A Crusty Tale

By Franz Scheurer


What culinary oddity do the Japanese have in common with people in Iran or Europe? The love of the rice crust.


It’s almost unthinkable that the Japanese would ever ‘burn’ their rice. Aesthetics and technique are valued so highly that we all assume that no one would ever even think of cooking rice in a way that it would ‘burn’ at the bottom of the pot, let alone eating the result. However, this is not the case.


Traditionally rice in Japan was cooked in a large, round, metal pot, over an open fire. The pot, called ‘okama’, has a curved bottom and a wooden lid. Rice cooked in this old-fashioned way always has a thin, brown crust at the bottom. The crust is regarded as a treat and reserved until the end of the meal. Scorched crust, called ‘koge’ is rolled into balls and eaten dipped in soy sauce. In rural areas, tea is traditionally served in one’s rice bowl at the end of the meal and if there is any ‘koge’ it is left in the bowl to be softened by the tea. This imparts a wonderfully nutty flavour to the tea, which in our modern days is reproduced commercially in a tea called ‘genmai cha’, a mixture of tea leaves, toasted and puffed rice, but it’s hardly the same!


Rice in Iran is habitually cooked to form a crust. Rice is soaked, briefly cooked in lots of boiling water. Once cool, a pot is lined with melted butter and yoghurt, covered with the rice and then steamed until a rich, golden crust forms at the bottom of the pot. By the time the crust has formed, the rice is perfectly cooked and fluffy on top and the crust, called ‘tahdig’ is then served either on the side or as a garnish on top of the dish.


In Afghanistan they cook a dish called ‘Tahchin’ which is a simple chicken and rice dish, made special by baking in an oven until a thick, golden crust forms both on top and on the bottom. Traditionally slow-baked in a Tandoor in the leftover heat from the daily baking of the bread, this dish has survived, with the substitution of an electric or gas oven, to this day. The dish is served by inverting it onto a serving platter, then slicing it into handy wedges, easy to manage eating only with the right hand.


Sticky rice moulded around skewers then grilled until they’re golden and crusty on the outside is a common dish in northeastern Thailand in the city of Loei. Street vendors compete with each other to form the perfect crust, without the inside getting too dry. The secret is the right amount of heat and smoke.


Risotto is often made into rice-balls and deep-fried in Italy, sometimes with the addition of an egg or a piece of mozzarella and in Spain leftover paella is often baked until it is crunchy and crisp and the crust that naturally forms at the bottom of the paella pan is called ‘socorrat’ and is usually given to the most favoured guest. In West Africa rice is cooked with dried fish then shaped into flat patties and shallow fried until they resemble crisp-bread and eaten with lots of fresh chillies, and in Switzerland, left-over rice pudding is shaped into small balls, deep-fried and served with apple purée. 


Seems to me that the world’s taste buds value ‘burnt’ rice, regardless of our cultural and culinary heritage.


These curious facts come from a fabulous book by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, called ‘Seductions of Rice’ ISBN 1-57965-113-5 published by Artisan, New York.