Before you begin to think about cooking any Persian rice dish, there are a few essential things you need to know about rice.
Polou or Chello?
- In it’s uncooked form rice is called berenge.
- Chello is rice that has been soaked in salted water and par boiled. Polou is rice that has been through the previous stage of boiling and is then steamed. Polou ( if you get it right) is fluffy separate grains of rice and is not sticky.
- Kateh is rice that has been cooked in boiling water until the water has disappeared. This is a little wetter and can be a little sticky.
- Dami is like kateh but has other ingredients added like Estamboli Polou or Addas polou.
- Taadig is the crust which forms at the bottom of the pan if you cook the rice long enough over a low heat.
- There are many different grades of rice and you need a medium to good quality. You can buy many cheaper grades of rice but you will need to experiment with the amount of time you soak it and boil it for.
- Always, always wash the rice in water under a running tap until you see the water run clear. It carries a lot of dust and sometimes other things! Although with good quality rice the ‘other’ things shouldn’t be an issue.
- With most recipes you will need to pre soak the rice. There are a few exceptions. The soak time will depend on the quality of the rice you use. You can experiment with other brands.
- I recommend ‘Mahan’ or ‘Safar’ which is available in most Iranian grocery stores but there are some good alternatives such as ‘Tilda’.
Dont worry if the uncooked rice isn’t brilliant white. Larger commercial companies sometimes bleach the rice to make it look more attractive. Usually though it’s a little yellowish in colour but it will turn white when cooked.
Rice cooker V traditional method?
A rice cooker is a free-standing electrical appliance for cooking rice. The traditional method of cooking rice is time-consuming and requires your focused attention throughout the whole process. A rice cooker simplifies the process by automatically adjusting the temperature and timing and leaves you free to do other things. Once you have added the correct amount of water, it will need no further attention.
It’s not an essential to have a rice cooker but it sure is handy. If you practice, the rice you produce from your rice cooker can be every bit as delicious as the results you get from the traditional long method. It’s even possible to make polou with additional ingredients in it.
I can’t personally recommend any particular brand and I’ve owned many rice cookers. They come in a range of sizes and that is probably the most important consideration to think about. In the UK rice cookers cost roughly from £25 upwards. They are easily found in electrical stores, some supermarkets and any good Iranian Grocery store will stock them.
My personal preference is the traditional method when possible. I use my rice cooker when I’m tired or feeling lazy, need space on my cooker or when I havent got enough time.
You can cook rice in a number of ways. The two most favored methods are boiling and then par boiling and steaming which is what we usually do when we are cooking rice the Persian way. It’s a little more labour intensive but I think the results are much better: the grains are separate and elongate during the cooking process to produce an end result you will be proud to serve to your family and guests.
However you have to use the right rice….. please don’t expect a good result from just any old ‘uncles’ rice. It has to be basmati rice and even then there are different grades of basmati rice so choose a high-grade and you won’t go wrong. In the UK ‘Tilda’ rice is available from all supermarkets and this would be my rice of choice.
Next it’s really essential to rinse and pre soak the rice. Place 1cup of rice per person (and I always do one extra) in a bowl of water and swish it round gently and you might be surprised at just how murky the water becomes. This is rice dust and it will make your rice sticky and unpleasant so, AND even worse it’s starchy and therefore calorie laden… so keep rinsing the rice until the water becomes clear. Then soak it in salted water for at least two hours before you begin the cooking process. The salt helps the rice to preserve its shape and adds flavour. After two hours, you might be amazed at how much the rice has swollen.
Note the difference in size and colour
~~PERFECT PERSIAN RICE~~
Please note: before you begin please read my notes on ‘ What you need to know about rice’
~Equipment you will need~
- A large heavy bottomed non stick pan with a lid.
- A large mesh sieve
- A tea towel to wrap around the lid. Please be sure you secure it safely to avoid any risk of it catching fire.
- Prepare an infusion of saffron ( za’faran) as described in ‘Saffron and what to do with it’
- If you want a good ‘ Tadig’ ( the crispy rice crust) prepare the potatoes or naan now. Cut potatoes into thin slices. You can substitute potatoes with naan ( flat bread) or white cabbage leaves and I have even done it with iceberg lettuce leaves.
Use 1 cup of rice per person
- Thoroughly wash the rice until the water runs clear
- Soak the rice in cold, salted water for at least 2 hours before beginning to cook
- Boil up a large pan ofwater and when boiling add a teaspoon of salt, a drop of saffron and a 1/3rd teaspoon of butter
- Drain the rice and add it carefully to the boiling water. The water temperature will drop so allow it to comes to the boil again. Stay with it now and stir occasionally but be careful not to damage the grains.
