Last year, Naz Deravian came out with a terrific book called Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories. And if you know just one thing about Persian food, you probably know what that title is about; it's about the crispy part of the rice, called tahdig, that you find at the bottom of the pot or the top of the rice once it has flipped out of the pot and onto a serving dish. Deravian writes about tahdig so beautifully that Francis Lam wanted to learn more about why it matters so much in Persian culture and cuisine. You must try her recipe for Chelo ba Tahdig (Steamed Persian Rice with Tahdig). It’s a wonderfully detailed recipe, but like Deravian says, there’s always a little bit of luck in getting it perfect. Good luck!
Francis Lam: Let's start from the top. Very simply, what is tahdig?
Naz Deravian: Well then, we have to start from the bottom.
FL: Touché! [both laugh]
ND: Tahdig quite literally means bottom of the pot, “tah” being bottom, “dig” being pot. And it's probably the most coveted part of a Persian rice dish. It's the crispy, buttery, saffron-infused rice at the very bottom of the pot. It's typically made with rice, but it can be made with bread or potatoes; I have a fish tahdig in my book which is a crispy fish at the bottom of the pot. But, typically it's that crispy rice which is delicious.
FL: Every time someone talks to me about Persian food, I almost feel like it's just a matter of seconds until they bring up tahdig and then say, “And you know that's the best part.” It's really a thing. We had the bottom of the pot rice in Chinese culture that I grew up in as a thing. In paella, socarrat is a thing. But I feel like tahdig is really like an extra thing.
ND: It's an extra, extra, extra thing. Persians like to think – and I think, correctly – that we have elevated rice making to an art form. I say that in all seriousness; we take our rice cooking seriously. Rice is the main grain at the Persian table and it's this two-step process or method. First, you start with the rice itself, which is a long grain, fragrant, basmati-style rice. We can’t get Iranian rice imported here in the United States at the moment, but basmati rice works just as well.
In this two-step method, first you parboil the rice in plenty of salted water and then you drain it as you might when making pasta. You want to drain it when it's al dente; you want it to be soft on the outside but still with bite to it. Once you drain it you put enough oil or a combination of oil and butter – which is what I like to use – at the bottom of the pot. This starts your tahdig layer, which is that crispy rice at the bottom of the pot.
Then you start the steaming of it, which is the second step in preparing the rice. As you're crisping up the bottom layer you're also steaming and cooking through the top layer. When to drain the rice, how long to steam it for, that's where the art comes in. You can develop this intuitively over time and with trial and error. You know, Francis, no one turns out a perfect tahdig every single time, and if they say they do they're not being honest – even if it burns. I would think that tahdig was invented by accident; I think it most surely was, as crispy rice probably was in most cultures like you mentioned. So, at some point someone burnt the bottom of the pot and realized it tastes really good. Then it developed into this art form. But yes, for Iranians and Persians, there's nothing else like it. It’s the first thing that goes at the table and there’s a fight over it.
FL: You have this beautiful line in your book where you talk about flipping the pot and hoping that the rice came out well and the tahdig was properly made. You say flipping is always a moment of hope. I have to say that as a reader and a writer myself, and also as an editor of cookbooks, your book is so incredibly gorgeous and so incredibly beautifully written. There's a beautiful story in the book about the rice. Would you mind reading it for us?
ND: Not at all. It'd be my pleasure. This is from the rice chapter, and it’s called "Jewels."
Los Angeles, 2016
Maman, my mother, sits at her dedicated spot at our Los Angeles kitchen table. She speaks to me of Hafez, Khayyam, Rumi, and Sa’adi. The jewels of Persian literature, the weavers of truth, love, and light. I do my best to listen patiently to the stories I have heard countless times, as I eye the tick-tock of the clock and consider dinner options. I remind myself that these days and these conversations are fleeting. I am fully aware of the preciousness of time. Time is insolent, it knows no do-overs, it is a dictator that can never be overthrown. No revolution and no hunger strike can ever change its course.
