Persian Rice 101: Tools & Trade Secrets

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.

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.

BUNDLED UP!

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:

  1. Spread a clean kitchen towel on a clean surface, place the lid in the middle.
  2. Pull one corner of the towel under the lid and then tuck it up.
  3. Pull the corner diagonally across under the lid and tuck that up as well.
  4. Knot these two corners securely.
  5. 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.

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Comments (40)

  • apuginthekitchen 6 years ago Reply

    Persian rice is hands down the best rice in the culinary world. For me it was a revelation, tender, each grain separate and the saffron makes it over the top delicious. Really great tutorial, and as always a fabulous post.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    I’m going to quote you on that! 😉

  • Ross 6 years ago Reply

    Rice choice? Oh no, you are opening a can of worms for this guide? Doesn’t sound tasty at all.
    Seriously, one of the Sydney Persian merchants recommends Lal Qilla from Pakistan which is good. Another had an unbranded one from Iran, he considered it to be quite expensive but it was about the same price as the Lal Qilla. To be honest I did prefer the Pakistani one.
    I understand that sourcing Iranian produce in Australia can be difficult thanks indirectly to the sanctions.
    I have asked, with success, for “the best rice you have in the shop, as for festivals” in Indian groceries and that works.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Hi Ross, thank you very much for the tip. Lal Qilla from Pakistan: got it! I’ll look it up and try to link to it.

  • mycookinglifebypatty 6 years ago Reply

    I really loved this, Azita! Rice is a staple in our daily diet and even though I usually only make brown rice, I love a beautiful, fragrant long grain rice for a special meal and I’m going to try this. We do have several international markets that I can check out for high quality rice. Love the-bundling-the-lid method too. It’s quite logical! Looking forward to the next part.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Thank you Patty – really appreciate it! I never knew the reason behind the bundled-lid (just taking it for granted) for the longest time and I do agree: it’s logical, gotta appreciate that. You make me wonder if there is a grade of long-grain brown rice that would work for Persian polo? It’d be interesting and unusual.

  • The Healthy Epicurean 6 years ago Reply

    Wow! You’re quite the rice expert 😉 I was blown away by the 45,000 statistic. And to think I nearly always use Basmati when I have all that choice! I can’t get Persian rice here – I feel I’m missing out 🙁 I’ll buy some when I’m next in London… Gorgeous photos as usual.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Thank you T.H.E! 🙂 Honestly I’m no expert, just passing knowledge gleaned from dear ol’ Mom and what’s overall derived from the culinary cultural heritage of ancient Persia and Iran at large. I’m still in the grasshopper stage of rice making! 😉
    Lucky you living in Europe, you can hop and skip over to London. How fun! Hope you’ll share stories and pix when you do go.

  • Fae's Twist & Tango 6 years ago Reply

    I don’t want to be a broken record… Azita, your posts are so much fun to read and so~ entertaining. Incorporating your art work and explanations which readers can relate to… priceless! “Saffron-water in action”… 😀 )))

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Broken record to you = music to my ears! No but seriously, honestly, khoshhal misham miyay va mikhonid va ta’rif aslan lazem nist. ino bi ta’rof migam Fae.
    Meanwhile waiting with baited breath for your next post and hopefully pix of your glam cruise

  • The Perky Poppy Seed 6 years ago Reply

    I love rice:) It is such a versatile food 🙂 Great post:) I posted about rice too.. the soaking and such check it out on my blog under Perfectly Steamed rice from Perky’s Le Cordon Bleu Notebook 🙂

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Cool Christina! A great benefit of writing this – series waxing poetic about rice – has been hearing about other cultures and people’s very interesting info and methods of treating rice.
    Will be heading over to check out your post and musings about rice!

    The Perky Poppy Seed 6 years ago

    🙂 It is neat isn’t it? Like making Hard boiled eggs so many ways to do it:) Love different methods:)

  • narf77 6 years ago Reply

    Persian rice here I come! 🙂

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    I have to warn you – there is one more words+words+words pre-rice post but after that: rice here comes!
    ps so happy to find your blog!

    narf77 6 years ago

    Ditto about the blog and I don’t know if you have noticed but I tend to waffle on a bit myself. Most of my waffle is nowhere NEAR as informative as what you are sharing with us and it is giving me a real appetite for that rice. They say that you need to earn things before you truly appreciate them…we read the long posts, we earn the rice! Simple really :). A win-win situation for us all and everyone is happy in the end. I feel like a Disney Writer! (Except for Old Yella…but we don’t talk about him do we…)

  • radhika25 6 years ago Reply

    Azita, what a perfect teaser! Now I’m waiting with bated breath for the movie to come to a theatre near me! Love the graphics (?) with the lid and towel!
    In spiffy restaurants in India, biryani is cooked on the “dum”, that is the pot and lid are sealed with a dough made from “atta” or whole wheat flour. And the biryani is left to cook in the steam, until it is fragrant and flavoursome. Your way seems so much less wasteful!
    Thank you for the mention 🙂

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    How interesting!! Guess this shows that I’ve yet not been to a properly posh Indian restaurant because I’ve never seen the “dum” … I have to Google it because it sounds fascinating. Do people then eat the “dum” with the biryani or is it discarded?
    Coming soon to a theater near you indeed, ha ha! One more pre-rice post, Radhika, then the real “how to” post ….

    radhika25 6 years ago

    No, no….the dum bakes hard and is broken away and discarded….for me that’s really wasteful, in a nation of starving kids.
    Waiting for your next posts!
    R

  • Francesca 6 years ago Reply

    So here is the thing: I know enough about the varieties of rice that Italians use to make risotto but I know pretty much nothing about the varieties used in other culinary traditions. Your post is so informative and entertaining. It is a pleasure to read and funny when less expected. The reason behind the lid is really interesting. Never thought of that. Thank you, Azita! 🙂

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    My pleasure Francesca!
    I have to now confess that I’m truly intimidated by risotto – making it that is, eating it is a piece of pie!
    The lid is ancient Persian wisdom, ha ha!

  • fermentfusion 6 years ago Reply

    Beautiful post, I love the text and the pictures, and I’m waiting for the next chapters to try this recipe. In Spain where I come, saffron is used traditionally for rice dishes, and is called azafrán.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Hi! Thank you! 🙂
    Azafrán is so close to zafaran … I have to say I didn’t know that rice dishes were made with saffron in Spain. Thank you for sharing!!
    ps love all the cultural fusion going on in your blog (I do have to use Google translate to fully understand it though.)

  • chef mimi 6 years ago Reply

    Another great, informative post. Love the lid pics! How do you do it? Don’t tell me, really. Too much work for my brain!

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Thank you chef Mimi! 🙂 The lid IS fun! At least, I had fun with it. It is a lot of work for my brain too but I’m a little bit obsessed 😉

  • leduesorelle 6 years ago Reply

    I’m waiting to reread this and previous posts, there’s so much wonderful tips and tricks! And looking forward to what you have to say about washing rice — whenever I cook with others from rice-based cultures, it’s fun to compare notes!

  • Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Leduesorelle – do share some of your rice-comparing notes on your beautiful blog!

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