The Thrilling Dare of Scorched Rice

When browned on the bottom of the pot by a skilled cook, the grain is transformed into a complex delicacy, one prized by food cultures around the world.

Credit…By Anthony Cotsifas

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By Ligaya Mishan

Photographs by Anthony Cotsifas

IT TAKES NERVE to scorch rice, to get a proper crust at the bottom of the pot, that layer of grains cooked past their time, bronzed and crisped but stopped just shy of burning; to go almost too far. You can’t see what’s happening. All that’s visible if you lift the lid is the soft, yielding rice on top, fluffy and preening. But don’t lift the lid, and don’t stir. Maybe you tuck a towel around the rim for a tighter seal to catch drips of condensation; maybe you flick the flame up high, lean in to hear the last rustle of water boiling off, then shut down the burner and let the pot be, sitting there ticking in the fading heat. You have to rely on your sense of smell to recognize when the gorgeous scent of roasting is near its peak — when it hits that note of popcorn just bursting to life, kernels turning themselves inside out, or of hot chestnuts from street carts in winter, tossed in woks with tiny black stones and shucked of their sleeves — to save it before it ends in bitterness. Your reward: rice’s dark side, its alter ego, grains gone hard and sealed together, chewy and crunchy and sublime.

Almost everywhere in the world where rice is eaten, as a staple and an inheritance, people have names for this prized crust, among them xoon, tahdig, com cháy, socarrat, pegao, nurungji, hikakeh, graten, kanzo, guoba, concón, cocolón, okoge, raspa, kerak nasi, bun bun, tutong, dukot, cucayo and bay kdaing. Some of these names are derived from, variously, words for the location of the rice (in Farsi, “tahdig” is literally “the bottom of the pot,” and in parts of Africa, English has been co-opted into the terms “bottom pot”and “underpot”), the tenacity with which the rice clings to the vessel (“dukot” comes from a Cebuano verb meaning “to stick around too long”) so it must be taken by force (the Cuban “raspa” is from the Spanish “raspar,” “to scrape”) and the act or state of burning (“socarrat” is believed to have roots in the Basque sukarra, or “fever”; “com cháy” is commonly translated from the Vietnamese as “burned rice”).

T’s Winter Travel Issue

A trip around the world through the lens of a vital grain.

– Tracing Mexico’s history through its ambivalent relationship to rice, a staple inextricable from colonialism.

– When scorched on the bottom of the pot by a skilled cook, rice transforms from bland supporting actor to rich, complex protagonist.

– Mansaf, a Bedouin dish of lamb and rice, is both a national symbol in Jordan and a talisman of home for suburban Detroit’s Arab American diaspora.

– Senegal, which consumes more rice per capita, most of it imported, than almost any other African nation, is attempting to resuscitate homegrown varieties.

The language of burning is poetic license, or should be: No one wants to eat rice that’s actually been burned. Andrea Nguyen, 52, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based chef and writer whose most recent cookbook is “Vietnamese Food Any Day” (2019), notes the distinction in Vietnamese between com cháy, which is literally “rice on fire” — rice in the process of burning, not yet having succumbed to the flames — and com khê, rice wholly burned, giving off an acrid whiff of ash, beyond edibility. Traditionally in Vietnam, people would grow their own rice and thresh it, some boiling it in a clay or metal pot over a fire of leftover rice straw. “Our pots were thin and our fire was uncontrollable,” she says. Under such conditions, it was difficult to cook rice evenly, however attentive and skilled the chef. The crust that formed at the bottom wasn’t a delicacy or an aspiration; it was a mistake, one that people had to live with, especially if they couldn’t afford to let any food go to waste.

So while com cháy may now be beloved, it’s also a reminder of how easily rice, and even a whole meal, can come to ruin, and how much effort, historically, it has taken to placate our hunger — to keep ourselves alive. “Once it was this almost inferior thing, second-class rice,” Nguyen says; you had to rake it out of the bottom of the pot (“more like pry it out”). It was a food whose place on the table spoke to limited resources, like French bouillabaisse, a stew that fishermen once made of scraps they couldn’t sell at market, and coq au vin, a recipe originally devised not to showcase a plump, juicy hen but to soften up an old, sinewy rooster (as well as to use up lesser wine, not worthy of being drunk). Both dishes now appear on fine-dining menus. American barbecue has humble roots, too, as a means of handling cheap, tough meats, smoking them for hours, then grilling them until they capitulated, grew trembly and shredded to the touch.

But automated electric rice cookers have eliminated the risk of burning and made it possible to cook rice practically without thinking. (When the first such machine was under development at Toshiba in Japan in the 1950s, Japanese women told traveling salesmen that they viewed cooking rice as a harder chore than washing clothes, since they had to wake up at dawn every morning and spend much of the day monitoring the kamado, a traditional stove fueled by wood or charcoal; as the London-based Japanese studies scholar Helen Macnaughtan has written, some of the company’s executives — in keeping with mores of the time — reportedly didn’t entirely approve of making a machine to save all that time and labor, believing “that a woman who wanted to sleep rather than cook rice was a failure as a wife.”) With today’s rice cookers, you fill water to a preset line, instead of dipping in a finger and measuring to the first knuckle, and then you can forget about it, leaving it to quietly steam in a corner. Most cookers automatically include the necessary rest time, when the heat shuts off and the rice just sits, untouched, in that last bit of warmth, the moisture continuing to absorb and settle, until every grain emerges identically polished and swollen: beautifully, eerily perfect.

