Persian Rice 101: Rake, Wash, Pray
“Persian rice is hands down the best rice in the world. For me it was a revelation, tender, each grain separate, and saffron makes it over the top delicious.” Suzanne
By now I’ve waxed poetic about polo, kateh, and tadig; and have also talked about a few tricks of the trade that would be useful to know before embarking on the Persian-rice-making journey; and believe it or not, this train – slowly chugging along – is getting close to the “Here’s How You Make Polo” station.
But before we choo choo choo to our final (perhaps mythical) destination – let’s linger just a bit at this station and stretch our limbs and get a snack maybe and also quickly go over the first step in making a beautiful polo, namely: properly cleaning the rice.
It’s practically a ceremonial ritual and here it goes:
1. RAKE THE RICE!
I can hear you going: “HUH?” No worries. The animated Gif (bottom of page) should hopefully shed some light. This is an optional step and it goes thus:
- Spread rice (1/2 to 1 cup per person) in a shallow tray; rake through with fingers to fish out any misfit stray particles — i.e. grit, dried out grains, or anything that is not a rice grain! Called jooridan in Persian (“raking” is the best translation I can think of) this used to be a prudent necessity in the olden days but may now be a fastidious step considering the quality of modern rice packaging. For the sake of cultural archival thoroughness (plus nostalgic reasons: as I recall both my grandmothers doing this and love the comforting white noise the fingers and rice grains make, and mom continues to do it, admittedly by habit even while shrugging in agreement that it honestly no longer serves a practical purpose) I’m including it. Not all that we do has to be driven by logic and this step is the traditional way to begin the process of polo making. Feel free to skip it entirely if you do not have occasion to suspect alien bits and pieces in your bag of rice and if the sound of rice grains being flicked around in a tray do not move you – not even one bit.
2. WASH RICE TILL WATER RUNS CLEAR
- Place rice grains in a big bowl, fill with cold water to cover, swish rice around. The water instantly turns murky – that’s perfectly normal – and the whole point of this step is to de-murk the water. (Isn’t de-murking a word? It should be. I often have occasion to wish to de-murk my thoughts.) Place hands inside the bowl, grab a fistful of rice, and scrub grains by very gently rubbing your hands together a few times, then tilt bowl in the sink, drain the murky water, and refill with clean cold water. Repeat this process until water remains pristine and clear enough to see your reflection! It usually takes 3 to 5 scrub/drain/refill cycles to get the rice this thoroughly clean.
But you might be wondering – WHY must I wash the rice? You may be thinking — I have things to do and places to go to – is this tomfoolery truly necessary? In which case, let’s stress that, yes, you must, and yes, this is not a frivolous step. Rice grains are coated in starch dust — the very substance that turns the water murky. Washing rice until it runs crystal clear rids it of this starch allowing for rice grains to keep separated when cooked — thus preventing a sticky-grains polo situation, which as we’ve come to know, is cause for grievous lamentation & dramatic hair-pulling when it comes to Persian rice.
3. SOAK RICE IN LIGHTLY SALTED WATER
- Once water runs clear as a mirror when rinsing rice, drain and refill bowl one last time with enough cold water to cover 1″ or more over the rice grains. (If possible, it would be ideal to use filtered water at this stage.) Add 2 tablespoons of salt and gently stir. Soak rice for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours in the salt water.
Why soak the rice? Salt water adds flavor, plums up & lengthens the grains, and helps reduce stickiness. So while some (frankly uninformed) recipes for polo tout it as an optional step, soaking rice is indeed and in fact an essential step in making a good Persian rice by improving the odds of obtaining fluffy, non-sticky, long-limbed beautiful rice.
Tip: Soaking rice overnight is a good way to get a head-start on the entire polo-making-process and a common practice.)
That’s it for washing rice. This GIF should hopefully clarify any ambiguities:
Our final destination — “Making Polo!” Finally! ALL ABOARD!
Choo choo choo choo choo choo …
[PS.The title of this post is an allusion to Eat, Pray, Love — an exuberant book (kind of the exact opposite of Sartre’s Nausea!) and a huge best-seller for a long time so odds are you don’t need me to tell you to go read it but if you haven’t – then go read it. Really.]