A newlywed bride, a novice cook, wanted to make polo (fluffy steamed rice) but did not know how so she reluctantly turned to her mother-in-law (MIL) for help. “First you wash the rice,” the MIL instructed. The bride nodded and said: “Yes, I knew that part already.” “Then you soak the rice in lightly-salted water for a couple of hours.” the MIL continued. “Um-hum, I already knew that too,” said the bride. “Then you cook the rice in boiling water until the grains get tender.” To which the bride replied: “Yes, I knew that part as well.” And so on, and so forth! Whatever instructions the MIL gave, the bride, who was loathe to reveal her inexperience, replied: “Oh yeah, I knew that already.” Vexed, the MIL decides to teach the bride a lesson and says: “And lastly, put an adobe brick on top of the rice, cover, and cook for an hour.” And the bride says: “Yes, of course, I knew that part already as well,” and goes off and prepares the polo as instructed and makes a disappointed fool of herself when the disintegrated brick ruins the rice!
The story is reduced to a punchline of “yeh khisheh ham roosh bezar” or “put a brick on top” — used when someone is faking it till making it.
So here’s the first lesson when it comes to making an awesome Persian fluffy rice: Do NOT put a brick in the pot! There! You’re already one huge step ahead.
No, but seriously, rice dishes are considered by Iranians to be the domain of and masterpieces of the Persian cuisine; and mastering the method and technique to make the type of Persian rice that is fit to be placed in front of discerning guests at a dinner party is what separates the rookie from an accomplished and seasoned ashpaz (cook.)
So what exactly constitutes a fit-to-be-served-in-company polo? The standards are exacting and precise: the perfect polo is fluffy and pillowy and billowy and it is doon doon (each grain is separate from the other, none sticking, heavens forbid, to each other) and the grains are rosht kardeh (each grain fully grown & lengthened in the process of cooking) and textured so that it is neither overcooked nor even the slightest-bit crunchy, perfectly seasoned and fragrant with saffron of course, AND, with the perfect golden crispy crust of tadig. Verily, it is a skill one can rightfully boast of once one masters the technique.
(I recently found out that making a truly good sushi rice is a protocoled process – no breezy matter – the degree of success of which distinguishes a true master sushi chef from one who’s merely run-of-the-mill. Speaking of sushi chefs, you really *should/must/have* to do yourself the immense favor of watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi – it’s on Netflix too – one of the best films ever! If I remember correctly, Chef Jiro makes his apprentices practice for years before they’re entrusted with the momentus task of making the sushi rice. And here I thought Persian rice was a mountain to climb!)
For those unfamiliar with making Persian-style rice, don’t let me scare you off, because while technique-driven, the steps entailed (once learned and practiced a few times) allow for facile adoption in a second-nature, no big-whoop way. My mom can throw together a rice dish – that is so pretty and delicious it will make you weep tears of gratitude – with perfect nonchalance, and in an almost time-defying Matrix type of way … so to speak. I, on the other hand, … let’s say I am still working on being cool and carefree when making polo. But hey, practice makes perfect, and this is one of those things that’s fun to practice, right?
My proposed plan-of-attack in helping you master the method of making the perfect Persian polo and kateh and tadig is to cover the actual nitty-gritty techniques of it all in exquisite detail in a couple of future posts. But for now, first steps first, let’s take a quick explanatory spin for those of you not familiar with Persian cuisine.
Polo is steamed Persian rice – fluffy and fragrant – made with the best quality rice one can find, following a multi-step process that includes: washing, soaking, boiling, draining, followed by steam-cooking — each step with its own traditional rules of engagement. (By the way, polo is pronounced thus: “po” as if you’re saying Edgar Allen Poe + “lo” as if you’re singing: “Her Name Was Lola.” ♫ At the Copa, Copacabana … ♫ … Such a catchy tune!) Ok back to our regular programming.
Polo is either:
- Polo Makhloot = mixed rice. This type of rice could be anything from shirin polo — which is the poor man’s javaher polo (jeweled rice – served at weddings and for Norooz) to, oh, rice mixed with lentils, berberries, cherry, sour cherry, fava beans, green bean polo or … a whole bunch of other things.
- Polo Sefid = plain white rice. (Except that there’s nothing plain about it, as it is customarily fragrant with saffron and a delight.) Plain polo is usually meant to be served with khoresh – the combo of the two generically termed: polo va khoresh – constituting what may as well be the national dish – and probably the most delectable genre of Persian food.
Here’s a visual-aid infograph to make sense of the whole thing, because as they say yek picture is worth yek hezar words:
2. kateh (sometimes called polo-kateh)
Polo is what you make for guests, for special occassions, for a good dinner at home when time permits. If pressed for time, or just not in the mood, it’s Ok to make a version of Persian rice called kateh that is much less fussy – dispensing with the whole parboiling and draining and steaming rigamorale. Kateh is basically a humble, hurried poor cousin of polo. It’s not as “fancy” but you still end up with rice that is not sticky and also has that indispensable golden tadig crust.
Ideally, kateh should end up as a crusty-edged rice pie that easily pops out of the pot. To give you an idea of what I’m going on about, this is what it could look like:
Ah, tadig. Glorious, glorious tadig.
What is it? Well, dig is pot and tah (shortened to “ta” in daily informal speech) means bottom — so tadig literally means “bottom-of-the-pot.” But as the unique invention and pride of Persian cuisine its place is top notch. Iranians LOVE their tadig. And honestly, so do most people once they get a chance to give it a try. It’s pretty awesome.
And now for your viewing pleasure, some specimens of the magnificent and coveted crispy crunchy crust at-the-bottom-of-the-pot that is served with the rice and swiftly disappears:
And let’s leave it at that for now. Future posts will cover the following grounds:
- How to Make Persian Steamed Rice
- How to Make Kateh
- How to Make The Perfect Tadig
- How to Hack a Plain Persian Rice into an Elaborate Festive Mixed-Rice Dish (in, like, a jiffy!)
All to be posted in due time. Hope to see you then!