Persian sweet rice, shirin polow, is traditionally served at special occasions and it is indeed a special side. But it’s one that you should definitely make an excuse to enjoy more often, it’s so bright and delicious!
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Over the years, I have become a big fan of food from the Middle East, in the broadest sense, and have tried various foods both on trips and at home. But sometimes you come across dishes in a more unusual setting and that’s exactly the case with this rice recipe.
My elder son’s school hosts an annual multicultural potluck. I sometimes struggle a little on what to bring for us. I always assume Scottish will be slightly more novel than the US side of the kid’s background, but I typically end up making cookies. I’ve made chocolate orange shortbread and millionaire’s shortbread which both disappeared fast, so I guess they went down well. I keep meaning to make a savory dish, but I don’t imagine haggis would be as popular and soups aren’t exactly easy for that type of event.
Anyway, I love trying as many dishes as I can from the community. Last year someone brought some Persian sweet rice, or orange rice as I think they had labelled it, and I instantly loved the subtle flavors. I knew I needed to try it myself at home.
As with many traditional dishes, you’ll find a few variations in this dish – some have a thick crust (‘tahdig’), others have none. Some add raisins and/or barberries. Not all layer some or all of the orange mixture in the middle but I think it helps the flavors mingle.
Common to pretty much all, though, are rice, saffron, sugar (though amounts vary), orange, carrot and almonds. The orange is usually candied, at least partly after boiling which gets any bitterness out. Pistachios are common, but I couldn’t find any when I made this, hence why you don’t see them pictured.
When and how is this dish traditionally served?
This dish is sometimes called “wedding rice” as it’s a popular choice for weddings. It may also be called Rosh Hashanah rice since it’s sometimes served for the Jewish celebration.
You are probably spotting a theme that’s it’s considered a bit special, and I won’t lie, it does take a bit of preparation. But nothing is difficult and you can do some of it ahead of time. And to me, it’s definitely worth enjoying more than just once or twice a year.
Some versions of shirin polow layer chicken in with the rice, while others leave it as just a rice dish, as I have made here. Made like this, you can choose what you want to serve it with – a simple chicken dish such as saffron chicken is a common pairing that works well.
You could also serve it with other meat and vegetable dishes that aren’t too heavy. It makes a great choice for a dinner party spread. Or, quite honestly, enjoy it as it is.
Make ahead options
As I mention, you can make some of this dish ahead to cut down on cooking nearer when you serve it, if that suits you better.
Ahead of time you can:
- Cook the orange rind and simmer it with sugar syrup to make it slightly candied. Then, just strain it and keep the syrup and orange in two separate containers. (You could keep them together but I think the orange pieces will probably become too thick with the syrup so best to be separate).
- Chop and saute the carrots to be gently soft. Then, just store in a container in the fridge. You can also, if you prefer, add in the almonds and orange zest and store the full mixture together.
- Parboil the rice to al dente – you want it only just cooked. Then cool the rice and store in the fridge (take care with handling cooked rice safely).
You can do all this a few hours or the day before. Then when you are ready to make your meal:
- Warm the carrots with the almonds and orange zest, if not already mixed.
- Warm the oil in a large pot and add half the rice. Sprinkle on some saffron and add half the carrot, almond and orange mixture. Top with the remaining rice.
- Top the rice with pieces of butter and make holes for steam. Sprinkle on some of the leftover syrup from cooking the oranges. Cover the pan, putting a cloth over the pan first before the lid to absorb the steam, and leave to cook gently.
- Serve, topped with the remaining carrot and orange mixture.
Cooked this way you get a thin tahdig (crisp layer) which you can only just about see in the pictures. However you can definitely taste it as it gives a lovely little crunch mixed in with the rest of the tender rice. If you prefer you can make a thicker tahdig, or steam less for hardly any at all.
This version of this elegant rice dish is only gently sweet, but it has a wonderfully aromatic flavor from the orange and delicious crunch from the almonds, not to mention a bright orange color. It makes a truly special side, perfect for a celebration, but is even good just as it is for a light meal. Maybe just add in a few extra nuts and some raisins as well. Either way, you’re sure to enjoy.
Try these other favorite Persian recipes:
- fesenjan (chicken stew with walnut pomegranate sauce)
- Persian herb rice with fish – sabzi polow mahi
- Persian walnut cookies – nan-e gerdui
- Plus get more Persian recipes in the archives.
Persian sweet rice - shirin polow
- 1 cup long grain rice 200g
- 1 orange zest (ie zest from 1 orange - cut in thick strips rather than grated)
- 1/2 cup water 120ml
- 1/4 cup sugar 50g
- 1 cup carrot sticks 120g (cut very thinly)
- 1 1/2 tbsp butter 23g
- 3 tbsp slivered almonds
- 3 tbsp pistachios (shelled - optional, I did not include in photos as I couldn't find at the time)
- 1 pinch saffron powder
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- Rinse the rice well - either under running water or in two or more changes of water until the water is clear. Put the rice in a pan and cover with plenty water and leave it to soak while you prepare the orange and carrots.
- Cut strips of orange rind from the orange with a vegetable peeler and cut them into small strips (alternatively, use a zester if you have on but don't just grate as they will be too thin).
- Place the orange zest in a small pan with boiling water and simmer around 5 minutes. Then drain the water, reserving the orange zest, and do the same again (simmer for 5min then drain).
- Place the water and sugar in the same small pan and warm to bring it to a simmer. Add the orange rind and simmer gently for around 10 minutes until the syrup thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and take out the orange zest - set aside - but save the syrup.
- Meanwhile, cut the carrots into matchsticks ( julienne) and warm around 1tbsp/15g butter in a skillet/frying pan. Add the carrots and saute a couple minutes until gently soft. Add the reserved orange zest and almonds to the skillet (and pistachios if using) along with around 1tsp of the orange syrup and cook a further minute or two.
- Parboil the rice to al dente in the water it has been soaking in - you want it only just cooked so it is still firm but not hard in the middle. Drain the rice and set aside. Up to this point can be prepared ahead of time, if suits - see notes above in post on storing.
- Warm the oil in a medium-large pot (can be the same one you boiled the rice in, just rinse out and dry) and add half the rice. Sprinkle on some saffron and add half the carrot, almond and orange mixture. Top with the remaining rice.
- Top the rice with pieces of butter and make 4-5 holes for steam with the handle of a wooden spoon. Sprinkle on some of the leftover syrup from cooking the oranges - around 2tbsp but can adjust to taste. Cover the pan, putting a cloth over the pan first before the lid to absorb the steam, and leave to cook gently over a low heat for around 30-40 minutes.
- If possible, flip the rice onto a plate so the the slightly crisp bottom sits on the top. Serve, topped with the remaining carrot and orange mixture.
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