Persian Rice – the expert way
Chelow is the name given to the white fluffy grains of rice either served with our kababs or khoresh (stews). We also have Kateh, which refers to our version of easy cook sticky rice, and polo, which refers to our rice cooked with vegetables, herbs and/or meat (similar to the Asian biryani).
Polo follows the same cooking procedure as chelow but has the added stage of preparing and cooking the ingredients to be mixed in to the rice. Kateh is simple as you boil and steam the rice without draining the water by letting it evaporate in the saucepan. Kateh tends to be reserved for family meals and due to the sticky texture you wouldn’t generally see it served at a dinner party or restaurant.
Chelow has a 6 step process to follow, summarised below:
- Washing the rice;
- Soaking the rice – not all consider this stage is necessary anymore in light of the quality of long grain basmati rice available, however it is of note that some famous brands recommend soaking their rice for 30 minutes pre cooking. Soaking the rice promotes more thorough cooking by allowing moisture to reach the center of the rice grain, it further improves its final texture, makes the grain less brittle and assists the rice to become more digestible;
- Par boiling the rice until al dente;
- Draining the rice;
- Preparing the tahdig layer and then layering the remaining rice on top; and finally
- Steaming the rice.
The common feature in the various Persian rice options is that they all yield the crispy rice which forms at the bottom of the cooking pot called ‘Tahdig’. Tahdig literally translated means ‘bottom of the pot’ and is the most cherished part of our meals, kind of like roast potatoes or chips to the British. I don’t think I have ever met someone who dislikes tahdig. In fact, I think I would have serious trust issues with someone who was dubious about tahdig! Although kateh is the easiest way of cooking Persian style rice it does not yield a tahdig as superior as chelow or polo. Therefore you are rewarded for going the extra mile with the slightly more complicated way of cooking rice.
To achieve the perfect fluffy rice and golden tahdig is a commitment. Despite this, even the veteran chelow and tahdig cooker sometimes has an off day with rice coming out a bit mushy and the tahdig burnt. So don’t be hard on yourself if you commit to this journey and it takes a while to master it. I have been doing this for a fair while and I can honestly say I still get a teeny bit of anxiety when I check my rice texture at the end of cooking and then flip the pot to reveal my tahdig! In fact you can see variations in the tahdig pictures on this post and no doubt in future posts – just as long as it isn’t burnt to a cinder, we Iranians love our tahdig golden all the way through to well-done!
Now while chelow has a standard set of preparation and cooking steps, tahdig has a number of different options available. The most common are rice; potato or flatbread options. See the collage above for examples.
As with the evolution of many cuisines, experiments have been undertaken to explore new ways of reinventing a classic. In the case of tahdig people have experimented with ingredients to see if they can create a new type of tahdig as good as the originals. I’ve seen tahdigs made with lettuce, fish and chicken. Also there are people presenting elaborately designed tahdig with intricate patterns cut into their potatoes or their flatbread, creating a work of art. I am a traditionalist with my tahdig (this is mostly down to the time I have) so my recipe below is to assist you to cook tahdig like the best of the Persian Mamans (mums) or Babas (dads) out there, but if you do get the chance go and check out ‘#tahdig’ on social media platforms and enter the world of beautiful tahdig designs.
As advised in previous posts, you will need to get your hands on white long grain basmati rice if you want to cook authentic Persian style rice. You can buy this from your local supermarket or, as I do, from my local Middle-Eastern or Asian food shops. A little saffron is recommended, a good quality non-stick saucepan with a glass lid and a small-hole colander or sieve. A clean tea towel is also an absolute must as it aids the steaming of the rice by absorbing the water droplets, which would otherwise form on the lid of your saucepan and fall back on to the rice making it mushy.
Try not to balk at the amount of salt used. Rice needs a lot of salt as it can be quite bland and the boiling stage washes a lot away. Taste a grain or two of your rice at step 6 of the recipe below. If it tastes too salty just pour a little cold water over your parboiled rice to wash some away. Also, while I have you engaged with the concept of pushing salt boundaries, let me talk to you about drizzling your rice pre-steaming stage with butter, ghee or vegan equivalent. It sounds punchy and it is, but the resulting chelow is so delicious it would be a shame to omit this stage. Some literally layer their rice with knobs of butter, I melt a few tablespoons and drizzle it over my rice as set out below (see step 12).
As with chips and roast potatoes, the more oil you use for your tahdig at the bottom of your pot the better the tahdig as you are effectively deep frying the base of the rice (potatoes or flatbread) and it avoids burning. However, I don’t always use lots of oil in family meals as it is more about the taste of the dish and the overall healthiness rather than presentation so I reduce the oil content. The tahdig is still delicious but as you can see from the some of the pictures the colour of the tahdig can be patchy. The amount of oil stated in the recipe below is the minimum I would recommend. As you fine tune your chelow and tahdig skills, feel free to increase the oil incrementally (say a tablespoon at a time) to conclude the best oil ratio for you, your family and your trusted saucepan.
There are two ways of presenting your chelow and tahdig. If you have a small quantity of rice (as in the recipe below) you should be able to flip your pot after cooking and the rice and tahdig should come out like a cake as seen in the first set of pictures above.
For larger quantities, once the rice has cooked, I recommend spooning the rice out and serving it on one plate and then serving your tahdig separately on another dish. The latter is usually garnished with saffron coloured rice sprinkled on top (see picture). In my family we use a little rose water when blooming the saffron for the rice garnish as it adds a delicate floral note to the chelow, so if you want to present your rice this way then it is worth getting your hands on some rose water from your local Middle-Eastern food shop.
As a final note, the primary recipe below is to make chelow with rice tahdig. Refer to the ‘Alternative Step’ sections below for guidance on how to make potato or flatbread tahdig.
