Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

In the world of Persian puddings and custards, sholeh-zard reigns as the queen. This rice pudding’s prized status is most likely due to its liberal use of saffron that gives the dish its distinct yellow hue and subtle earthy aroma, as well as the pudding’s final ornate edible decoration that serves as a regal crown.

While its esteemed reputation and embellishments make it a classic and cherished rice pudding among the Persians, the preparation is actually very simple— requiring only a single saucepan and a simple simmering technique. The rice is slowly simmered in plenty of water, sweetened with sugar, delicately flavored with saffron and rosewater, and elegantly garnished with ground cinnamon and slivers of dried nuts.

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

There are a range of rice and rice flour-based desserts in Persian cuisine—puddings and custards (both spoonable and sliceable) as well as cookies and other confections—but what sets sholeh-zard apart from other rice pudding recipes that I’ve eaten is its vibrant yellow color, its balanced saffron-rosewater flavor, and its creamy texture where the grains of rice are barely visible. Moreover, unlike many other types of rice pudding, Sholeh-Zard  does not rely on milk, cream, egg, flour, or other thickeners or emulsifiers to achieve its signature creamy texture. As seemingly simple as this preparation is, this rice pudding’s history is rich and deep.

The History and Cultural Importance of Sholeh-Zard

Sholeh-zard has been present in the Persian culinary landscape for centuries. The earliest documented reference dates back to between the 8th and 11th centuries CE and has been known by different names in different regions of Iran. A list of names of common food items in ancient Iran between the 8th and 11th centuries CE, published in a recent historical study, includes a dish called zardi (or zardeh) which the historians believe is what sholeh-ard used to be called during that time frame. 

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Sholeh-zard is a compound term made up of the Persian word “sholeh,” which refers to a family of highly starchy and thick dishes, both savory and sweet, where rice is often a key ingredient, and the word “zard,” meaning yellow. Along with sholeh-zard’s documentation in early historical records, it’s also mentioned in Persian literature, poems, proverbs, and sayings from centuries ago. My favorite example is a poetic writing from the 10th century CE where the author, in addition to including a list of sholeh-zard’s ingredients, uses its bright yellow color as an analogy to the way the faces of lovers glow like the sun.

Sholeh-zard is also intertwined in religious practices. It has taken on a prominent role in the Islamic practice of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, frequently appearing at the pre-dawn and post-sunset meals that bookend the daily fast, and is often prepared by Iranian Shia Muslims as part of their obligation of small- and large-scale votive giving.

A Canvas for Culinary Artistry: How to Decorate Sholeh-Zard

Persian cooks are known for elaborate ways of decorating certain dishes, in particular for special occasions and to honor guests, and sholeh-zard is a perfect dish to express this artistry. Its bold yellow color and flat and firm surface make it an ideal canvas for elaborate decoration.

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Once poured into its serving bowl and cooled down to room temperature, sholeh-zard develops a very thin skin on top that helps to preserve the texture and moisture of pudding below while providing a dry and stable surface for visual embellishments. This top surface is almost always garnished with a combination of ground cinnamon, bright green slivers of pistachios, white slivers of almond, and crushed dried rose petals, formed in geometric designs ranging from simple to extravagant.

As a child, I learned how to decorate sholeh-zard from my aunt. She taught me the traditional way of making precise and clean decorative lines from ground cinnamon. The method is fairly simple, but requires patience and repetition before perfecting. Start with a clean kitchen towel, and use the tips of your index finger and thumb to grab a pinch of cinnamon from a bowl. While firmly pressing the tips of your index finger and thumb together, simultaneously move your hand and rub the tips of your index finger and thumb together. The rubbing will cause the powder to gently fall, and the motion of your hand will cause it to make it a line. Simple repeat in a slow and steady motion to create your desired geometric pattern. Wipe the tips of your fingers with a kitchen towel between each pinch. It takes practice to draw super fine lines. Iranians do not worry too much about how fine the lines are. The important thing is having gone through the motions, the process, and the experience of making some sort of design on top of your sholeh-zard.

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An alternative method for decorating with ground cinnamon is to fold a small (roughly 4×4 inch) piece of parchment paper in half by making a sharp crease. Open the fold halfway and put a teaspoon of ground cinnamon in the crease between the middle of the fold and front edge of the fold. Tapping the side of the fold, while holding it at an angle will cause the cinnamon to gently fall onto the surface below. Use controlled, steady, gentle taps while moving the make-shift parchment funnel to create your desired pattern.

