To help us learn more about Persian (a.k.a. Iranian) food, we turned to culinary authority Najmieh Batmanglij. In addition to insight on Persian culinary traditions, she provided us with recipes from her book New Food of Life.
What to buy: When purchasing saffron, choose threads rather than powder, which is too often adulterated with turmeric.
Nigella seeds can be found in Middle Eastern or Asian markets and online from Kalustyan’s.
- Yield: 6 servings
- 4 cups long-grain basmati rice
- 8 cups water
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoons plain yogurt
- 1 cup butter or vegetable oil or ghee (see note)
- 1 teaspoon ground saffron dissolved in 4 tablespoons hot water
- 1 teaspoon cumin or nigella seeds (optional)
- Pick over the rice. Basmati rice like any other old rice contains many small solid particles. This grit must be removed by picking over the rice carefully by hand.
- Wash the rice by placing it in a large container and covering it with lukewarm water. Agitate gently with your hand, then pour off the water. Repeat five times until the rice is completely clean. When washed rice is cooked it gives off a delightful perfume that unwashed rice does not have. If using long-grain American or Texmati rice, it is not necessary to soak or wash five times. Once will suffice.
- After washing the rice it is then desirable but not essential to soak it in 8 cups of water with 2 tablespoons of salt for 2 to 24 hours. Soaking and cooking rice in a lot of salt firms it up to support the long cooking time and prevents the rice from breaking up. The grains swell individually without sticking together. The result is a light and fluffy rice known as the Pearls of Persian Cuisine.
- Bring 8 cups of water with 2 tablespoons salt to a boil in a large non-stick pot. Pour the washed and drained rice into the pot. Boil briskly for 6 to 10 minutes, gently stirring twice with a wooden spoon to loosen any grains that may have stuck to the bottom. Bite a few grains. If the rice feels soft, it is ready. Drain rice in a large, fine-mesh colander and rinse in 2 or 3 cups of cold water.
- In a bowl, mix 3 spatulas of rice, 2 tablespoons yogurt, 3/4 cup butter or oil, 1/2 cup water, a few drops of dissolved saffron water, and the cumin seeds.
- In the pot, spread the yogurt-rice mixture over the bottom of the pot and pack down. This will help to create a tender golden crust (tah dig) when rice is cooked.
- Take one spatula full of drained rice at a time and gently place it on top of the yogurt and rice mixture, gradually shaping the rice into a pyramid. This shape leaves room for the rice to expand and enlarge. Poke one or two holes in the rice pyramid with the handle of a wooden spatula.
- Cover and cook rice for 10 to 15 minutes over medium-high heat in order to form a golden crust.
- Dissolve the remaining butter in 1 cup hot water and pour over the rice pyramid. Place a clean dish towel or 2 layers of paper towels over the pot and cover firmly with the lid to prevent steam from escaping. Cook for 50 minutes longer over medium-low heat.
- Remove the pot from heat. Allow to cool on a damp surface for 5 minutes without uncovering it. This helps to free the crust from the bottom of the pot. There are two ways to serve the rice. The first is to hold the serving platter tightly over the uncovered pot and invert the two together unmolding the entire mount onto the platter. The rice will emerge as a golden crusted cake. Serve in wedges. The second way is to put 2 tablespoons of rice in a dish, mix with remaining saffron water, and set aside for garnish.
- Gently taking one spatula full of rice at a time, place it on a serving platter without disturbing the crust. Mound the rice into a cone. Sprinkle the saffron rice garnish over the top.
- Detach the layer of crust from the bottom using a wooden spatula. Place into a small platter and serve on the side or arrange it around the rice. Nush-e Jan!
Note: For Clarified Unsalted Butter (Ghee) (Roghan-e kareh)—In a saucepan, bring 1 pound unsalted butter to a boil, cover, and simmer over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes until most of the froth subsides. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Strain the liquid through a fine muslin cloth or three layers of cheesecloth to separate the clear butterfat from the milk solid. Seal and keep in your refrigerator. Ghee, a staple for the Persian kitchen, is used for cooking rice and pastries and has a wonderful flavor.