What you lose is the contrast, the shock of that crunchy pot bottom against the soft, impeccable grains above, and the hit of bittersweet that comes from browning. In a number of Asian cultures, bitterness is seen as essential to the balance of life, to teach both perseverance and an appreciation for sweetness. Rice is usually reassuringly bland, the gentle backdrop that allows for the intensity of other foods, but scorched rice has a darker, more complicated character, with kinship to the thick, malty crust of a loaf of bread. (Both are a result of the dramatic transformation that happens when amino acids and sugars meet at high heat, known as the Maillard reaction.) To get that texture and flavor, Vietnamese cooks crisp the rice after the fact, scooping it from the rice cooker and tamping it down into a disk in a skillet. Some rice cookers even offer a scorch setting, although it’s not infallible and demands a certain amount of tinkering with the controls to achieve enough gilding.

“Nowadays, we get pots of perfect rice,” Nguyen says. “We miss that burned rice.”

THE ORIGINS OF rice cultivation are uncertain. West African farmers living in the inland delta of the Upper Niger River in what is today Mali turned one species, Oryza glaberrima, into a domesticated crop more than 3,000 years ago. This was the rice carried to the New World by enslaved peoples and planted in the American South before the arrival in the late 17th century of Oryza sativa, a fast-growing, high-yield species from Asia, which now dominates the globe. Of the history of Oryza sativa, researchers have found charred grains on the Upper Gangetic Plain in northern India that date back to at least 6400 B.C.; rice phytoliths, microscopic silica structures from the original plant, in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River in southeastern China, from around 8000 B.C.; and rice husks in the peaty soil of the Paleolithic site Soro-ri in South Korea, whose age has been radiocarbon-dated at around 12,500 years, although some have questioned whether the rice was grown there or transported from southern regions.

By the 12th century B.C., Oryza sativa had come to Mesopotamia, and from there it spread through the Fertile Crescent and what would become Persian and Arabian lands. The Arabs in turn brought it to the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century A.D., and so the Spanish “arroz,” a cousin of the English “rice,” is a borrowing from the Arabic “al-ruzz”— and the most famous of Spain’s rice dishes, saffron-scented paella from Valencia on the Mediterranean Sea, has roots in the ancient Persian polo, the fragrant golden rice that became a favored meal of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C., who lingered for months in Persepolis after conquering the Persian Empire, luxuriating in saffron baths and drinking saffron tea, and afterward made sure to take Persian cooks with him on his future campaigns.

From that golden rice comes the crust called tahdig, which, in Persian cuisine, is an entire genre. Potatoes cut thin, flaky lavash, leaves of lettuce, tart quince or a whole fish: Any of these might be laid at the bottom of the pot, under the rice, to crisp. But rice tahdig is the jewel, according to Naz Deravian, 49, an Iranian-born actress based in Los Angeles and the author of “Bottom of the Pot” (2018). Her advice: First, parboil the rice in well-salted water and drain it; prime the bottom of the emptied pot with oil and butter; pat down a layer of rice, maybe mixed with egg yolk and yogurt if you want tahchin, which can be softer than tahdig; then return the rest of the rice to the pot and let it steam.

“Tahdig is moody,” she says. “You have to know your pot and your heat source.” When she was growing up and her family had guests over, “there was always this nervous energy of how the rice would turn out.” Part of the drama is the fabled flip: You put a platter on top of the pot and invert in one swift move. “I tighten up my abs,” she says. As the rice falls, “you hear an audible swoosh,” and then comes the reveal — an immaculate dome topped with a broad yellow sun, or wreckage. But no matter. If some of it sticks to the pot, it’s acceptable to serve the tahdig on the side, broken up into pieces, for everyone to fight over.

Or, as is the prerogative of the cook, you can just hoard it for yourself. Deravian remembers her mother standing at the stove, snacking on the stubborn scraps still left in the pot: “The crackliest, oiliest, tastiest bits.”

IN WEST AFRICAN dishes like thieboudienne in Senegal, a one-pot glory of rice, fish and vegetables, and party jollof rice in Nigeria, sunset red from tomatoes and red bell peppers, stung by habaneros and simmered in caldrons to feed a crowd, the underpot gains extra flavor from the presence of other ingredients cooked with the grains — palm oil, earthy and lush; fermented seeds, with their thrilling funk; tomatoes breaking down, their juices jammy and thick; onions browned so long they faint in their own sugars; the memory of brine in smoked fish. “Anyone whose taste buds are alive knows that the bottom of the pot, that part that experiences the full blast of heat, gets the best marks for flavor,” the Nigerian essayist Yemisi Aribisala writes in her “Longthroat Memoirs” (2016). She decries the advent of the nonstick pan, insisting, “If the food sticks, it tastes better.”

