Food

Soccarat is the Gold at the Bottom of a Pot of Rice

Todd Kliman

When we think of the great delicacies of the world, we tend to think of highly sought after and often prohibitively expensive items that require enormous effort to source, like truffles, caviar, sea urchin, or saffron.

Or, we think of those foods that derive from highly refined methods that have been developed and mastered by a culture over decades and even centuries: the Napoleon, Peking duck, pit barbecue, bouillabaisse.

But one of the great delicacies in the world is literally, no joke, scraped up from the bottom of the pot.

What’s it called?

It depends on which part of the world you’re in. Few dishes can claim as many aliases. It’s known as tahdig in Iran, com cháy in Vietnam, socarrat in Spain, concón in the Dominican Republic. And it refers to nothing more (and nothing less) than the layer that develops at the bottom of a pot of rice: crunchy, caramelized, and completely irresistible.

In America, unfortunately, no such term exists—we are not, after all, a rice-eating culture; we are a corn- and potato-eating culture. And so we grow up ignorant of the sublime simplicity of this bottom layer, ignorant of its soul-speaking deliciousness.

In many of the restaurants where you are likely to come across this bottom layer in a dish, you will also find that it often is left behind—uneaten, unloved. In a culture where many people are weaned to eat chicken breast and grow up without knowing the richer, deeper pleasures of dark meat, it’s not hard to understand why. The bottom layer, though sometimes golden, is sometimes scorched, and, to the uninitiated, can look like refuse.

The good news is that there are many chefs and restaurateurs who are determined to carry on this proud tradition, and even to adapt it to a variety of delicious preparations, thereby broadening its reach and, just maybe, winning over a new generation of loyalists.

Uncovering technique

Talk to a chef or restaurateur who hails from a culture that prizes the crispy bits, and you will hear mostly puzzlement as to why anyone would come calling for an interview or asking for a recipe.

Recipe? There is no recipe, they will say. It’s a method, a technique. Something done by feel.

Keep the conversation going, and eventually a kind of pride will emerge, and you will be left feeling that, in talking about this humble thing—a thin layer of a dish—you have accessed the secret heart of an entire cuisine.

You have to know to ask for concón at Los Hermanos, a Dominican restaurant in Washington, D.C. Those who do are rewarded with a treat: the dark, crunchy rice flavored with onions, cilantro, tomatoes, green peppers, adobo, and garlic in the caldero, or cast-iron pot, to produce moro de gandules, or rice with pigeon peas.

The restaurant’s manager, Rember Compres, explains that, contrary to some kitchens, the rice is cooked without saffron or tomato paste, and the cooks use plastic wrap, not the traditional banana leaf, to wrap the caldero, so that precious heat doesn’t escape.

When the rice is done, the making of the concón begins. The cooks remove the rice and peas, leaving behind a thin bottom layer. The heat is turned down, allowing the rice to cook slowly and caramelize. Over the next few minutes (the timing is loose; it’s all in the feel at the stove), the flavors concentrate, so that what remains is not simply dark and crunchy but also dark and sticky and full of savor.

Crispy snacks

Producing the crispy bits isn’t hard, though it does require, in addition to skill and knowledge, a good deal of vigilance at the stove. If a few minutes becomes five minutes, you could be left with burn, rather than scorch.

The hard part is the time it takes.

That’s one reason Larry Tipmanee, who owns the vaunted SriPraPhai in Queens, N.Y., purchases crispy rice sheets to make the caramel crunchy rice his Thai restaurant is known for.

Photo: Cassidyphoto.com

Moro de Gandules Photo: Cassidyphoto.com

Tipmanee says it’s a lot easier than having his cooks tie up a pot just so that they can make a huge pot of rice to produce a single dish. He also claims that the crispy rice sheets are identical to what his kitchen made the traditional way.

The square sheets are fried, then doused with a mixture of coconut milk, palm sugar, and a tiny bit of salt that thickens over high heat until it takes on the color and consistency of a caramel. The treats aren’t out on the counter for long before they are snatched up by Thais craving a simple taste of home.

