Tahcheen-e Esfenaj (Baked Persian Rice Cake with Lamb, Spinach & Prunes)

Tahcheen-e esfanaj

I must apologize for the infrequency of my blog posts over the past year. My new position at the medical school has kept me much busier than I’d ever imagined. Now, a year later, things are finally settling in and I’m hoping to bring this blog thing back to life, if only because the act of writing truly grounds me.

One of the better parts of my new position has been getting to know our Qatar-based medical school faculty and staff, who sent me the most amazing Persian cookbook – Saraban: A Chef’s Journey through Persia by Greg and Lucy Malouf. (Thank you Shahrad and team!)

This is a cookbook that deserves more than just a look at the recipes (which are amazing), but demands a real sit-down read. Saraban introduces the reader to an Iran most Americans do not know – a complex and beautiful country of both desert and verdant mountains, with warm, friendly people whose culture is steeped in marvelous food, family, literature (especially poetry) and religion. The grief and impact of years of political unrest and conflict are acknowledged, but are not central to this portrait of a people and a cuisine.

If only one day there were peace within this region and between our nations. We have so much that is beautiful (and delicious) to share with one another.

Tahcheen-e esfanaj

TAHCHEEN-E ESFENAJ (Baked Persian Rice Cake w/ Lamb, Spinach & Prunes)

The authors tell us that Tahcheen means “spread over the bottom”, which describes the tahdig or crispy rice mixture that forms the base of this cake, which is then layered with richly spiced lamb, cooked spinach and prunes.

Getting the cake out with the tahdig intact can be tricky (note I failed at that). I suggest you watch this video to learn how. I used a square pyrex pan, but you can use a glass pan, cast iron skillet if large enough, or a La Cruset pan. Non-stick would be great if you have it.

In this recipe, the meat is stewed and removed from the broth. This leaves you with a lovely broth to be used in future dishes (Pilaf? Soup?) The meat is then marinated in the yogurt/saffron mix for 8-24 hours. That’s a huge make-ahead step. For a quicker version, after the meat is cooked, just cook the broth down into a nice thick gravy, and avoid the yogurt marinade step altogether.  It will mean that the rice yogurt part of the dish won’t have a lamb overtones, but I’m sure it will still be delicious. 

There are many versions of Tahcheen (also spelled Tah-Chin and Tahchin), the most popular being chicken. I could see this being delicious made without the lamb for a vegetarian version.

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 large onions, very thinly sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
  • Sea salt
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground allspice
  • 1 pound lamb shoulder, trimmed of fat and cut into 2-3 cm cubes
  • Enough water of beef broth to cover meat for cooking
  • 200 gm thick natural yogurt
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 80 ml (5 tbsp) saffron liquid (See recipe below)
  • 200 gm spinach leaves (one standard bag of pre-washed)
  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 12 prunes, pitted and roughly chopped
  • 2 oz butter, plus extra for greasing the pan

Heat 1.5 tbsp oil in medium saucepan over low heat. Add one of the sliced onions, along w/ garlic, 1 tsp sea salt, pepper and spices and fry gently for 4 minutes. Add meat and enough water or broth to cover, bring to simmer and simmer gently for an hour, or until meat is tender. Remove meat from broth and cool.  (Save that broth!  It’s gold, Jerry, gold…)

Beat yogurt with egg yolks and saffron liquid in a shallow dish. Drain the cooled meat well and add to yogurt mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 and up to 24 hours.

Heat the remaining oil in a large frying pan over a low heat. Add the remaining sliced onion and fry gently till soft and lightly colored. Add spinach and cook, tossing gently with tongs, till wilted. Cook over a medium heat to evaporate any excess liquid. When cool, squeeze the spinach to remove any remaining liquid and coarsely chop.

Parboil the rice: Wash/rinse the rice well, then soak in cold water for 30 mins. Drain and add to 8 cups boiling water in a large pot. Bring back to a rolling boil and boil for 5 mins. Rinse with warm water and drain well.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter an ovenproof dish with an 8 cup capacity. Remove the lamb from the yogurt mixture. Mix half the parboiled rice with the marinade and spoon into the bottom and up the sides of the ovenproof dish. Arrange the lab on top of the rice, then cover with spinach and dot with the prunes. Spoon remaining rice to cover and smooth the surface. Cover tightly with a sheet of aluminum foil and bake for 1 1/2 hours

Remove the dish from the oven and dot with bits of butter. Replace foil and leave to rest for 10 minutes. Turn the rice cake out onto a platter and serve warm.

Saffron Liquid

  • About 60 saffron threads
  • 6 tbsp boiling water

Lightly toast the saffron threads in a small frying pan over medium heat for about 30 seconds or until totally dry. Be careful not to burn the saffron. Place saffron into aa mortar and let sit for a minute or two before grinding into a powder. (If the saffron is well dried, and like me, you don’t have a mortar and pestle, just crush the saffron threads with a spoon against the side of a small bowl and it will grind easily into a coarse powder.) Mix the ground saffron into the boiling water in a small cup or bowel and set aside to infuse for at least an hour before using. The color will continue to develop for at least 12 jours.

You’ll be using 5 tbsp of this liquid in this recipe.

More Tacheen

  • PersianMama makes one gorgeous Lamb Tahchin with black-eyed peas. (Great pics – Check out those sautéed onions…)
  • WorthyPause makes her Tahchin with ground lamb and barberries
  • Persian Fusion makes a vegetarian Tahcheen with mushrooms and aubergine
  • Fig and Quince shows how to make a beautiful Tacheen Morgh (Chicken Tacheen). (She also has great pics from her trips to Iran)
  • Azita of Turmeric & Saffron makes a particularly gorgeous Chicken Tah-Chin
  • PersianMama makes a pretty Tachin Morgh
  • A quick video shows how to make an easy stove-top Chicken Tacheen
  • Jamie Oliver makes a nice Chicken Tahchin

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