In Persian cuisine, this is traditionally a peasant dish made with lamb called 'tah cheen' because tah means “bottom” and cheen means “to layer"; and the dish is essentially layers of rice and meat. The bottom of the pan produces the delicious, flavorful and crispy layer of rice called tah-deeg that gives it the look of a golden brown cake. This recipe is made with boneless chicken, but fish, lamb or a whole chicken are other options. In the Persian tradition, tah cheen should be paired with yogurt, herbs and eaten immediately so that the tah-deeg does not become soggy.
As most Persians cooks do not use measurements or recipes because they develop their own during a lifetime of cooking, the cuisine is both challenging and rewarding for the novice cook. A blending of scribbled notes, directions, and tips from my parents and grandmother along with the cookbook A Taste of Persia by Najmieh Batmanglij produced this recipe for tah cheen.
Good luck and enjoy!
For the chicken:
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
- 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken roughly cut into 1-inch strips
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 2 cups of water
For the rice:
- 8 cups of water
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 cups long-grain basmati rice
- 2 tablespoons oil, plus more for the rice
- 1 egg
- 2 ½ cups plain yogurt
- 1 teaspoon ground saffron threads, dissolved in ½ cup boiling water
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the chicken:
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot (you see streaks when you move the pan), add the onions and fry for about 10 minutes or until they are translucent. Add the chicken and sauté until slightly cooked (chicken should turn white on surface).
Then add the cumin, turmeric, salt, pepper and 2 cups of water. Cook until the meat is cooked through (the water will boil) and about 1/2 cup of liquid remains. Reserve the juice and set the meat and onion mixture aside to cool.
For the rice:
Wash the rice by rinsing it with lukewarm water several times. Then, in a large pot, boil 8 cups of water with 2 tablespoons of salt. When boiling, add the rice and cook for 6–10 minutes, gently stirring once or twice to loosen any grains stuck on the bottom. If any foam gathers on top, skim it off (it is remaining dirt from the rice).
At around that time, you should see a few grains come to the surface, which means the rice is ready. Try one grain to make sure it is cooked and the inside is not crunchy.
Pour the rice into a colander and drain. Then pour a little cold water over the rice so that it doesn't stick together and remove any excess water by shaking it. Pour a good amount of oil on top of the rice while it sits in the sink until you see oil dripping through (a tip from my grandmother).
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Oil the bottom of baking dish and place in the oven for a few moments.
Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, beat the egg, then add the yogurt, 2 tablespoons oil, saffron water, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper, and mix thoroughly for 1 minute. Add the cooked rice to the yogurt mixture and gently mix through.
Remove the baking dish from the oven, and add half of the rice-yogurt mixture to the bottom and sides of the dish. Pat it down firmly because this will make a thick layer of tah deeg. Place a layer of the chicken and onions over the rice, and then cover with the remaining rice-yogurt mixture and pour the reserved juice on top (a trick of my mother’s for extra flavor).
Cover with aluminum foil and bake for roughly 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours, until the bottom turns a deep golden brown.
When done, remove foil and loosen the sides of the pan with a knife. Holding a serving platter tightly over the dish, invert the two together (away from you) so that the tah deeg is facing up.
Serve immediately with yogurt and fresh herbs. Enjoy!