"Not all rice is created equal."
That's Naomi Duguid, author of Taste of Persia, which just won the IACP award for best cookbook of the year in Culinary Travel. Speaking about the importance of rice in Persian cuisine—"Bread is just what you have; rice marks it as a meal"—she explains that the long, tender, basmati-like variety is unlike anything else. The grains don't stick together, which results in super-fluffy dishes.
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There's one hallmark of Persian rice, however, that stands out above the rest: tahdig. It literally translates to the "bottom of the pot," and it's the crispy, golden crust that forms when you cook the rice a certain way. When I first started learning about the cuisine a few years ago, though I was enamored of the complex stews perfumed with dried limes and the fragrant desserts laced with rose water, tahdig was the grain attraction. Once you master this simple but showstopping technique, your rice dishes—Persian or otherwise—will never be the same.
As Reyna Simnegar, author of Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride, puts it, "Tahdig is the purpose of life. There is no life without tahdig. My children fight over it."
Similar to my own story, Simnegar was hurdled into the world of Persian rice when she began dating her now-husband, forced to learn the cuisine so his mother would stop FedExing him food from across the country (not an uncommon routine). Learning to master tahchin and other Persian dishes has broadened my own culinary horizons and helped me connect with new family members.
So with the Persian New Year upon us, I've taken the opportunity to chat with Duguid, Simnegar and a third cookbook author—Yasmin Khan, author of The Saffron Tales—to learn more about tahdig and master a new dish: tahchin, a giant chicken and rice casserole that's the ultimate showcase for the golden crust (see the recipe).
The Rice Is Right
"My family is ridiculous about rice. My uncle won't eat it if it isn't cooked in a certain way," Khan, whose family were rice farmers in the North of Iran, says.
"Every grain is like a pearl of its own. It's like a poem. Every one is independent," Simnegar says.
Though Persian rice is different from any rice you've seen in America, you can substitute basmati. And while you may typically rinse your rice before cooking it, Persian rice dishes require a different technique: soaking the grains in salt water for at least an hour before boiling them like pasta. "Starch doesn't transmit heat as well as water," Duguid explains. "By soaking, water is absorbed early, so that when the rice is heated, it can transmit the heat better and cook evenly."
Another One Bites the Crust
After soaking and par-cooking the rice, it's time to assemble. Typically, a portion of the rice is mixed with some combination of yogurt, egg, melted butter and/or saffron water. Everyone is going to have their own combo, so don't feel like you're restricted to a certain recipe. "There aren’t rules, just respect for the rice," Duguid says.
When making tahchin, you'll lay the coated rice on the bottom of a greased casserole dish or pot, followed by a layer of yogurt-marinated chicken and the remaining rice. The fillings can vary from lamb to chicken to even vegetables, as Khan uses in her cookbook.
"There is always an element of luck," Khan says about cooking tahchin and getting the perfect tahdig. "You have to get to know your pan." Every pan is going to conduct heat differently, so careful monitoring is key.
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Patience is just as important. Simnegar explains that the number one cause of a soggy crust is checking the rice too often. As the casserole cooks, steam condenses on the lid of the pan and drips onto the rice. If you continually remove the lid, water will drip down the sides of the pan and sog the rice.
Beauty and the Feast
Once you've mastered tahchin, you must also fill up the rest of the table, because Persian cuisine is all about family style eating. "In Iran, we don’t serve food in individual portions. Everything is on big sharing bowls and platters," Khan explains. "Iranian food also doesn’t distinguish between courses. You can find rice, a crunchy and lemony herb salad, smooth cooling yogurt and a stew all on the table."
If you're looking to turn this Persian culinary adventure into a true dinner party, give a traditional stew like ghormeh sabzi (kidney bean and herb stew), fesenjoon (walnut, pomegranate and duck stew) or ash-e-reshteh (noodle and bean soup) a go. Finish it off with faloodeh (rose granita with frozen rice noodles), the only way to end the meal.
Whatever you do, make sure to cook a big enough pot of tahchin, because that crispy rice will be gone in seconds.