- You will start to see the rice begin to expand in length. Continue to boil until the grains become ‘al dente’. Be careful they don’t become fluffy.
- When ‘al dente’ , drain in a mesh sieve.
- Rinse to remove any unwanted starch and put to one side and allow it continue to drain.
- For ‘Taadig’, melt a desert spoon of butter or ghee in the pan you intend to cook the rice in.
- Add a tablespoon of oil, and 1/3rd of a cup of boiling water. Stir.
- Pour most of this into a cup for later use and add another tablespoon of oil into the pan.
- Place your potatoes, naan or cabbage in the bottom of the pan and then gently place the rice on top
- Add 1/2 of the liquid butter, oil and water mix and wait until you see some steam.
- Cover with the lid and steam on a low heat for an hour to an hour and a half adding more of the liquid mix as needed. You want to prevent the rice from becoming too dry and to allow the taadig to form a crispy crust. Dont however add any more of this in the last 20 minutes of the cooking process.
- Remove a few spoons of rice into a bowl and add the infusion of za’faran. mix gently.
- Gently spoon the rest of the rice on to your serving dish and add the za’faran rice and gently mix in.
- Finally if you used potatoes for the taadig you can place these on your dish too. If you have any other taadig then use a separate dish to serve it in.
~NOOSHI JOONET. ENJOY ~
Persian food is diverse, each corner of Iran having its own culinary preferences, culture and tradition.
Mealtimes provide the main structure of life : breakfast ( sobhaneh) lunch( nahar) and dinner ( shaam) . The Persian diet is healthy, nutritious and largely gluten-free so great for me as a coeliac. It uses a huge variety of fruits , nuts, lentils, vegetables, herbs and spices and many of the ingredients have medicinal values. Each meal is accompanied by a variety of herbs, Tarragon, coriander, flat leave parsley and usually naan ( flat unleavened bread) and must (natural yoghurt). There is a tendency to use a lot of butter or ghee and oil but I have adapted my recipes for a healthier version, omitting unhealthy amounts of both. It stills works well and tastes delicious.
Most lunch and dinner dishes involve a meat dish of either lamb or chicken, however I do include a number of vegetarian options for the less carnivorous. See the recipe for Estamboli polou for example. There are some ingredients and equipment that are essential for your kitchen if you want to cook persian food. Here is a list, it’s not conclusive so please send in any suggestions you think are a must have and things you couldnt manage without.
- ab limu ( lime juice)
- rice (berenge)
- ground limes
- za’faran ( saffron)
- zarchube ( turmeric)
- olive oil
- zareshk ( barbarries)
- tomatoe paste
- a variety of dried herbs known as ‘sabzi’
- advieh a collection of mixed spices
- addas ( lentils)
- A heavy bottomed non stick saucepan with a lid.
- skewers for kebab … these have to be persian skewers which are long, wide and flat and mostly only available in Iranian grocery stores.
- A large mesh sieve so you dont loose your rice through the holes!
- a rice cooker ( some say! I prefer the long method but it comes in handy)
- a pestle and mortar. It only needs to be a small one.
- a good thick tea towel used to absorb the condensation created in the steaming process of cooking rice. This is wrapped and securely fastened around the lid of the pan.
- 2-3 Iranian cucumbers or 1 large european cucumber diced.
- 3-4 tomatoes
- 1 red or white onion
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 3 tablespoons of lime juice (or as an alternative you can use cider vinegar)
- salt and pepper
- a handful of mint chopped
- wash all your ingredients thoroughly
- dice the cucumber, tomatoes and onion and place in a dish
- combine the olive oil, lime juice, salt and pepper and whisk with a fork
- Pour over the salad ingredients and then sprinkle on the mint.
- Gently mix
~~SAFFRON AND IT’S MANY USES~~
Saffron or za’ferân is a delicate spice derived from the crocus flower. Widely used in the east it is a much under used spice in the west. It has many medicinal qualities and is said to help ward off depression and make you laugh… that can’t be bad! The ancient Persians were feared by their enemies as they developed a reputation for using it as a drug to sedate and as an aphrodisiac . Alexandra the Great is reputed to have stolen the idea from the Persians and used Persian za’feran in his baths, for his food and as a cure for battle injuries. No doubt he tried it with the ladies too. Other uses include help with child-birth, as a dye and as a cure for headaches.
