usually eaten with fish and kuku sabzi (a Persian frittata dish densely packed with herbs). Herbs are symbolic during Nowruz celebrations as they represent rebirth and health—the essence of the new beginnings associated with the advent of a New Year and spring.
Ingredients in Sabzi Polo
The ingredient list is simple and should be easy to source including the saffron, as most supermarkets sell saffron in their designated spice sections or specialty food aisles.
- Basmati rice is the best rice for making all Iranian rice dishes and is readily available in western supermarkets. I use Tilda Pure basmati rice, but any long-grain white basmati rice can be used.
- Fresh herbs like parsley, coriander (cilantro), and dill are the most common in sabzi polo. Chives are also used in Iran, but because western chives are not as spicy as the Iranian variety, I use the green ends of scallions to emulate the subtle spiciness.
- Garlic complements the herbs and adds a lovely dimension to the flavor profile of this dish.
- Butter or ghee is used to help crisp the tahdig and also to add richness to the steamed rice. It further aids the rice by keeping the grains separate and fluffy.
- Neutral flavored oil is added to the bottom of the pot to create the tahdig. Do not use olive oil as it affects the flavor; I use vegetable oil or grapeseed oil for my tahdig.
- Saffron, one of the main spices used in Iranian cooking, adds a musky yet floral flavor to the dish and gives a golden color to the tahdig.
Tips for the Best Sabzi Polo
- Wash and soak the rice before cooking. Washing the rice removes the excess starch, preventing sticky rice. Soaking the rice before cooking shortens the cook time and produces tender, separate, and fluffy grains full of aromatic notes.
- Use a food processor to chop the greens. If you have a food processor, I recommend using it to pulse the fresh herbs and scallion ends to shorten the time spent in the kitchen. You can chop them by hand but it can be a little time-consuming and messy!
- Grind and bloom the saffron. To get the best out of this expensive spice, grind the strands into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. Add the ground saffron powder to water and let it bloom before adding it to the dish to draw out the color and flavor.
- Use a non-stick pot with a glass lid. In order to be able to flip the rice without the tahdig sticking to the pot, use a decent non-stick pot (at least 3 quarts). The glass lid is very useful for timing the initial steaming process since you can see the right moment to turn down the heat without opening the lid.
- Find a clean tea towel. In order to aid the steaming process and prevent steam from forming into droplets of water and falling back into the rice, you will need a clean tea towel for wrapping around the lid. Without it, your rice will get mushy.
Serving Sabzi Polo
Iranians traditionally eat sabzi polo with fried or smoked white fish caught in the Caspian sea. It is usually served with pickled garlic, a chopped salad called salad shirazi (made with cucumber, red onion, and tomatoes), and naranj, a tart and slightly bitter orange which is squeezed over the fish and rice like a lemon. You can use lemon or lime as an alternative.
Since Caspian-caught smoked fish is not readily available outside of Iran, you will often find baked salmon or fried fish served to accompany the sabzi polo. Here are some fish recipes which pair very well with sabzi polo:
- Easy Baked Salmon
- Whole Steamed Fish
- Fried Catfish
- Grilled Trout with Dill and Lemon
Soak the rice:
Wash the rice in cold water until the water runs clear; drain. Add the rice and 1 tablespoon of salt to a large bowl and add enough cold water to cover 2 inches above the rice. Leave to soak overnight.
Prepare the greens:
Wash all the herbs and remove any tough or brown stem ends. Separate the green parts of the scallions, reserving the whites for another use. Dry with a tea towel.
Pulse the herbs and spring onion greens in a food processor until they are finely chopped. Place the greens in a large bowl and set aside.
Prepare the saffron:
Place the ground saffron in a medium bowl and add 2 tablespoons of water. Stir to allow the saffron to bloom. Set aside.
Prepare the garlic butter:
In a small pot, add the butter or ghee and melt over low heat. Add 2 tablespoons of water and the garlic and let infuse gently for 1 minute. Turn the heat off and set aside until ready to use.
Parboil the rice:
Fill a large non-stick pot (at least 3 quarts) with 8 cups of water and 2 tablespoons of salt. Bring the water to a boil.
Drain the soaked rice and add it to the pot. Gently stir the rice to make sure it does not stick to the pan. Every minute, give the rice a gentle stir and take a grain of rice and check the texture between your fingers. You want the rice to have a soft outer layer but still firm center (al dente). This can take anywhere from 3 to 7 minutes.
Drain the rice:
Once the parboiled rice reaches the correct texture, turn the heat off and immediately drain the rice in a colander or sieve. Drizzle a little cold water on the rice to halt the cooking process.
Prepare the saffron tahdig layer:
Add 2 cups of the drained parboiled rice to the bowl of bloomed saffron. Stir gently with a spoon until evenly coated in the saffron mixture and the rice has an orange color.
Rinse and dry the rice pot. Add 2 tablespoons of oil plus 1 tablespoon of the melted butter and garlic mixture to the pot and coat the bottom completely. Add the saffron rice in an even layer in the bottom of the pot and pat it down flat with the back of a spoon.
Mix the chopped greens, garlic butter, and rice:
Add the remaining parboiled rice into the bowl with the chopped greens and gently stir. Drizzle the remaining garlic butter mixture into the herbed rice and stir gently, being careful not to break the grains of rice.
Pour the herbed rice mixture into the pot on top of the saffron layer (careful not to disturb it) and pat down with a spoon until flat. Using the handle of a spoon, poke 5 evenly spaced holes into the rice, stopping just above the tahdig layer, leaving it intact.
Steam the rice:
Place the lid on the pot and turn the heat to high. Once you start to see steam rise from the rice, turn the heat to low. Carefully wrap the lid tightly in a tea towel, tying the ends up on top so they don’t touch the stove, and replace the lid on the pot.
Allow the rice to steam for a minimum of 45 minutes to get a crunchy and thick layer of tahdig.
Flip the rice and serve:
When the rice is cooked, turn the heat off and remove the lid. Place a large plate over the top of the pot and carefully flip the rice onto the plate in one swift motion. Serve immediately.
The tahdig is best served fresh, since it will lose its crispness. Leftover rice can be stored in a covered container in the fridge for up to 3 days and reheated in the microwave or on the stovetop.
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