For Mai Lam, who operates Rice Paper, in Falls Church, Va.’s famed Eden Center—a kind of Little Vietnam, with more than 100 businesses—time is not the issue. It helps that her small bistro’s kitchen consists of a chef and eight cooks.

To make a variant of com cháy called nep cha bong, her team prepares a separate batch of rice. The rice (sticky rice instead of jasmine) is rinsed and cooked in a rice cooker, along with pork and dried shrimp broth. When it’s done, it is spread thin on a flat surface. The sheets are then cut, deep-fried, and topped with fried spring onions and shredded pork.

The pizza-like wedges pack more complexity than you’re prepared for, and have nearly the crunch of a snack chip. The flavor of pork is undeniable, and so, faintly, is the taste of shrimp, but it’s the rice that’s the star—crunchy, nutty, and almost sweet.

Tahdig treasure

Compres, Tipmanee, and Lam will tell you that it’s rare to find anyone outside the culture who seeks out the crispy bits.

Not so at Taste of Tehran in Los Angeles, according to Owner Saghar Fanisalek, who says back home in Shiraz, tahdig was “something we fight for, the whole family wants it.” No one in her restaurant is coming to blows over it, but to her surprise and delight, she hears many non-Iranians asking for tahdig. It doesn’t hurt that she has posted pictures of the golden-brown round of crisped rice the size of a hubcap to her Instagram account.

Fanisalek says that in Iran, cooks line the bottom of the pot with potato and lavash. She doesn’t; her trick is to instead put a little oil and water at the bottom of the pot, after lining it with aluminum foil.

The rice, soaked overnight, cooks for almost an hour, and then almost the entire pot is scooped out. What remains is turned into tahdig.

It takes only minutes, but so much action, knowledge, and history is packed into that short stretch of time as cooks rotate the pot to distribute the heat evenly, lower the flame when the steam comes up, and keep watch over the proceedings as if it were a tie game in the final, tense seconds.

One showcase for tahdig that she likes to prepare at the restaurant is tahchin, which she describes as a “cake with a layer of chicken.”

It’s a clever, funny description, but it doesn’t adequately convey the wondrousness of this rich, layered dish, in which rice is mixed with yogurt, saffron, and eggs and baked, with pieces of chicken or lamb placed inside, in a large pot (recipe).

When it’s finished cooking, the pot is turned upside down and the baked rice cake slips out, slowly, with guidance. The result does, indeed, look like a big, yellow cake, but all it takes is one bite to learn that this cake is savory and not sweet—and to thrill to the discovery that something so simple as almost-burned rice could produce such a variety of delicious effects.

Photo: Cassidyphoto.com

Com Cháy Photo: Cassidyphoto.com

Cooks have long looked for ways to exploit the flavor and texture of the crispy bits and turn them into actual dishes.

At Philadelphia’s Amada, the kitchen crew one day got to wondering why socarrat was so woefully underutilized. All that flavor and crunch—surely it had applications beyond just the two versions of paella the restaurant makes.

The result of that what-if session is a recent addition on the menu: crudo of black sea bass with rice crackers.

The process is similar to the one used at Rice Paper, spreading out the rice (Calasparra in this case, overcooked to the consistency of a porridge, according to Sous Chef Joseph Rota) on a baking sheet.

It then goes into a dehydrator for a day or two (or into the oven) to dry the rice out further. The dried rice is then deep-fried until it becomes puffy and crispy.

Because the crudo—with its sour orange juice, Espelette, cilantro, and radishes—is all brightness and tang, the socarrat-like crackers supply a needed counterweight: the taste of something cooked (and not once, but twice), plus loads of texture.

For Rota, socarrat has been a revelation; he likens the making of it to producing the leopard-skin crust on a Neapolitan pizza.

“You want the air bubbles to be dark,” he says. “You want that. The darker the better. That’s the flavor.”

These days, he says, he goes right to the bottom of the pan.

As should we all.

Todd Kliman’s go-to rice dish is his version of red wine risotto with celery leaves.

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