“Xoon,” sometimes spelled khogn, is the Wolof word for the pot’s “dregs,” as the Senegalese-born chef Pierre Thiam, 56, slyly calls it in his cookbook “Yolele!” (2008) — noting that this humble debris is, in fact, “the cook’s prize, a fitting reward for a hard day’s work, which she may or may not choose to share.” For Thiam, who splits his time between New York (where he runs the restaurant Teranga, with locations in Harlem and Midtown), the Bay Area and Dakar, nothing comes close to the xoon achieved by cooking over fire, when the grains at the bottom go beyond gold to near black. The singeing makes the xoon not just a veneer but an ingredient in itself, changing the rest of the dish, as the smoke settles into the rice, whispering its way into every cranny. In Senegal, people with modern kitchens will almost always keep a wood-burning stove around, in the backyard or on a rooftop, “even if they live in a high-rise,” Thiam says with a laugh.

When he was a child, he was told, only half-jokingly, that xoon was reserved for grown-ups. Puerto Ricans have a traditional hierarchy, too: Von Diaz, 39, a journalist based in Durham, N.C., and the author of “Coconuts and Collards” (2018), recalls from her childhood that the pegao (from pegado, “glued,” and also slang for dancing close together, skin to skin) was always offered first to her father, as the man of the house. Later in life, she found herself doing the same for a boyfriend from Colombia, handing him a plate of arroz con pollo with the rice scooped out — the spoon plunged all the way to the bottom, to get it all, the scorch and the softness — and presented so that the pegao was on top, where he could see it.

He knew. “There was this intercultural understanding,” Diaz says, marveling, “that this was a gift.”

DURING THE FIRST months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, panic sent the price of rice soaring. In India, the world’s largest rice exporter, a spike in infections kept mill and port workers home, while lockdowns disrupted the annual trek of hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers who venture north every year to plant the rice paddies. Other major rice producers, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, limited exports to ensure that they had enough supply to feed their own populations. Since then, for the most part, exports have resumed and the price has stabilized, but the unsteadiness pointed to the dangers of treating food as a commodity when it is also an urgency: a basic human need.

In some countries, you might eat rice every day — “sometimes three times a day,” Nguyen says — and not always by choice. Scorched rice, then, may be a delight simply because it’s different, rice in a less common incarnation; rice that defies the rules. Many cultures have found ways to eke out rice’s charms: Grains might be roasted long and slow, then ground to a powder, as with Thai khao khua, for a sift of crackle in a savory dish; pounded and left translucent, like tiny angel wings, as with South Asian poha and Cambodian ambok; or flattened and toasted into a crunchy confetti to scatter over desserts and top off drinks, as with pinipig in the Philippines. So-called broken rice, com tâm in Vietnam and riz brisé in Senegal — shifted by the French from one colony to the other in the first half of the 20th century — consists of the grains that fracture when run through the mill and was once disdained and sold on the cheap. Now, it’s treasured because the smaller size of the grains and jagged edges make it cook faster and offer more corners for sauces to pool and catch in.

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Burned rice itself can be repurposed. The Filipino American restaurateur Nicole Ponseca, 45, who runs Jeepney in Miami, remembers how her father would scrape the tutong out of the bottom of the pot and save it to eat like crackers with sinigang, a soup of lancing sourness, tempered by the nutty bites of scorched rice; or to put in arroz caldo, a rice porridge, as a through line of crunch amid the gooeyness. She never thought of tutong as a treat, exactly. “It’s part of the cultural attitude,” she says. “To make do and not to waste.” This holds true in Japan, as well, where even the loftiest of meals — the elaborate, formal kaiseki — will come to a close before dessert with the near-burned bits, okoge, presented in a bowl to be filled with tea or dashi, then topped with pickles. You’re meant to clean the bowl, to finish every grain. In Madagascar, this is taken a step further, with boiling water poured directly into the crusted pot, to loosen the grains and make ranovola, a tea to be drunk hot or iced, tasting less of rice than as if the water itself had been roasted.

To turn a mistake into a virtue, to recast dregs as bounty, to make a gift, an honor, of something that would once have been cursed at and cast aside: Is it possible that this says less about resilience and more about the sheer perversity — and generosity — of human nature, which leads us so often to seek the good in the bad, to favor the damaged, to love the flaw? Cooking has always been, on some level, a matter of trial and error, a game of chance. It’s in the ragged edges that we most clearly see the hand of the cook, in the stray drops of oil and butter and scattered char that we see the work. Someone had to learn to do this, to wield knives and fire, risking scars and burns, to coax flavor out of whatever’s left in the larder. Modern technology holds out the promise of a world without error, where every outcome is predictable and assured, where even the amount of scorch at the bottom of the pot can be calculated to the second by a fuzzy-logic rice cooker. But we take our chances; we dance with ruin. Maybe we are not so interested in perfection and its sedations after all.

Food styling: Young Gun Lee. Set design: Suzy Kim. Retouching: Anonymous Retouch. Digital tech: Lori Cannava. Photo assistants: Karl Leitz, Scott Barraza. Food stylist’s assistant: Brianna Horton. Set assistant: Sophia Kwan

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