My Grandmother, Tahdig, and Me
My grandmother's rice was a building block of my childhood. I can still see stray basmati grains on the floor, stuck to my clothes, or between my fingers as I rolled the lukewarm, forgotten bits into a tiny, glutenous mush. It was ever-present on my family's plates, mixed into khoresh bademjan or ghormeh sabzi, or simply as an accompaniment to baked chicken legs. It came to school with me, and, once I was grown, waited for me on trips home from college. It was, and is, a constant.
But I'm ashamed to admit I'd never dared to make it, or any Persian food, for myself. Primarily, it's out of a blend of perfectionism and self-doubt: Why bother, I asked myself, when I can't even make rice without a machine? When I know that, at best, all my rice could possibly be was a pale imitation of my grandmother's? And if the rice was a bust, surely every other dish would be as well. But as I approach my 30s, I realize more and more that I need to understand her rice on a fundamental level, something that goes beyond just eating it.
I am never going to be my grandmother. And under my current trajectory, I'll never even be a grandmother at all. But rice is a small step on the path to knowing my way around Iranian food; simply knowing how to eat and appreciate the cuisine isn't going to cut it anymore. I have to stop being so afraid.
When I ask her for a lesson, she can't hide her satisfaction. She's an Iranian grandmother, after all, and capable of one of the deepest types of love known to mankind. She peppered our conversations, childhood and of late, with a classic Persian idiom: ghorboonet beram — I would die for you! Plus, as a product of an intercontinental marriage (my dad was born in Tehran, my mom, Columbus, Ga.), I don't have an Iranian mother I would have learned this from. It has to be her.
A long overdue lesson
This visit starts out just like all the others, with a bit of bargaining: Would you like something to eat? No, I'm very full, I just had lunch. Are you sure? Yes, it was a big lunch.
To escape this maneuver, I have to say yes to something, so I say I'll have some tea. I don't make the rules. With this game of taarof out of the way, we get started. I'm unfamiliar with her explanatory attitude, and I love how it makes me feel like a scholar. I, a novice, stand at the stove of a genius, lapping up every movement, every directive, every grain. Her scientific breakdown is exactly what I need.
First, she explains, one of the most important parts of cooking rice is the ratio. She uses a random mug as an example, and tells me I can use any cup I want. The important part is that I use one part rice, and at least two parts water. The general rule for rice preparation is that for every person, add half a cup of rice. A two-person household needs one cup, and a family of four needs two. (I cannot even fathom how many cups of rice a whole mehmooni's worth of family and friends would require — at least 10?)
And it can't be just any rice. To make Persian rice, you need to start with basmati, but not just any basmati. You need the right basmati, she says, excavating a gigantic pickle jar that's been repurposed into a rice container. I did not even know someone could buy that many pickles. She is already instructing my Babajoon, her husband, to dig out another jar of basmati for me to take home, this one a gallon-sized Rubbermaid container. I don't protest because it cannot be stopped. It's just how Iranian grandparents are.
You also need saffron. The famed spice comes from the stigma of the Crocus sativus flower. Once the stigmas are picked, they don't grow back until the next year, which is why it's among the most expensive ingredients on earth. And that's not even factoring in the labor that saffron harvesting involves. So it makes perfect sense when she fetches some sort of tube of saffron-infused water — it stretches out the spice and prevents overuse.
I think back to the time my sister told me she made chicken and dumped on saffron powder, and our dad scolded her for wasting such a precious resource. I don't have my own saffron, so despite my objections, she darts into the pantry and grabs some before instructing Babajoon to grind it (for the first time in his life) and combine it with some water for me. At this point, I've learned there's no use in fighting against their kindness.
Once you have your amount of rice measured out, you need to wash it with "medium water." (That's water that is not too cold, but not too hot either.) She stands over the sink, periodically filling the pot and sifting the rice with her right hand. And now I understand why hers is so fluffy and perfect while mine would never impress, just barely satisfy. I have never bothered to remove the dust. She repeats the process two more times.