As she breaks down a verse—tee, tak, tak, tee, tak, tak—I heave a twenty-pound sack of rice off the pantry floor and watch as each grain clanks into the bowl: tee, tak, tak, tee, tak, tak. I rinse the rice a few times, washing off the starch, swirling it around with my finger, just as she taught me.
Luna and Soleil, my daughters, my shadows, burst into the kitchen, abruptly breaking the rhythm of Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. In a frenzy they orbit around me and their grandmother. Spinning and spinning, they ask the inevitable question: What’s for dinner? Chelo khoresh, rice with stew, I respond. With tahdig, they implore as they run out. Of course there will be tahdig, their grandmother calls after them. No matter what, there will always be tahdig. It’s who we are. It’s where we come from.
I bring a pot of water to a boil as Maman slowly makes her way to the stove. Frail and ravaged knees now dictate her every move, but her focus is laser sharp and beamed on the rice pot. She’s concerned I haven’t added enough water and salt to the pot. Reminding me that the rice needs plenty of room to stretch its legs, preparing itself for its grand pas de deux, and because it leaps around in there for a very short time it’s our only chance to salt it. A most familiar conversation.
I add the rice to the well-salted water, and there we pause. Mother and daughter at the rice pot. Tradition, culture, and the meaning of life contained in this one critical moment. Exactly when to drain the rice?
We take turns breaking a grain between our fingers and place a few more in our mouths. Each grain should soften on the outside but still have a bite to it on the inside. Where only moments ago the poetry of Hafez and Sa’adi and the giggles and squeals of children reverberated, the house is now filled with silence. For a brief moment time surrenders and stands still as we bite a single grain of rice.
“Now! Now! Turn it off! Drain it, drain it! Now! Now!”
Maman’s commands shatter the silence. I frantically search for the kitchen mitts because every second is critical and everything is critical. It’s just a pot of rice, I want to remind us, it’ll all be okay. But I don’t, because it’s more than a pot of rice.
I gently nudge Maman out of the way and grab the pot. While the rice drains I melt the butter and she sprinkles the saffron, for color, for warmth, for a sunrise and a sunset. She scatters some grains over the bottom of the pot, the tahdig layer, as I add the rest and make small vent holes for the steam to escape. She covers the pot and turns up the heat. And once again we both take our places at the rice pot. As soon as the steam slips out of the sides of the lid, Maman gives her finger a little lick and quickly taps the side of the pot. It sizzles. Confirming that the tahdig is setting, the rice is steaming, and the heat can be turned down. We wrap the lid in its shawl, a damkoni—dishtowel—to catch any condensation dripping back into the pot. Because every grain of rice should be separate, long, fluffy, and shine on its own. Each grain of rice a jewel scattered across the platter.
When the rice is ready, Maman lifts the lid off the pot as Luna and Soleil find their way back inside. I set the platter next to Maman. But she moves aside and makes room for me.
If it all goes as planned, the fruits of our labor will be met with high-fives, high jumps, and quasi-cartwheels all around. If it all falls apart (quite literally), shoulders will slump, and slight groans will replace the cheers. But everyone will do their best to make me feel better. Next time, they’ll say. Because when it comes to tahdig, time is quite forgiving. As many do-overs as you please. After all, it’s just a pot of rice.
I place the serving dish over the pot. Inhale. Hold my breath. Tighten up my abs, chant a little mantra, and flip the pot over. A slight exhale slips out at the first sign of success: the swoosh sound of the rice dropping from pot to platter. Gently, I pull the pot up and away and there she is: the bottom of the pot—tahdig. A golden sun burning bright in the embrace of a full moon, crispy grains of rice encrusted in perfect formation. It’s magic every time. I fully exhale as little hands reach in to break off pieces.
I lift the platter and instinctively extend an arm out to Maman. She balances herself and gives her weight over to me. My other arm reaches for Luna and Soleil as the four of us and a platter of rice make the slow, short walk from stove to kitchen table. Mothers, daughters, and a pot of rice. It’s who we are. It’s where we come from.
FL: That was beautiful. Thank you so much, Naz.
ND: Thank you.
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