It’ll be no surprise that rice dishes are cherished and consumed in Persian cuisine. Rice found its way to Iran from China via the silk road, and took root in the Caspian Sea region, where the climate and landscape are very hospitable to rice production.
Recently I’ve been reading about the wide variety of rice that exists in Iran, and have been reminded of the distinctive characteristics of the rice we encountered when we traveled north to the Caspian Sea. I’ve been quite homesick for those familiar scents and flavors! Here in the US, the Basmati rice that I purchase at the Persian grocery store is the closest I’ve found to the rice I remember eating as a child in Tehran, with its signature flavor and texture.
Not only is rice consumed more or less daily as an accompaniment to the myriad of Persian stews, it’s also served in the form of desserts and offerings for a variety of both religious and secular celebrations.
There’s Sholeh Zard, a characteristically golden-yellow rice pudding which is the product of cooking rice slowly with water, cardamom, rosewater and saffron, then garnished with streaks of cinnamon and pieces of pistachio and almond. There’s also Sheer Berenji, another product of cooking soaked rice in milk, cardamom and rosewater.
This recipe, which I’m calling Cayk-e Sheer Berenji, is a bit of an improvised dessert that I came up with. I found that cooking the rice alone won’t give it the structure it needs to have it be served as a cake. So I reached into my pantry and grabbed my weapon of choice: agar agar, which is a jelly-like substance derived from seaweed. It’s often used instead of gelatin in vegan desserts. Disclaimer: neither agar agar nor gelatin are traditionally used in Persian desserts!
After doing some research, I found a version of this cake and its roots and traditions in the Northeastern part of Iran, near the city of Mashhad.
I decorated my cake with shapes from the well-known Paisley design. The Paisley pattern originated in Persia, and spread to the rest of the world via India and Scotland!
Freedom of choice!
Cayk-e sheer berenji
- 1 cup white rice, soaked overnight
- 2 1/2 cups water
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon agar agar, or gelatin
- 1/2 cup rosewater
- 1 teaspoon cardamom, ground
- Place the soaked rice in a large pot with water and salt and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat, place lid partially on top and cook on low flame for 15 minutes. Stir frequently.
- Add milk, sugar and cardamom and bring back to a gentle boil.
- Reduce heat and cook uncovered over low flame for 1 hour while stirring frequently.
- Combine the agar agar with rose water and add to the rice and stir.
- Continue to cook for 10 minutes to ensure the agar agar has been dissolved and integrated into the rice mixture.
- Lightly grease a pie dish or a tart pan with butter or oil spray and pour the rice mixture into the pan. Shake the pan to flatten the surface of the cake.
- Place in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours for the cake to set.
- Cautiously invert the cake onto a proper size plate.
- Garnish the cake with pistachios, almonds and rose petals.