||Last Updated: Mar 10, 2021 - 10:59:05 AM
In the rather large, colorful canon of Iranian dishes, one has consistently tugged at the heartstrings of locals, no matter their social status or religious credo: the tahdig. The scorched rice dish cooked at the bottom of a rice pot over direct heat from a flame is an Iranian specialty (“tah” translates to “bottom” and “dig” means “pot” in Farsi) that has been reproduced and reclaimed across culinary genres for ages.
Japanese okoge, usually eaten with vegetables, is rice that has been blackened, for example. In Iraq, hikakeh is the crisp bottom crust birthed by a multistep rice-cooking process; in Latin America, the treat goes by cucayo, raspa, and pegao, among other names; Vietnamese chefs, on the other hand, call for cơm cháy to be fried until golden brown and then topped with specially cooked scallions, pork floss, and dried shrimp.
Slightly different in concept but appealing to the same craving for all things crispy are the burnt edges of a cake pan, slightly over-broiled veggie platters and the crispy corners of a lasagna dish. Clearly, there is something about crunchy food that titillates the palates of eaters all over the world. But what is it about the Iranian tahdig that makes it stand out from the rest?
“It’s fried food and fried food is celebration food,” said chef and cookbook author Louisa Shafia, whose mother is an Ashkenazi Jew who grew up in Philadelphia and whose father is an Iranian Muslim. “People just get happy when they have crunchy carbs because they hit our systems like sugar and give us a burst of energy. With tahdig, it is also really appealing lookwise [because] it’s golden.”
To achieve that recognizable hue, cooks use saffron, constantly referred to as one of the most expensive spices in the world by weight and one that bestows any recipe with a pleasant punch to the taste buds.
For Rachel Nabavian, a Jewish New Yorker whose mother fled to the United States following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, that familiar burst of flavors is part of the dish’s entire appeal, intricately connected to both the chef and the consumer. “When I think of comfort food, I think of the food that my grandma would prepare for me while I was growing up,” she said. “For me, a piece of tahdig—the saffron, the color, everything—is the ultimate comfort food [and I think] that’s the case for every Persian person.”
Jake Cohen, author of the new cookbook Jew-ish, took on the challenge of preparing the perfect tahdig after getting engaged to his now-husband Alex, who is of Iranian descent. “Though it took many failed attempts involving burnt and soggy rice, I became skilled at making tahdig, eventually mastering a perfect, golden crust,” he recalled in a 2017 essay for Taste. “But I had a bigger challenge ahead of me when I found out about Alex’s favorite variation on the classic: potato tahdig.” With that, Cohen touches upon what is yet another unique aspect of the classic Iranian dish: its versatility.
Although the traditional iteration predominantly features perfectly crispy rice, tahdig comes in all shapes and sizes: It can be made with potatoes, sour cherries, dill rice, or pasta and folded-in chicken and vegetables (technically, that would be “tahchin,” a slightly different dish belonging to the same gastronomical family). Chicago-based baker and blogger Varta has also used the golden treat as the ideal blank canvas for a variety of her creations.
The versatility in preparation stands in stark opposition to the way the tahdig is to be taken out of the pot and subsequently served—two feats akin to an Olympic sport. “I just learned about the trick of cooling the bottom of the pot to help loosen the rice,” said Shafia. “It works like a charm.” Removing the food from the cooking vessel and placing it on a serving plate intact is just as important as achieving the perfect shade of gold.
“I will usually take a moment to have everyone admire the golden disc,” said Shafia. “It’s that big reveal moment. I always just like to show it off, parade it, and then cut it.” Post wholesome extraction, the tahdig is cut into slices or more organic shapes.
As for the eating part: Feel free to use your hands to devour the delicacy. “It’s just too awkward to eat it with a fork and it’s also so good that you can’t worry about getting dirty while eating it,” said Shafia. “Just shove it in your mouth like a potato chip.”