Saffron is widely available and can be found in most supermarkets. There is a large amount of Spanish saffron on the market but I recommend you buy a high grade saffron such as Iranian za’faran as its colour and scent is much stronger and you will therefore use less of it. Most Iranian grocery stores stock it but I have to warn you, its expensive. If you don’t live within access to an Iranian grocery store, try an indian one.
~STORAGE OF SAFFRON~ What ever you do, you must store it in a cool, dark airtight container otherwise the colour and scent of the za’faran will diminish.Never leave it on the shelf or it will be almost useless and taste less.
~PREPARATION OF SAFFRON~ I usually grind mine in a pestle and mortar as I need it. However many cooks grind it in advance. I don’t think there is any advantage either way. If the meal you are cooking is sweet, such as Khoreshte Fesenjun, use a tiny pinch of sugar to help grind it down but otherwise use a tiny pinch of salt. Once your za’faran is ground to a powdery like substance it is ready for use.
~TO MAKE LIQUID SAFFRON~Take a pinch of za’faran and place it in a small cup. Add a little boiling water and stir and then cover and allow to infuse for at least 30 minutes. The longer you leave it, the richer the color. Once you’ve made liquid zafaran you can keep it in the fridge for about 2-3 days, but cover it with cling film first!
Za’faran is used every day in Iranian cooking not only to enhance the flavour of the food but also for decoration. Its used in a variety of dishes across every meal. I even place a tiny pinch of it when I make chai ( black and flavoured tea) …. a cup of za’faran infused chai everyday can help ward off depressive thinking. It certainly cheers me up as it soooo delicious. You can also use za’faran flavoured ‘nabat’, a sugar candy used to sweeten chai. Nabat can be bought at most Iranian grocery stores. Unfortunately this isn’t widely available and I have not yet seen it in a supermarket in the west.
DECORATIVE USES ~ Most Iranians use za’faran to decorate and flavour rice dishes. I often use it in throughout the cooking process and as for a decorative finish. This is a picture of Zereshk Polou, steamed Iranian rice with zereshk ( barberries and slithers of almonds) and I will feature the recipe soon.
Za’faran has a huge number of uses in an Iranian kitchen. It’s an essential and fundamental feature of Iranian cooking.
Estamboli Polou is a versatile all time fav in our family. For lunch or dinner its always a hit, especially with children. There are many variations so you can vary the ingredients to suit your own taste, use up left overs or create your own unique combination. Some cooks use minced meat or lamb but by leaving meat out, you have a perfect vegetarian meal too. In the recipe below I have added chilli to spice it up a little. The method remains the same whatever ingredients you use. You can’t go wrong.
This recipe serves 4-5 servings.
- 3 cups of basmati rice thoroughly washed
- 1 large onion diced
- 1 large potatoe diced
- A handful of green beans cut into 1 inch pieces
- 1 beefsteak tomatoe or a few smaller tomatoes chopped, alternatively you can use a tin of tomatoes
- 1 green chilli chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 3 tablespoons of tomatoe purée
- 1 garlic clove ( optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup of saffron infused water
- Boiling water
- a little vegetable or olive oil
- a desert spoon of butter.
- thoroughly wash the rice until the water runs clear. No need to pre soak
- clean and chop all your ingredients.
- Prepare your saffron infusion
- fill up the kettle and put it on so that you have hot water available when you need it.
- you will need one large pan with a lid
- Gently fry the chopped onions and potatoes in a little oil until they begin to turn golden
- add the turmeric and stir up
- add the chopped tomatoes, green beans, chilli and garlic, stir up and allow to cook for a few minutes
- add the tomatoe purée and stir
- add the saffron infused water and stir
- add some salt. I recommend a teaspoon but if you like your food saltier go ahead and add more.
- Give it all a good stir and allow to bubble away for a few minutes.
- Finally add the water. This is the tricky bit. You’re aiming for a slightly sticky end result but not too sticky so begin by adding 3/4 pint of hot water and topping it up as needed. Keep your eye on it now and monitor the amount of water the rice has to cook in. The rice needs to expand in length without becoming sticky so use your instinct and add more water as needed.
- when the rice has begun to expand add a desert spoon of butter or ghee and place a covered lid on the pan.
- cook on a low heat for about 1 hour. You can check it from time to time and add a little more butter or ghee as you like.
Serving suggestion: salad, shirazi salad, kebabs, natural yoghurt, herbs and bread. Or enjoy it just as it is