I've been making a lot of fried rice during lockdown(s). I'm sure I'm not alone.
It’s not just that fried rice is cheap, fast, flexible and made using basic pantry ingredients, it's also entirely comforting, can be eaten for any meal and does an admirable job of sopping up the prior night's beer. No fried rice I make is the same, but generally I'll add soy sauce and sesame oil, hot sauce and ginger, garlic and fish sauce; I might eat it with salmon or tofu or vegetables, or just on its own, satisfyingly spiced and glistening with oil.
Despite those many iterations, I'd never thought about reaching beyond East Asian flavours and ingredients until I stumbled upon Yara Elmjouie's Instagram Stories. Elmjouie is a James Beard-nominated video producer and passionate booster of Persian cooking, from herb-filled salads to hearty kebabs. Recently, he posted a video of his take on fried rice, using leftover rice plus classically Persian ingredients like turmeric, grilled tomatoes and yoghurt.
As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to make my own version. Thanks to food-world folks like Elmjouie and Samin Nosrat, plus my own visits to London restaurants like The Drunken Butler and Berenjak, I've been waking up to the joys of Persian cooking in recent years. There’s a lot to love: the striking emphasis on sourness, the hearty stews, the primacy of perfect rice, each grain separate and ideally fluffy, counterbalanced by the tahdig layer of crunchy, browned rice at the bottom of the pot.
Perfect tahdig is hard to pull off for even seasoned chefs, but fried rice studded with crispy rice pieces isn't. Here, I've taken inspiration from Elmjouie and mixed leftover rice (and it is essential that you use cold, leftover rice rather than freshly steamed rice – the latter will get sticky and gummy in the oil, and just won't fry properly) with eggs, deeply caramelised onions, toasted pistachios and jammy, sumac-scented cherry tomatoes. The fried rice is then sprinkled with saffron water at the end and topped with yoghurt and fresh herbs. And to make a meal of it, I mix mine with chicken pieces that marinate in a yoghurt and spice mix overnight, though you could certainly pursue veggie options like tofu or paneer instead – fried rice is nothing if not flexible.
The result was so satisfying that this dish has already earned a spot in my favourite recipe rolodex. And it's even better alongside Weingut Brand's Wilder Satz.
Hailing from the Pfalz region of Germany, and made with a whole bushel of grape varietals – including Müller Thurgau most prominently, as well as Riesling, Kerner, Silvaner, Chardonnay, Weissburgunder, and Grauburgunder – this zesty, lightly effervescent wine is unbelievably fun. It looks and tastes like cloudy lemonade, and in that it reminded me of sharbat: the refreshing, cordial drinks that are popular in Iran and the surrounding region (and from which we derive the word "sherbet"). No Persian-inspired meal is complete without a lick of sourness, and this wine more than does its part.
Persian Fried Rice
For the chicken:
200g full-fat Greek yoghurt
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Small pinch saffron threads
450g boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and diced into 1-inch pieces
For the rice:
8 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
3 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
Fine sea salt, to taste
500g cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons sumac, divided 100g shelled pistachios
750g cold, leftover basmati rice (cooked from 360g dried rice)
3 large eggs
Small pinch saffron threads
Small handful fresh mint, roughly chopped
Small handful fresh coriander, roughly chopped
Yoghurt, to serve
1. Preferably the night before you plan to cook, prepare the marinade for your chicken. In a large, nonreactive bowl, add the yoghurt, garlic, salt and spices, and mix until uniform. Add the chicken and stir to coat. Cover and leave in the fridge for a minimum of four hours, and ideally overnight. This is also a good time to cook your basmati rice, if you don’t have any left over from other meals.
2. The next day, prepare the ingredients for the fried rice. Begin by caramelising your onions: in a large frying pan, add 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil and place over medium heat. Once hot, add the onions and toss to coat, seasoning with a generous pinch of salt. Turn the heat down to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for approximately 50 minutes–1 hour, or until the onions are caramelised a deep, golden brown. Keep an eye on the heat while they cook so they don't scorch.
3. While the onions caramelise, prepare your jammy cherry tomatoes. Halve the tomatoes and place, cut sides up, on a foil-lined baking sheet. Drizzle over 2 tablespoons of oil and season with sea salt to taste. Turn your oven's grill to medium-high heat and add the tomatoes. Grill for approximately 10-15 minutes, pausing to rotate the tray halfway through, or until the tomatoes are softened and just starting to darken. Remove from the grill and sprinkle over a tablespoon of sumac. Set aside.
4. Next, as the onions continue to caramelise, toast your pistachios. In a separate frying pan, add the pistachios and place over medium heat. Cook, tossing frequently, for roughly 5 minutes, or until the pistachios smell nutty and have darkened. Remove from the pan and set aside.
5. Remove the chicken from the fridge. Wipe out the frying pan used for the pistachios and add your remaining two tablespoons of vegetable oil. Place over medium heat. Once hot, add half of the chicken pieces and cook undisturbed for 2–3 minutes, or until the pieces are starting to brown on the bottom. Flip the pieces and cook for roughly 4 more minutes, tossing frequently, or until cooked through. Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining batch.
6. When the onions are done caramelising, remove them from the pan using tongs or a slotted spoon. There should still be oil left in the pan, but if not, add an additional tablespoon or two if needed. Turn the heat to medium-high and add the fridge-cold rice to the pan. Leave undisturbed for as long as you can stand it, ideally 5 or so minutes; the goal is for the rice on the bottom to turn crispy, and it's fine if it takes on some colour. Stir the rice so the crispy pieces are mixed through. Season with salt to taste.
7. Create a well in the middle of the rice, and crack in the three eggs. Pop the yolks and begin to scramble as soon as they hit the hot pan, as they will cook very quickly. Once just set, mix the eggs throughout the rice. Finally, add the reserved caramelised onions, jammy tomatoes, pistachios and chicken to the rice, and toss until evenly mixed. Add any additional salt as needed.
8. To serve, divide the rice between plates or bowls. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the saffron threads to a powder and mix with a couple tablespoons of water; sprinkle over the dishes. Garnish with the fresh mint and coriander, and dollop a generous spoonful of yoghurt on each serving. Sprinkle over the remaining tablespoon of sumac and serve.
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beer and wine hound and an all-around lover of tasty things. Our first book with Claire, The Beer Lover’s Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, is out now and available in all good book stores (and at HB&B). Follow her on Twitter at @clairembullen. Don’t miss out on Claire’s wine and food pairings, which go out every month in our Natural Wine Killers subscription box.