Loaded with enough food to serve hundreds of guests twice over, Iranian wedding banquets overflow with buffets consisting of succulent kebabs, rich stews, salads laced with herbs, and myriad honey- laden desserts, not to mention wedding cake, all varying by region.
No matter the area, though, there is one constant—javaher polow, or jeweled rice. The buttery, saffron-scented long-grain rice comes studded with gem-colored pops of green pistachios, dried fruits, sweetened shredded carrots and candied citrus peel. The dish’s preparation is nearly as elaborate as the wedding itself, but at Milk Street we knew this tradition could provide an avenue to better rice at home in under an hour.
Traditionally, the process begins the day before and ends with a mound of pilaf at once sweet, tart, salty, crunchy and silky. Many variations exist, but it typically starts with a grain rice called sadri, cultivated along the Caspian Sea. After itsoaks overnight, the rice is parboiled in salted water and set aside.
Meanwhile, blanched strips of orange, lemon or tangerine peel are cooked with sugar and water to make a citrus syrup. Carrots are browned in butter, then sweetened with sugar. Yellow onions are salted, seasoned with a number of spices, then cooked until caramelized. Pistachios and other nuts are cooked briefly with the vegetables, raisins and barberries, a small tart berry common in Persian cuisine. Everything is suffused with a heavy dose of saffron broth.
At last, all the garnishes are combined with the candied peel into a sweet-salty mixture that’s drizzled with the syrup and spread in alternating layers with the rice, forming a conical shape in the pot. The pot is covered and, as the rice steams, the sugars seep down to form a crispy, caramelized crust at the bottom.
We were sold by the layered flavors and textures, but somewhat daunted by the laborious process. So we took inspiration from more streamlined versions of javaher polow, paring back the ingredients to essentials and tempering the overall sweetness. And while we experimented with the crispy layer of near-burnt rice at the bottom of the pot, we ultimately chose to forgo it.
Faintly floral basmati proved a good substitute for sadri rice, and instead of barberries, we swapped in sweet-tart dried cranberries. We also skipped the citrus syrup; orange zest provided an aromatic nod to the candied citrus peel. Plus, the natural sweetness of carrots, onions and cranberries was enough to complement the salted rice and pistachios.
Rather than follow the traditional two-step method to cook the rice, we opted for the quicker but equally effective method used for classic rice pilaf: sautéing onions in butter until light golden brown, then stirring in the rice as well as cumin and cardamom—together with saffron, the most common spices in javaher polow. The rinsed basmati and spices toasted in the onions before we stirred in saffron water, shredded carrots and cranberries.
In half an hour or less, the rice was tender and fluffy, tinged with saffron and laced with tender carrots and cranberries. We stirred in grated orange zest and chopped pistachios.
The jeweled rice was heady with spices, markedly less sweet than traditional versions but just as varied in texture, with crunchy-chewy accents. A base of buttery rice balanced a dish as striking as the ornate original, made in a fraction of the time.