Rice, Rice, Baby: Which Rice to Use and Why

The rice is everything in this recipe. It acts as the comforting sponge that absorbs the aromatic flavors of the saffron, cinnamon, and rosewater and it is how this pudding’s thick and creamy texture is achieved. The success of this recipe relies on unlocking the rice’s full starch potential, since the rice alone—no added thickeners—is what creates the pudding’s texture and consistency.

One key to this is water. Starches love to absorb moisture, and for good sholeh-zard, we want the rice’s starch to do as much of that as possible. By placing the rice in water and heating it gently, the starch molecules have the time and correct heat environment to absorb a lot of water, swell, and eventually break down and thicken the pudding. The technical word for this process is gelatinization.

The other key to achieving the proper texture is selecting the right kind of rice. There are two main types of starch molecules in rice that work together to cause gelatinization—amylose and amylopectin—and different varieties of rice contain different ratios of these two types of starch molecules. Rice that is high in amylose tends to yield more distinct and separate grains (think long-grain varieties like jasmine and basmati rice); rice that is higher in amylopectin, such as medium- and short-grain varieties, tend to produce a stickier result.

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For Sholeh-zard, since we want the rice to break down into a thickened and lightly gelled mass (much more so than other types of rice pudding you may be familiar with), the best option is rice that is higher in amylopectin. Unfortunately, in the U.S., bags of rice are not labeled with their respective ratio of starch molecule types. Instead, rice varieties are marked by grain size (long-, medium-, short-grained), by breed (e.g., arborio, bomba, jasmine), or by culinary application (sushi, risotto, paella).

In Iran, Persian cooks often save their high quality, long-grain white rice for making their prized rice dishes like chelow. For making Sholeh-Zard they instead use a variety of locally grown medium- or short-grain rice, such as the variety called gerdeh, or they use “broken rice,” which are the cracked and shattered fragments of rice that are sifted out of the intact grains before sale. Other than it being broken into small pieces, there is nothing wrong with this rice, and in some cases it offers culinary advantages. In addition to cooking faster than whole grains and being cheaper, it also breaks down more quickly, which means that even though it tends to come from grains that are higher in amylose than amylopectin, it’s perfect for puddings such as sholeh-zard.

Here in the United States I have tested many rice varieties in my efforts to make the traditional sholeh-zard I know and love. Based on the countless batches I have cooked and tasted, my recommendation is to use white rice that is labeled medium-grain or short-grain on the packaging. Broken rice is also a great option (with the perk of a shorter cooking time), if available. 

Tips For Cooking Persian Rice Pudding

As I described earlier, sholeh-zard is a simple, one pot recipe. Simmer, stir, and watch—this is the basic course of cooking. But achieving consistently creamy sholez-zard every time does require attention to the details. Here are a few tips for perfect pudding.

To start, although not absolutely necessary for making Sholeh-Zard, I always wash my rice before cooking. Washing rice helps remove dust, sand, and other unwanted foreign debris, particularly if your rice comes in a traditional burlap bag.

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Unlike other Persian steamed rice dishes such as the famous Persian steamed white rice, chelow, it is not necessary to soak the rice before cooking sholeh-zard. That said, soaking the rice for a couple of hours will hydrate the rice and reduce the cooking time once it goes on the heat.

The most critical aspect of making sholeh-zard is the slow cooking of the rice in plenty of water. The rice needs to be cooked until the grains are fall-apart soft, but still somewhat intact, which takes time and lots of water. You’ll know it’s ready when the rice is very smooth and creamy, but not so broken down that it looks like it’s been pureed in a blender. You can also check for the correct consistency by pressing a few grains of cooked rice between two fingers: They should not show any resistance whatsoever, turning into a sticky paste when pressed.

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Subtle is Best: The Flavors of Persian Rice Pudding

There are a couple additional “tricks” that Persian cooks use for cooking and flavoring their sholeh-zard. Adding a portion of the steeped saffron at the beginning of the cooking allows the yellow color of saffron to penetrate the grains of rice fully, while adding the rest of the steeped saffron towards the end of the cooking ensures the delicate aroma of saffron is not lost. Soaking the almond slivers in rosewater while the rice is cooking slightly softens them without losing all of their crunchiness. Moreover, the rosewater-soaked almond slivers, when bitten into, provide an extra, but subtle, release of rosewater flavor.

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

In some regions of Iran, cardamom is used as an additional flavoring. It makes a great substitute for the ground cinnamon. The best way to add cardamom is to add one or two whole green cardamom pods to the pot at the beginning of the cooking process. Make sure the cardamom pods do not have any cracks on their exterior so that the seeds do not disperse into the pudding. This avoids someone later accidentally biting into a cardamom seed for an unwanted intense hit of cardamom flavor. 

