Growing up in Iran means affinity with food. Fridays in our household were the most special days because in Iran Friday is our weekend and my father worked only half a day or some days he would stay home to prepare saffron marinated chickens and lamb kebab.
On Fridays, around 1:00 pm, Iranian lunchtime, my father would proudly sit in the kitchen and put all the marinated meat in front of himself and my mom would bring the metal skewers and he would start. He insisted that he would do it on his own because he believed we tear the meat if we are not careful and the chunks do not stand on the skewers stable enough if we did it. Then I would go with him on the rooftop to prepare the charcoal pit together. He always had a hand-woven straw fan to make the charcoals glow and if that did not work he would ask for the blow-drier. While my mom was busy making her saffron and butter rinsed twice-cooked rice, my father and I would be busy with the meat.
The preparation of rice in Iran is intricate and a bit complicated. Of course, the best and easiest way is to wash the rice, add 2 cups of hot water for each cup of rice, add salt and butter put it on medium heat, keep the lid off when it's boiling and put the lid on when the water is evaporated and let it cook entirely on low heat.
The crispy rice on the bottom of the pan is what all Iranians are madly in love with and they often have fights who should get the last spoons of the pan. All the butter goes to the bottom of the pan as the rice cooks and it creates a crispy golden layer of rice, I salivate as I type.
The more complicated way and my father's most favourite way of cooking rice is the rinsed and twice-cooked method.
To create a more versatile tahdig’s or crispy bottom, we first need to soak the rice in a pot of hot water and add 2 heaped tbsp of salt. Cover and leave to soften for 20 minutes. This will considerably reduce the cooking time. Bring a large pot of water to a boil; make sure it is big enough to contain the rice, which will double in volume when cooked. Strain the rice and transfer it into the boiling water and cook until the grains are half-cooked. To be sure, press a rice grain between two fingers; it should be soft on the outside but slightly hard in the middle. Strain the rice to remove any excess moisture. If you like pan scraps or have an appetite for crispy bits, you have to try making tahdig. By putting extra oil in the pan, the bottom layer of rice fries while the rice above it cooks. I like to think of tahdig as Persian “soul food.” It is one of those dishes that you can almost guarantee will get eaten down to the last scrap - I have seen grown adults squabble over the last spoonful. To try and avoid any conflict, my grandmother used to cook her rice in two separate pots, so as to give the children with not one but two crispy potatoes and rice bottoms.
Heat the oil in the pot you cooked the rice in. When piping hot, add enough rice to cover the bottom of the pan. Pour 60ml (¼ cup) of water around the edge of the saucepan, reduce to medium heat and cover. When steam starts to seep from beneath the lid, spoon a generous knob of butter on top, cover and lower the heat. Cook for another 20 minutes.
If you so wish, you can sprinkle some turmeric and sesame seeds into the oil before putting the rice in. This will give it a beautiful golden colour, extra flavour and crunch.
If you wish to use potato slices instead, peel and slice your potato into about half a centimetre-thick slices and pat dry with kitchen roll. Pour the oil into the saucepan. Next, layout the potato slices evenly and season with salt. If you wish to use flatbread, follow the exact same instructions for potato slices layer as explained above replacing the potatoes with the flatbread covering the bottom of the pot. Add the rice, cover and cook for 30 minutes on a medium heat. Gently scoop the rice onto a serving platter, making sure to leave the tahdig intact at the bottom of the pot. Remove from the pan with a spatula. Serve whole or broken into pieces.
This complicated way of cooking rice for us is neither complicated nor labour intensive at all. It's just a matter of having the time and a fussy father at home :)
Cooking rice the second way creates clearer and bigger rice grains as we wash the starch and the rice won't be as sticky as the first way and my father likes to see all his rice grains on his plate or maybe he even wants to assume he must be able to count them, not that he does...
In the Iranian food culture, sticky rice is the kind of rice that has not been prepared with care and attention. To them, it means the cook did not spend as much time as needed in the kitchen to rinse the starch away and add a suitable amount of water. Yes, Iranians take their rice seriously.
Rice cultivation is mainly in the north of Iran near the Caspian sea where there is a lot of moist. Iranians recognise the rice of the north as the best rice in the country. The grains are plum and the rice is so aromatic. Like lots of Iranians, we also bought our rice in huge sacks of 10kg. My father would buy nearly 10 sacks for the entire year and we would store it in the storage. The older the rice the better. Newly cultivated and packaged rice is often moist and it's confusing how much water it needs to cook. That's why when buying rice they always ask "is it for this year or last year?"