The laws governing the preparation and consumption of the dearly beloved Middle Eastern dish do differ in one simple aspect that actually ends up pointing to what seems to be the truest magic of the tahdig: its ability to unite folks with seemingly no common ground. The crispy rice has become a staple on tables of Iranian expatriates no matter their religious affiliations. You’re just as likely to be force-fed a piece of tahdig in the kitchen of a Jewish family that ran away from Iran in the 1970s as you are in the home of a Muslim of Iranian descent who spends his days singing the praises of the food while discussing native cuisines. The potency of the tahdig rests in that universal appeal, offering a common devotion to people who—religiously and historically—have found it hard to find anything else to truly share. Jews and Muslims, whose convoluted Iranian history still defines our present, love tahdig equally. Could the food then be the cure we’ve been seeking for centuries while trying to capitulate the cultural and political battles that have bestowed on the two peoples across different nations?
It sure is a lofty and dreamy notion, but so delicious and inarguably special is the taste of the tahdig that we can’t help but wonder whether asking dissidents to sit at the same table while munching on pieces of the golden disc might function as, perhaps, the beginning of a long-lasting peace treaty of sorts.
How realistic that scenario actually is may be up for debate, but one thing is for sure: The crunchy cakelike peace offering might have to be presented in two different ways. In fact, most Muslim tahdig recipes call for the use of yogurt at the bottom of the pot. Jewish kashrut laws, however, forbid the simultaneous consumption of meat-based and dairy-based products and, given that a vast majority of Iranian Jews eat tahdig alongside kabob and khoresh—meat dishes—the crunchy rice is almost exclusively prepared sans yogurt in Jewish homes.
That’s all for the better. Who wants to share tahdig anyway?
Saffron Rice Tahdig
cups basmati rice, soaked in cold water for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours
Large pinch saffron ground and steeped in 1 tablespoon warm water
tablespoon butter, broken in a few pieces, plus extra
- Drain the rice and rinse it under cold water. In a stockpot, combine 8 cups of water and 2 heaping tablespoons of salt and bring to a boil. Add the rice and return to a boil, uncovered. After a few minutes, test a grain of rice by breaking it in half. The rice is ready when it’s still a little chewy and not fully cooked, like al dente pasta. Drain the rice and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside 2 cups of rice.
- Heat a deep 10” cast-iron skillet for a couple of minutes over low heat, then add the oil. Put the two cups of reserved rice in the skillet, followed by 1 teaspoon of the saffron water, the turmeric if using, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir everything together, then spread the rice evenly over the bottom of the skillet, and pack it down tightly with an offset spatula or a large wooden spoon. Heap the rest of the rice into the center of the skillet, coaxing it away from the sides.
- Poke five holes in the rice with the handle of a wooden spoon, without touching the tahdig layer on the bottom. Drizzle the remaining saffron water over the rice. Scatter the butter and a half teaspoon of salt on top. Cover tightly. Turn up the heat to medium and cook for 7 minutes. The rice and saffron water will sizzle and pop. Turn the heat down to low and place a heat diffuser under the skillet. Place a towel or damkoni under the lid and cover tightly. Cook for 40 minutes.
- Fill the sink with ice water an inch deep, and place the bottom of the skillet in the water to loosen the tahdig. Check to see how easily the tahdig will come out by going around it gently with an offset spatula or butter knife. Place a dish towel down on the countertop.Take a round pan or platter and place it on top of the skillet. Wearing oven mitts, firmly hold the skillet together with the pan, and flip so that the pan is on the dish towel. Carefully remove the skillet. Voila!
- Show off the tahdig to your guests, then slide it onto a cutting board and cut it into pieces. Serve the rice and tahdig on separate platters. Garnish the rice with extra butter if desired.
Recipe by Louisa Shafian
Note: Depending on the size of your skillet or pot, you may need more than 2 cups of rice to cover the bottom.
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