Also be careful when stirring to avoid accidentally crushing the cardamom pod. As an insurance policy, put the cardamom pods in a piece of square cheesecloth and gather the sides forming a pouch. Tie the bundle with a pieces of kitchen twine and throw it in. You can then fish the cardamom out when you are done cooking the pudding.

Meant to Impress: How to Serve Sholeh-Zard

After it has been cooked, hot steaming Sholeh-Zard is either transferred into large bowls for family-style serving or into individual serving bowls. Transferring it into large bowls is more popular with Persians, as individuals can spoon out as much as they want and (hopefully) have seconds. Larger and wider bowls also provide a larger canvas for the top to be decorated in more complex fashions.

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Although Sholeh-Zard can be served hot right after it has been cooked, it is often served at room temperature or chilled (when served hot, it is typically not decorated, or is more simply garnished with toppings without an attempt at making them into more beautiful shapes and designs). Regardless of serving temperature, a cup of hot black tea goes best with it. Whether enjoyed as a midday dessert, after dinner, or even as breakfast, this silky and refined pudding should be savored. 

In a small bowl, soak the slivered almonds in the rosewater; set aside.

Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

In a separate small bowl, steep the ground saffron in the 3 tablespoons hot water; set aside.

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In a large bowl, combine rice with enough cold water to cover. Using your hand, swirl the rice until the water turns cloudy. Pour off the cloudy water through a fine-mesh strainer, then return the drained rice to the bowl and refill with fresh cold water. Repeat 5 to 6 times until the water runs clear, then drain rice. 

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In a 5- or 6-quart heavy-bottom pot or Dutch oven, combine the washed rice with 1 tablespoon of the steeped saffron mixture and 7 cups (1.7L) water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally, until the rice grains are plump and suspended in a thickened slurry roughly the consistency of regular yogurt (not Greek) yogurt, 20 to 25 minutes. (To check for proper consistency, carefully press a couple grains of rice between your fingers: The grains should show no resistance and turn into a sticky paste.) If the mixture is too thick or the grains of rice are not fully cooked, add boiling water in 1/2 cup increments and cook as needed until desired consistency is reached and/or rice is done. 

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Add sugar and continue to cook over low heat until the sugar is fully dissolved and pudding is glossy, about 10 minutes.

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Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of steeped saffron, the soaked almonds with the rosewater, and the 3 1/2 tablespoons butter until the butter is melted and the saffron has fully integrated into the pudding while stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Remove the pot from heat, cover, and let rest for 15 minutes.

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Ladle pudding into individual serving bowls or into one large shallow and wide serving bowl and let cool to room temperature, 20 to 30 minutes. Decorate the top with ground cinnamon, pistachios, almonds, and/or rose petals into your preferred decorative pattern only once the pudding has cooled and a thin skin has formed on the surface. Serve.

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Notes

This recipe can easily be halved to serve 4 to 6. Reduce each ingredient by half and reduce cooking time in step 4 by 5 to 10 minutes and the cooking time in step 5 by about 5 minutes.

It is best to grind saffron from threads as needed. Like many spices, saffron retains its flavor better in its whole (thread) form. Store-bought ground or powdered saffron if often dull and stale, or, worse, not a pure product. While you likely don’t have a kitchen scale that can reliably weigh a single gram of saffron, it is often sold by the gram in small containers. If, for example, you had a 2g box of saffron, you would grind half of those threads for this recipe, which is most easily done in a small marble or stone mortar and pestle.

Feel free to omit the slivered almonds from this recipe for personal preference.

Persians refer to the resting of the cooked pudding in step 8 as “dam-keshidan.” There is no good English translation for this term. Culinarily speaking, it is something between integrating, steeping, steaming, and resting—all at the same time. It is an ancient technique that is used in the preparation of many Persian rice-centric dishes as well as when making Persian-style tea. For sholeh-zard, its purpose is to allow all the flavors to fully blend together. 

Persians like their sholeh-zard to be very sweet. The amount of sugar specified in the recipe results in a minimum acceptable sweetness level. After you have made it for the first time, taste and adjust the amount of sugar to your preferred level of sweetness.

The final color of sholeh-zard should be deep bright yellow as illustrated in the pictures in this article. If the color appears too pale, add more steeped saffron, one teaspoon at a time, until desired color is reached.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Sholeh-zard can be covered and refrigerated  for up to 1 week.

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