For me, it was my mother’s baked rice pudding. Where the sides and base of the pan revealed sweet, sticky, crispy grains that had congealed in pure culinary poetry, to be fought over between siblings. Pick any country you can think of, and you’ll find diners scrambling to nab the delicious, crunchy burnt rice hidden at the bottom of the pan.
If I’d grown up in Iran, the fragrant, saffron-infused tahdig would doubtless have caused similar sibling squabbles. It translates, perhaps unappetisingly, to ‘bottom of the pot’ – but that’s exactly where the good stuff lies. Oil is added to the base so the rice essentially pan-fries, guaranteeing a layer of crunchy, caramelised rice beneath its steamed and fluffy counterpart. When served, the dish is flipped upside-down so diners can snap up – and perhaps share, if siblings aren’t involved – the coveted crispy burnt rice.
China is the world’s biggest consumer and producer of rice, and the country has a vast and ancient panoply of recipes. One of the best-known? Claypot rice with preserved meat. Here, the oils from preserved meats like sweet and smoky lap cheung sausage or preserved lap yuk pork belly play a similar role as the fats in tahdig. Purists argue that cooking the claypot over charcoal is the ultimate guarantee of success, in flavour and texture alike.
Rice has featured across the Spanish culinary canon since the eighth century, after being introduced by the Moors. A dozen or so centuries later, there are no prizes for naming paella as the country’s best-known dish. The heady, aromatic ensemble comes in dozens of versions, but aficionados know that regardless of recipe, the best bit is the soccarat; its name taken from soccarar, ‘to singe’, which perfectly describes the scrumptious scorched rice that is scraped from the pan. It’s not just the textural contrast, but also the depth of flavour from the caramelised, slightly sweet crust that has absorbed the saffron, stock and seasoning which makes the dish so glorious in the first place.
A recent dining experience, a very long way from home, reaffirmed to me the truly global appeal of burnt rice dishes. At the Tragaluz restaurant at the Belmond Miraflores Park hotel in Lima, a dish caught my eye. Arroz con pato: a north Peruvian dish of duck and coriander rice, with a yellow chilli sauce too tempting to pass up.
I’m glad I didn’t. Once again the highlight were those crispier grains, cooked just that little bit more by the duck fat at the bottom of a pan, offering a gentle, satisfying crunch – and a reminder that the best bit of a rice dish always lies beneath. And not a sibling in sight to have to share it with.