Andy Baraghani’s Chelo Ba Tahdig
A classic Persian rice dish flavoured with saffron and featuring a caramelised crunchy crust, also known as tahdig, on the bottom.
This is, by far, the longest recipe in this book, even though the ingredient list is quite short. My goal is to guide you to make this dish with each grain separate, magnificently fluffy, and gorgeously stained from the saffron. And, yes, there is the tahdig, the scorched crispy rice on the bottom, a prize I still fight my dad for.
What I hope you also take away from this recipe is a deeper understanding and respect for the traditions of Iranian culture and the ritual of making Persian rice. To feel the sensations behind the lines of the recipe. To take your time to run your hands through the grains. To watch the saffron transform the water into a colour only nature can make. And to smell the rice as it soaks in the water, as you boil it, after it has been steamed, and again when the bottom has formed that caramelised crust.
Chelo means “plain steamed rice” in Farsi, whereas polos are rice dishes with other ingredients folded in, like pilafs—I included a few variations of these.
If there’s one piece of equipment you’ll see in every Persian household, it’s a nonstick pot. Although I almost never use nonstick cookware, for this recipe, it’s essential. It makes life easy when you want to serve the rice on a platter, or flip and invert it for easy release. Trust me and pay the money to invest in that peace of mind.
|3 cups / 555g||basmati rice|
|1 large pinch||saffron threads (a heaping ½ teaspoon)|
|3 tbsp||hot water|
|¼ cup / 60ml||neutral oil (such as grapeseed)|
|3 tbsp||full-fat plain yogurt|
|3 tbsp||unsalted butter, cut into pieces|
You will need: a nonstick pot.
Place the rice in a large bowl and add lukewarm water to cover by 1 inch. Submerge your hand in the bowl and get intimate with your rice, agitating the grains until the water becomes cloudy. Tip out as much water as you can into the sink without letting any grains escape. Refill the bowl with water and repeat three more times, until the water is almost clear.
Cover the rice again with water and sprinkle in 2 teaspoons salt. Soak the rice for at least 20 minutes or up to 2 hours. This step will begin to hydrate the grains, which will shorten the cooking time but also help the grains keep their shape during cooking.
Grab a medium nonstick pot with a tight-fitting lid. Fill the pot three-fourths full of water (about 3 quarts/2.8 litres) and place it over high heat. Bring to a boil and season the water with ¼ cup / 68g salt. You want that water very salty because the grains will soak up the seasoned water more while cooking than during soaking.
When the water boils, turn the rice into a colander to drain, and then add it to the pot. Grab a wooden spoon and give the rice a few stirs for the first minute of cooking to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
You’ll notice the water will stop boiling when you add the rice. Wait and watch until the water begins to boil again. This can take as few as 3 minutes or as many as 6 minutes. Once the rice comes back to a boil, the grains will have nearly doubled in size. These are the indicators that the rice is now al dente (which is what you want) and ready to be drained.
Working quickly, drain the rice in a colander and rinse it with cold water, shaking the colander so the rice gets cooled evenly and to prevent it from overcooking. Set your parboiled rice and pot aside while you get things going for the tahdig.
Place the saffron threads in a mortar and pestle with a tiny pinch of salt. The salt will help break down the saffron into a powder. Use the pestle to crush the saffron until you have fine flecks of saffron. Transfer to a small bowl, pour the hot water over the saffron, and let it steep for 1 minute.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the neutral oil, yogurt, and 1 tablespoon of the saffron water. Scoop out about 1 cup / 175g of the rice and scatter it over the saffron yogurt. Use a spoon to gently toss the rice until every grain is coated. Grab your nonstick pot again and spread the saffron-yogurt rice on the bottom of the pot into one, even layer.
Using a wooden spoon, gradually pile the remaining plain rice on top of the yogurt rice, so it forms a mound like the shape of a mountain. This gives the rice room to expand while steaming. Using the end of the wooden spoon handle, poke six holes in the rice (without hitting the bottom of the pot), to allow the steam to rise to the top.
Cook the rice over medium-high heat, covered, until you start to hear a sizzle, 6 to 8 minutes. That’s how you know the tahdig is starting to form. Turn the heat to medium-low and continue to steam the rice, covered, until it is fluffy and fragrant, 30 to 35 minutes. Turn off the heat and slide the pot off the burner.
Uncover the pot, add the butter, and drizzle in the remaining 2 tablespoons saffron water. Using the wooden spoon, gently mix and fluff the rice, melting the butter and allowing the saffron water to stain all the grains, without disturbing the bottom layer. Place the lid back on the pot and set it aside to cool for 5 minutes. This step ensures that the tahdig releases easily from the bottom of the pot.
Now you have two options: First, you could place a large plate or platter over the pot. With confidence and gratitude, invert the pot. The rice should—it will!—plop out in one piece, like a cake, revealing the tahdig. If you’re too nervous to flip and invert the pot (this is a safe space here), go with the second option. Just transfer the rice to a platter without disrupting the tahdig. Then, using your wooden spoon, break the tahdig from the bottom of the pot in large pieces and arrange it on top of the rice or on the side.
More tahdig and rice adventures:
There are endless customisations, and here are several special ones.
Bread Tahdig: Tear 1 large piece, or multiple pieces, of lavash until you have enough to cover the bottom of the pot. Pour ¼ cup / 60ml neutral oil into the pot, along with 1 tablespoon of the saffron water. Arrange the lavash on the bottom of the pot, making sure no pieces overlap. Place the parboiled rice on top and continue with the recipe.
Lettuce Tahdig: Tear 4 to 6 pieces of the dark green leaves from a head of romaine lettuce. Pour ¼ cup / 60ml neutral oil into the pot, along with 1 tablespoon of the saffron water. Arrange the lettuce leaves on the bottom of the pot, making sure no pieces overlap. Place the parboiled rice on top and continue with the recipe. (This is my favourite.)
Morasa Polo (Jeweled Rice): In a large skillet over medium heat, melt ¼ cup / 60g unsalted butter with 1 tablespoon neutral oil. Add 1 large onion (diced) and cook until very soft and golden brown. Stir in ⅔ cup / 127g mixed chopped dried fruit (raisins, currants, cherries, and apricots are my go-tos) and ⅔ cup / 127g chopped toasted nuts (pistachios and almonds work best). Toss the parboiled rice with the fruit and nuts. Proceed to steam.
Sabzi Polo (Herbed Rice): Toss the parboiled rice with 2 cups / 120g finely chopped herbs (a mix of parsley, dill, and coriander is my preference) and 1 bunch scallions (spring onions), thinly sliced. Proceed to steam.