Monday, 21 April 2008

I did it! I tah-dig it!!

Tah-dig: it's the crunchy crust that forms at the bottom of a well-made pot of Persian polo. Or should do. It's not an easy task, and Iranian friends readily admit that it doesn't always go to plan, even for them. I mean it burns easily, you might not be able to leverage it off the base of the pot, and you might not even get a crust to begin with... But a good tah-dig is pretty much the holy grail of Persian cooking. And I had never had success despite a great deal of trying; until now.

So excuse me for tooting my own horn a bit here, but I did it, I finally did it!!!!

Not that I was expecting to. I was just making a pot of split pea and tomato rice to go with some leftover dizi. I hadn't even planned on taking a photo. But when boxing up leftovers for the next day's lunch, I had a big surprise in store when lo, there it was: perfectly formed crunchiness at the bottom of the pot! I did a little jig right on the spot, I can tell you!

Now before you go thinking I really should get a life and not carry on so much about a bit of rice that got stuck to the bottom of the pot, have a read of this, and you'll see that I'm far from being the only one in need of a such a life. Nor am I the worst afflicted by tah-dig-itis (g).

So how does one achieve this pillar of Persian kitchen craft? Well, NOT fiddling about with the recipe to reduce the calories from fat would be a good first step (g). You need at least enough oil to cover the base of the pot you are using. In my case, this was about 100 ml, an extravagant amount to my mind, but hey, who ever said that perfection doesn't come at a price.

Next, you actually have to leave the rice on the flame for at least 20 minutes of final steaming/crust formation. The flame should be down as low as it goes, and you should be able to hear little crackling sounds emanating from the bottom. That's the sound of the bottom part of the rice frying into a nice crunch.

Finally, you need to let your pot rest on a damp tea-towel for 5 minutes or so to loosen the crust a bit so you can lever it out of the pot in order to eat the treat. Not any point in having to chisel out minuscule portions that will hardly be worth the effort.

Right, so here's a recipe for one kind of polo. Now that I have (hopefully) got the knack of the tah-dig, I might have a little meander through some more of the many variations Najmieh khanom offers in New Food of Life. Rice is, after all, the jewel of the Persian kitchen.

Incidentally, although the recipe calls for insulating the lid of the pot with a clean tea towel for the final low-temperature crisping up, my Iranian friends have ingenious "lid cosy" thingies that fit to the lid to perfectly keep the steam in. Saves the problem of what to do with overhanging tea-towel, which could be a bit dodgy from a safety perspective.

You may also notice that there is no meat in my qeymeh polo. That's because I was making it as an accompaniment to a meat dish and left it out. Next time I would reduce the tomato sauce a bit if I went meatless again. The split pea mixture was a little sloppier than I would have liked it, but would certainly have been right on with a kilo of meat cooking in there.

For the orange peel, peel the skin of one or more oranges (I'd say the more the merrier: this is a bit fiddly, but really adds a nice flavor, and keeps well in the freezer if you wrap it well) with a vegetable peeler, making sure to leave any white pith behind. Cut into slivers and place in a small pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and cook for 10 minutes. Drain.

And a special note to Japanese readers who might give this a try. *Don't forget to add salt when you cook this rice.* It's easy to miss that step because no salt is added to Japanese steamed rice. Probably better not to ask me how I know this (g)...

Qeymeh polo (Persian rice with yellow split peas)

3 cups long-grain basmati rice
3 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 kg stew meat--lamb, veal or beef--cut into 1 cm pieces
3/4 cup clarified butter (ghee or oil)
1/2 cup yellow split peas
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 cups fresh tomato juice
1 tbsp dried Persian lime powder (powdered limu-omani)
2 tbsp slivered orange peel with bitterness removed
1/2 tsp ground saffron dissolved in 4 tbsp hot water
2 tbsp plain yogurt
3 tsp advieh (Persian spice mix; [S: Recipes can be found with Google])

1 Clean and wash 3 cups of rice in warm water. It is then desirable but not essential to soak the rice in 8 cups of water with 2 tbsp of salt for at least 2 hours.

2. In a pot, brown the onions and meat in 2 tbsp of oil. Add split peas and saute for a minute. Add the salt, pepper, turmeric, and tomato juice. Bring to a boil. and simmer over medium heat for 20 minutes. Ad lime powder and slivered orange peel. Cover and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes longer over low heat (split peas must be cooked). Set aside.

3 Bring 8 cups water and 2 tbsp salt to a boil in a large non-stick pot. Pour the washed and drained rice into the pot. Boil briskly for 6--10 minutes, stirring gently twice 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 lukewarm water.

4 In a pot, heat 1/2 cup butter or oil.

5 In a bowl, combine a drop of saffron water, yogurt, and 2 spatulas full of rice; mix well and spread the mixture over the bottom of the pot to create a golden crust (tah-dig).

6 Place 2 spatulas full of rice int he pot, then add some meat and split pea mixture. Repeat these steps, arranging the layers in the shape of a pyramid. Sprinkle the advieh between each layer.

7 Mix remaining butter, saffron water and 1/2 cup of water and pour over the rice. Cover and cook rice for 10 minutes over medium heat to form a golden crust.

8 Place a clean dish towel or paper towel over the pot and cover firmly with the lid to prevent steam from escaping. Cook for 50 minutes longer over low heat. Remove the pot from heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes on a damp surface without uncovering.

9 Remove lid and take out 2 tbsp of saffron-flavored rice and set aside for use as a garnish.

10 then, gently taking 1 skimmer or spatula full of rice at a time, place rice on an oval serving platter without disturbing the crust. Mound the rice in the shape of a cone and garnish with saffron-flavored rice.

11 Detach the crust from the bottom of the pot using a wooden spatula. Unmold onto a small platter and serve on the side with fresh herbs, yogurt and torshi (Persian pickles).


May 1 update: It seems that the Iranians are not the only ones to make crusty-bottomed rice. In an interesting segment on NPR's food section, I've just read that the Aleppian Jews make a plain rice dish that is to all intents and purposes the same as the Iranian. The only difference is that they use oil instead of butter, in line with dietary restrictions (specifically the proscription against eating meat and dairy together). I suspect there is an interesting story behind this unexpected common link...

Incidentally, have it on good authority that some Iranian cooks also use oil too, and with the current butter shortage in Japan, my guess is that all of those living here will be passing the butter (so to speak) in favor of oil.


Anthony said...

Mmmmmmm!!! I had a friend at school whose mother was Iranian, I have amazing memories of a dish just like this... I was looking for a recipe and found yours, I'm going to try it tonight!! It sounds delicious.

I love your writing by the way, you show a great passion for food and talent for writing!

Saffron said...

Hello, Anthony.

Thanks for stopping by and your kind words.

I'm sure you'll love this dish, but don't thank me for it, it is the work of Najmieh Batmanglij, the doyenne of Persian cooking. Do check out her work if you are interested in Iranian food (and who wouldn't be?!?). We should all be lucky enough to have an Iranian mother (g).