Listen to Allrecipes "Homemade" podcast to hear about more treasured dishes from Grandma's kitchen!
Next, the rice should soak for 30 minutes in slightly warmer water. She knows I'm busy and modern, and insists that the soaking isn't exactly necessary — "only if you have time," she says — so we continue the lesson without the soak.
She turns the burner to high and adds a mostly full tablespoon of salt. I remember Naz Deravian's line from Bottom of the Pot: "It should be salty like the sea." My grandmother prefers to monitor the saltiness later in the process, in order to avoid starting off with too much salinity.
She adds a bit of saffron water before incorporating the washed rice into the boiling water and reducing the heat. Minutes pass, and the grains stretch as they simmer. There is the rice I know so well. She skims the foam off the top with a large spoon, then periodically picks a few grains out with a different spoon to test the saltiness, the starch, and incrementally turns up the heat. She invites me to taste a grain. It tastes perfect, of course, and is ready to drain within minutes.
The reason I'm here, though, isn't simply to cook rice, though that alone is enough. I'm here to observe and absorb the process of making tahdig, the golden crust that is our rice's signature. (Not to be confused with tachin, which is more complicated and incorporates other elements, like potatoes, barberries, and even meat, into the crust.) You have probably seen it appropriated somewhere under the name "crispy rice." It's buttery, salty, and chewy, and since tahdig only covers the surface of the rice, people fight over it. Tahdig is more than a recipe. It's an art, a process, and I am here to watch it come to life.
Tahdig literally translates as "bottom of the pot," which is where the transformation takes place. At this moment, my grandmother is preparing the same pot we boiled the rice in to serve as the tahdig's vessel. She lubes up the pot with oil. Next, she adds a tablespoon of boiling water and a dash of the saffron water. Someone has called this liquid gold before, I'm sure of it.
With the conditions in place, it's time to work the alchemical magic. The rice slowly falls out of the colander and into the pot, and my grandmother reshapes it into a hill. This is what we call it, a "hill." She pokes the back end of a spoon into the hill and fills them with flecks of butter, and I recall how years ago, the three of us had lunch at a Persian restaurant in north Atlanta — how she smugly asked the waiter if she could have some more butter, because this rice was dry. It still makes me laugh. These flecks will help diffuse steam and butter throughout the rice, and throughout the pot. As one last precaution, she fits a few sheets of paper towels underneath the lid before securing it. A cotton towel is also fine, I asked to make sure.
The name of the game with tahdig is low and slow. You need at least 30 minutes, my grandmother says, but the longer the pot sits, the more tahdig you'll get. (Hint: you always want more tahdig.) In the meantime, we drink tea and catch up, and I insist that I'm not hungry so I will have some room for the rice. And when it is ready, she fixes me a small plate so I can enjoy her artistry once more.
Climbing the hill, two generations later
My first attempt at Persian rice by myself is much more frantic. The preliminary steps go fine, but once I'm actually cooking the rice I'm terrified. I tell myself there isn't enough saffron water, so then I add more, and suddenly the water is so yellow it looks like it's begging me to dip some boiled eggs in it. Then, when I turn the heat down, I go too low. Five minutes later, my first sample tasting is hard and pastel yellow. So yellow it looks like I'm boiling orzo instead of rice. But, at least the salinity is right.
I text my grandmother a few questions, and she immediately asks me to FaceTime her so she can see my rice for herself. Also, I need way more water, but it needs to be warm, and I feel very silly pouring water out of my electric kettle into the stockpot of boiling water.
Am I embarrassed? Absolutely, but I'm also thankful I'm still able to hold her hand. And after I open the pot and the steam rushes out, I see and smell her soft granules, just a little more yellow. Sure, the layer of crunchy, golden tahdig, is minimal, but that's something I can learn. My grandmother's had upwards of 60 years, after all. I've just started. But for just a little while, I'm sitting at her counter eating fluffy Persian rice like I did all those times before.