Saffron-Infused Rice Pudding (Sholeh Zard), in the Persian Manner

December 20, 2009
Photo by James Ransom
Author Notes

My paternal grandmother's grandfather made his way from Sabzevar, Iran, to Pakistan to spread Sufism. Persian cooking traditions endured in our family, even though my grandmother was born and brought up in Pakistan and later, married an Afghan. She knew how to elegantly bring Afghan and Persian cuisine together. (She was also adept at Ikebana, but that is a story for another place and time.) She would prepare this rice pudding, infused with saffron water, for Nazri, a religious vow of offerings of charity food to the needy. To prepare this, the rice is cooked till the separate rice grains disappear. Sounds like sacrilege coming from a Persian-Afghan kitchen, doesn't it? Don't be put off by this; the addition of rosewater, cinnamon, and cardamom makes a delicious dessert. I serve my guests a few tablespoons of this rich, fragrant pudding in a glass. Feel free to double it if you think 1/2 cup of basmati is not enough for 4 servings. NB: It is up to you—you can make the pudding so it is "all'onda" like risotto, or continue cooking it in the end to make it more thick. —shayma

  • Serves 2 to 4
  • 1/2 cup basmati rice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons saffron strands (divided)
  • 4 cups cold water
  • 1/2 cup sugar (you may add more, but I like my rice pudding on the less-sweet side)
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup rose water (my mother adds 1/2 cup)
  • 3 cardamom pods; seeds extracted, pods discarded
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 cup slivered almonds, unsalted
  • Handful slivered pistachios, unsalted, for adornment
  • Cinnamon powder for adornment
  • A heavy-bottomed pan, minimum 8-inches in diameter
In This Recipe
  1. Wash the basmati rice in cold water 6 times, or until the milky water begins to run clear. Soak for 1 hour.
  2. In the meantime, take 1 teaspoon of the saffron threads and crush with a pestle and mortar or the back of a spoon in a small bowl. To this mixture, add 1/2 teaspoon of whole saffron threads and 1 tablespoon of warm water. Set aside.
  3. Add the rice to a pot with 4 cups of cold water on the lowest heat; let the rice simmer for 30 minutes, until you see it has cooked and moistened and the water has almost evaporated. The moistened rice will not be smooth like basmati rice usually is; it will be curly and almost jagged-edged. That is what you want.
  4. Stir the sugar into the hot water until dissolved. Add it, along with the rosewater, butter, cinnamon stick, almonds, cardamom seeds, and the saffron-infused liquid (including the saffron strands), to the rice and stir gently to combine.
  5. Cover and let cook for another 20 minutes. You will have to stir it occasionally, but gently, to ensure the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pot.
  6. Uncover the lid and cook for another 20 minutes.
  7. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick and ladle pudding into 4 individual cups.
  8. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
  9. Serve with a sprinkling of powdered cinnamon and slivers of pistachios.
  10. To serve the pudding after if it's congealed and clumped after refrigeration, warm it on the stove over low heat, adding a little bit of water (a teaspoon at a time) to loosen the pudding.

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Shayma Saadat is a cookery teacher, food writer, stylist and photographer who focuses on the food of her heritage - Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, which she refers to as Silk Route cuisine. Shayma lives in Toronto with her husband and son. You can follow her culinary journey on Instagram @SpiceSpoon.