Chelow and Tahdig
- 2 cups white long grain Basmati rice (standard UK measuring cup capacity 250 ml - approx 400 grams of rice)
- 2 tbsp salt
- Water (as directed below)
- 1/8 tsp ground saffron bloomed in 2 tbsp of water for the tahgdig
- A further small pinch of ground saffron if serving your rice with a saffron garnish bloomed in 2 tsp of rose water and 2 tbsp of hot water (optional)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil plus extra if you are making potato or flatbread tahdig as per 'Alternative Step' sections below
- 2 to 3 tbsp ghee / butter / vegan equivalent
- Wash the rice in cold water until the water runs clear. Be gentle with the rice, otherwise you will damage and break the grains.
- Then place the rice with 1 tbsp of salt in a bowl and pour in cold water to cover the rice up to 2 inches above the rice. Leave the rice to soak for a minimum of 30 mins (I leave mine overnight and cook the rice during the afternoon of the day after).
- Fill a large non-stick saucepan (minimum capacity 2.5 litres) with approximately 1.5 litres of water and 1 tbsp of salt. Bring the water to a boil.
- Drain the rice and then add to the saucepan. Gently stir the rice to make sure it does not stick to the pan.
- Stay with the saucepan and do not leave it at this stage. It is crucial that you remove the rice and drain it at the right time. Every minute give the rice a gentle stir and take a grain of rice and check the texture - either between your fingers or using your teeth. What you want is the rice to be soft on the outer layer but still firm in the centre. It can take any time from 3 to 7 minutes with the quantity of rice in this recipe.
- Once the parboiled rice reaches the correct texture, turn your heat off and drain the rice in a colander or sieve. Sprinkle a little cold water on the rice to halt the cooking process. Taste the rice - if it is very salty then rinse the rice further with a little water.
- Place the empty saucepan on your stove.
- Add 2 tbsp of oil and 1 tbsp of butter / ghee / vegan equivalent to the pan and place on a low heat to melt. Then turn the heat off.
- Add your bloomed saffron to the saucepan and mix with the oil to distribute evenly (this will give a lovely golden colour to your tahdig).
- To make your rice tahdig spoon about a 1-inch layer of rice into the saucepan and gently stir to mix with the saffron oil to ensure colour is distributed evenly. Be careful not to break the grains. Then pat the rice down flat with the spoon.
- To make a cake style rice and tahdig, layer your rice and gently pat down to the shape of the saucepan. Once you have layered the rice, take the end of a tablespoon and gently poke about 5 small holes in the rice to allow steam to escape while cooking. Pour 2 tbsp of cold water evenly over the rice.
- Drizzle 1 to 2 tbsp of melted ghee / butter / vegan equivalent over the rice. Place your glass lid on the sauce pan and turn the heat to the highest setting.
- Once you start to see steam rise from the rice (your glass lid will start to get clear from the steam and droplets of water will start to form on the lid - it is perfectly fine to have a little look under the lid now and again to check the steam situation) lower the heat to the minimum flame or equivalent on your cooker. Cover the lid with a tea towel (making sure it is not a fire risk) and replace the lid on the saucepan.
- Allow to steam for a minimum of 45 mins to get a crunchy and thick layer of tahdig. When the cooking time is over turn off the heat and remove the lid from the saucepan. Take a serving dish that covers the opening of the saucepan and place it on top. Flip the rice out onto the dish and serve with either a khoresh, kabab, curry or any other dish.
- If you want to serve the rice with a sprinkle of saffron garnish and the tahdig separately then at step 11, instead of layering your rice and patting it down, layer the rice into a gentle sloping pyramid shape and poke a few holes in the rice. Then follow steps 12 and 13. When cooking has finished, instead of flipping the rice, spoon it out on to your dish and plate up your tahdig separately. For the saffron garnish, take a small pinch of saffron and place in a small bowl then add the rose water and hot water and let it bloom for a few minutes. Mix 4 tbsp of the cooked rice with the bloomed saffron and gently stir so it takes on a golden colour. Then sprinkle as a garnish on top of your rice.
Alternative Step 10 - Potato Tahdig
- If you are making potato tahdig, you will need 1 medium-sized potato peeled and sliced into 1.5 cm thick discs. Place the sliced potatoes into a bowl of water to wash off excess starch - this will help during the crisping process while the rice steams. It will also stop the potatoes turning brown as you get the rice ready to steam.
- Follow steps 1 to 9 above. At step 10, add an extra tablespoon of vegetable oil to the bottom of your pot then layer your potatoes at the bottom of the pan on top of the saffron oil (try not to overlap them so they all cook through evenly and crisp up) and then layer your rice on top and pat down to fill any gaps between the potatoes. Then follow subsequent steps of the recipe.
Alternative Step 10 - Flatbread Tahdig
- If you are making flatbread tahdig, you will need 1 medium Middle-Eastern style flatbread like lavash or 1 medium white tortilla.
- Follow steps 1 to 9 above. At step 10, you can use the flatbread to cover the bottom of the pan or you can cut shapes into it and layer the bottom surface of the saucepan only. Either way, before layering your flatbread, take a pastry brush and coat your flatbread generously with vegetable oil and then lay it on the saffron oil. Then layer your rice on top and follow the subsequent steps of the recipe. If you are using the whole flatbread to cover the bottom of the saucepan, without cutting shapes, be a little cautious with the timing on lowering the heat to steam the rice at step 13 as the flatbread can burn quite quickly. As soon as you see steam creeping round the edges of the bread, then turn down the heat and place the lid wrapped with a tea towel on the saucepan. Follow the subsequent steps of the recipe.