One of the ways my father distinguished good from less good rice was to hold a handful and breathe in deeply into his hand and then smell the rice. Until today I really do not how it should smell or how it shouldn't ensure the daddy-Nobakht expected quality but that's what he did whenever buying rice.
In Iran, we have rice shops. You walk into the shop and there are sacks of rice all around sometimes even touching the ceiling of the shop. All sorts of names and all sorts of prices and my father would always go for the best and the ones of the north. Smoked rice is also one of the most popular kinds of rice in Iran. After the cultivation, they remove the husks, store the rice and burn the husk and smoke the rice grains with the smoke of the burned husks. One spoonful of smoked rice added to regular rice is enough to stimulate the neighbours appetite.
Some of the brands or names of the Persian rice are the following. The majority of them are the last names of the families who have been in this business for generations.
Iranians tend to take their rice seriously, and in the case of my father, too seriously. During our trip to Malaysia a few years back, my father, like most obsessed Iranian people never tried any Malay food. We had hired a driver to take us to a middle eastern restaurant every day after our daily tour to the attractions. The staff knew us very well as we had paid them a visit 10 days in a row ordering everything on their menu. It was a restaurant with Iraqi cuisine and it was just absolutely gorgeous food. The stews with lamb and aubergine and their steam rice were my father's favourite. The preparation of rice was my father's biggest concern, no surprise. I can still see my father's eyes' glow the first time we went there. As I was perusing the menu and translating to both my parents my mom said "for me, order anything you want". My father on the other hand having too much of a strong opinion said "ask them how they have prepared their rice, is it rinsed or just normal" For a moment I thought he was joking but a closer look into his bright and shiny eyes confirmed the seriousness in his voice.
My mom loves to cook rice for the first method. It's easier in comparison to the second way but she also believes that rinsing the rice takes all the vitamins away. In my father's opinion, that's just a lazy excuse. They had lots of discussions about it and sometimes my father was even offended as to why my mom did not cook the rice the way he loves it. To satisfy my father's taste my poor mom had to cook the rice two ways. The first method to make sure her kids were getting enough vitamins and the second way to please the man. When I learned how to cook I first practiced bettering my cooking habits to please my father. Perfecting the cooking of rice was the first thing I focused on, To a certain degree that sometimes my father thought I had ordered the rice at our best local restaurant in the neighbourhood. I knew his knees would be weak when seeing the glistening rice grains doused in butter, tinted in safron sitting politely on top of each other without even one sticking to another. His heart would melt and so would mine!
To go back to our beloved kebabs, people around the country have their own rituals of Kebabs. The marination, the way of preparation and the way the kebabs are served vary province to province.
Golpayegan, a town in Isfahan, is known for its minced lamb kebab. There are lots of restaurants in Tehran that prepare the kebabs in the same method and that is mincing the chunks of lamb by the use of a knife. No machine. Purely work of the hand. Then they chop the onions and mix with the thoroughly chopped lamb and massage till sticky. They then make balls and spread the balls on a special thick skewer and cook it over glowing charcoal serving it on a bed of buttered saffron rice.
Kebabs are often served with grilled tomatoes and raw onion quarters. To make the rice more greasy, they sometimes put egg yolk on top of the rice when serving.
Mashhad also has its unique way of preparing kebabs. Their most famous kind is what we call lamb cutlet and they call it Shandiz Shashlik.
Shandiz is a breathtaking village in the center of Mashhad with lots of restaurants in the middle of the gardens and ditches with traditionally st beds and pillows where you get to have your nap right after the meal.
Kordestan also has a lot to say when it comes to Kebabs. They have the most delicious ribs as well as lamb chunks alternating on the skewer with chunks of lamb fat which makes the sizzling on the charcoal an unforgettable noise right before your kebab is served.
From north to South and East to West, Iranians adore their kebabs and the rituals of Friday barbecue time with family and friends. They are proud of their rice and go to extreme length to make sure their rice is the best in terms of quality and the way it is prepared. Iranians love cooking for their family and friends. They are extremly hospitable and adore their guests. They believed feeding their guests the best possible way means respecting them. They also believe the more they give away the more they get back in life.
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