They gather around me with bated breath. The air is thick with anticipation and hope.
If it all goes as planned, the fruits of my labor will be met with thunderous applause and joyous cheers. High fives and high jumps and quasi-cartwheels all around. Maybe even a little impromptu jig.
If it all falls apart (literally), shoulders will slump, and slight groans will replace the cheers. Dissapointed little feet will shuffle back to the table. And once they recover from this let-down, they will do their best to make me feel better.
It's ok Mama. Next time.
It's not as great as usual Mama but it's still ok...
These are the pressures I face.
They crowd in even closer. My audience of two. I place the serving dish over the pot. Inhale. Hold my breath. Tighten up my abs. Chant a little mantra. Flip the pot over.
First it's the triumphant sound of success, the swish sound of the release, as the rice drops from pot to dish. I gently pull the pot up and away and there she is in all her glory - golden and regal - TAHDIG. Merrymaking ensues. Exhale. The Muse of Cooking decided to smile upon me - this time.
Rice is the crown jewel of Persian cuisine. A platter of fragrant saffron-steamed rice is almost always present at the dining table. The perfect companion to the many flavorful stews (like celery stew), koo koos and kababs. As a child there was nothing more comforting and reassuring as a bowl of polo* ( cooked rice), crunchy tahdig, with
mast o khiar and a few sprigs of fresh mint and parsley.
* Technically, plain saffron-steamed rice served alongside a stew is called chelo-khoresh. Polo is steamed rice mixed with other ingredients like vegetables and meats. But in our house we refer to all cooked rice as polo.
A Persian cook's reputation rests first and foremost on his or her ability to turn out the perfect pot of fluffy rice and tahdig (pronounced "tah DEEG"). Tahdig literally means the bottom of the pot. The most common type of tahdig is made with rice (using bread or potatoes is popular as well). The crispy, golden fried rice, nestled at the bottom of the pot - and the most coveted dish at the table.
Making Persian rice is truly a creative process. No pot of rice ever turns out exactly the same and a perfect golden tahdig is never assured. But even at it's most imperfect, it's as close as one can get to delicious perfection. Really.
Every grain of rice should be separate, long, individual, fluffy - and shine on its own. No clumps. No sticking together. Every grain is a jewel.
These are the words that echoed in our kitchen as my mom gently, methodically and artistically scattered the steamed rice - the jewels - on a platter.
There are a few key ingredients and techniques that you must follow to achieve this:
You have to start with a long grain rice. Indian white basmati rice is very similar to the rice enjoyed in Iran. On any given day if you go the Persian market you can overhear the ladies AND gentlemen passionately discussing the merits of one imported basmati brand over the other. I use the Lal Qilla brand (which means committing to a 10lb sack). I have also found the Trader Joe's white basmati works quite well too. Try a couple of different brands. You'll get a feel for which will turn out the fluffier rice. Or visit a Persian market and ask. But beware you might get a twenty minute thesis on rice! We are very serious about our rice.
I should also mention that we made the switch to brown rice many years ago, for all the obvious nutritional, health conscious, waistline-minded reasons. But there are times when nothing else will suffice but a dish of white saffron-steamed basmati rice.
POT, PAN AND HEAT DIFFUSER
You have to use a non-stick pot or a deep non-stick pan. A well-seasoned cast iron works too. DO NOT USE A STAINLESS STEEL POT. To get the most tahdig, try to use a pot or pan with a flat bottom and one large enough that will give the rice plenty of room to expand. If your pot or pan is too small the rice will clump together. For this recipe I used a pot with a 10" bottom. If using a pan, make sure you have a lid that will tightly fit it. The zeery - heat diffuser - is used to ensure the tahdig doesn't burn. If you don't have one don't worry about it. It's just extra insurance.
Heat temperatures differ on any given stove. This is where you have to get a feel for your heat source and its relation to your rice. It's basically knowing when to go from a high heat to a low heat.
THE TWO STEP METHOD
Here comes the art. You will first par-boil the rice (much like making pasta) so it is al-dente. This also comes down to a feel for knowing when it's al-dente and ready to drain. It all depends on the quality of the rice you use and how long it has soaked. You want the rice to be soft but still with a bite to it, not completely cooked through. Boil it too long and you'll end up with clumpy overdone rice; boil it not long enough and your rice will be slightly hard.
The second part is the steaming process. There is a dichotomy at play here. As you want to gently steam the rice up top you also want to crisp up the tahdig at the bottom of the pot without burning it.
There are two options on how you can serve the rice. First, with a spatula you can gently scatter the fluffy rice onto a serving dish. (No dumping the rice out of the pot onto a dish in one fell swoop. Remember, you are dealing with jewels!) And then gently loosen and remove your tahdig from the bottom of the pot, divide in portions and serve separately.
Or, you can place a serving dish big enough to fit over the pot, and carefully but with purpose, flip the pot over. Tahdig still intact. Kind of like a cake. This option has a great "tada" and "wow" appeal.
Think of Persian rice as a coy lover. You have to treat her with respect. You have to be patient. You have to know when it's appropriate to make a move and when to pull back, give her space. You have to seduce her with a gentle touch, poetry and love. And ultimately you have to dive in with complete and utter unbridled passion and abandon. If she turns you down the first time - try, and try, and try again. Because she's worth it. Really.
Please do share and let me know how your rice and tahdig turns out. Were you good to your lover? Was your lover good to you?