Here are some things to cover before we tackle the holy-grail of Persian rice making — in random no-rhyme-or-reason-order:
RICE: QUALITY MATTERS
Did you know there are 40,000 varieties of rice in the world? Or that the custom of throwing rice at weddings came about because rice is directly associated with prosperity and fertility? I did not know any of that, but I do know that you should use the very best long-grained rice if you want to end up with a fluffy pillow of polo and not a hot sticky mess.
You may be tempted to ignore my sage advice and use the generic rice found in supermarkets or languishing in your pantry, and I’m cautioning you: Do Not! It’ll be like wearing shoes a size too small to go dancing – you may think you’ll get away with it but at the end it’ll hurt like hell and you’ll kick yourself for doing it. Why set yourself up for blistering failure, when you can dance, dance, dance!
So what specific kind of rice to use? In Iran, there are multiple grades and varieties of long-grain rice available, ranging from daily domestic use to the very best fragrant kind reserved for special occasions, none of which (to my knowledge) are available outside of the country. Iranians in diaspora have generally anointed long-grain Basmati as the rice grain of choice – thanks to its length, shape, white color, and fragrance. You should be able to find some in the better international markets and also online. (For those of you in the know, I’d be most grateful if you can suggest other types of rice that you have found suitable for making Persian rice.)
A TOOL CALLED KAF’GIR
Kaf’gir literally means “foam-catcher” and it is a type of spatula (usually metal) with small round holes that is the traditional tool used when making Persian rice: to loosen grains and skim the foam when boiling the rice; to dole out the rice from colander to pot; to serve the rice when it is cooked; to help extradite the tadig from the pot; and as you will see for yourself in a future post, even its handle has a particular use! (“Kafgir” and “polo” are nouns intricately linked … the very name of “kafgir” evoking, for those of Irooni persuasion, a kitchen imbued with the fragrant steam of rice cooking on the stove top.)
Now it’d be nice if you have a kafgir but it’s not the end of the world if you do not, so long as you have a similar-enough tool to stir the grains and skim the foam.
Kaf’gir in action – used to loosen grains and skim foam
AB’EH ZA’FARAN = SAFFRON WATER
Iranians love their za’faran (saffron) and use it for all sorts of things from savory dishes to drinks to desserts. Saffron strands are usually stored in airtight containers and ground just prior to use, but it’s not uncommon and won’t raise any eyebrows to also have a small bottle of ground saffron at hand.
Most recipes calling for saffron actually require ab’eh za’faran (saffron water) – which is obtained by dissolving a pinch or two of ground saffron in 2-4 tablespoons of hot water. (I suspect the prevalence of this technique is partially derive by a desire to economize the use of saffron while availing oneself of all the goodness of color, flavor and aroma that it has to offer.)
When making polo, you will need both saffron water and a pinch(+) of ground saffron.
GOSH GOLLY GHEE!
In my grandmothers’ time, people could avail themselves of a type of cooking lard called “rooghan kermanshahi” — nicely fragrant and considered to be of superior quality. It came in a big tin – and portions would be doled out, heated, sifted, and the clarified liquid then saved for cooking. The custom fell to wayside once ready-to-use cooking oil became widespread and the choice of populace. But according to my mom, who remembers what food cooked with rooghan Kermanshahi tasted like, it made for food with a superior quality of flavor by far.
It is possible to somewhat replicate that flavor by making ghee – an integral part of Indian cuisine – or as Radhika calls it: “Sunshine in a Bottle!” (What a great and apt title!) Ghee mixed in with a bit of oil would make for a decadent touch when making polo – particularly when it comes to making a succulent tadig. If you’d like to give it a try for yourself, do check out Radhika’s clear and concise step-by-step pictorial tutorial.
At the last step of Persian-style rice-making, the pot is covered with the lid, the lid itself wrapped up in a kitchen towel. The purpose of this technique (an iconic symbol of down-home Persian rice-making) is to trap the steam in the pot and absorb the condensation that otherwise would trickle in and turn the rice sad and soggy instead of perfect, perky and fluffy. That’s the logic of it, and here’s how it is done:
- Spread a clean kitchen towel on a clean surface, place the lid in the middle.
- Pull one corner of the towel under the lid and then tuck it up.
- Pull the corner diagonally across under the lid and tuck that up as well.
- Knot these two corners securely.
- Do the same with the remaining corners: pull under the lid, tuck up, and knot corners together securely.
Bundling up the lid when steam cooking the rice is one of the factors ensuring success, so do not skip it for the sake of lazy convenience. But please put in the minute or two it takes to securely bundle the lid, otherwise this technique could prove a fire hazard which is no joke. You could always use a rubber band to further secure the knot on top as an additional security measure, but so long as you make proper knots, there’s no reason to worry as the practice has proven safe throughout thousands of years of use.
Next Stop: Washing Rice! (Yes – there’s enough to be said on the topic to warrant an entire independent post.)
Until then, have a rice … I mean nice day.