Seasonal Pantry: How to make Persian rice, a classic from Iran
The late filmmaker Les Blank, known for his documentaries about blues, folk and other traditional American music, once said the tradition people keep the longest when they move to another part of the world is their food — their style of both cooking and eating.
This resonates through the generations, as handwritten recipes on yellowing scraps of paper are handed from one family member to another and another.
This understanding has always led me to my bookshelves whenever trouble erupts between the United States and another country. I pull relevant cookbooks from my library shelves, thumb through recipes and search for passages about regional ingredients and markets. If the book includes family stories, all the better. How we eat and how we feed each other says so much about who we are. In recent days, I’ve returned to my Persian cookbooks, many of which I gathered during the Gulf War. By then, I already had a working understanding of Persian cuisine, as I’ve always loved it, but more as an eater than a cook.
As ingredients have become more readily available — in the late 1980s, it was all but impossible to find pomegranate molasses, a staple in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines — I’ve focused more on cooking.
The best way to become adept at preparing a specific cuisine is to first become adept at eating it. Once you begin to navigate and understand different flavor combinations, focus on the basics — the techniques and dishes most common on the daily table.
Over the next few weeks, Seasonal Pantry will feature several Persian dishes, beginning with chelow, or Persian rice. The crisp crust on the bottom of the pan is considered a special treasure, so perfecting the technique is essential for creating meals with traditional elements.
Once you’ve got the hang of the technique, you’ll be able to dispense with the recipe and prepare it by heart.
When making this for the first time, you might feel awkward, as if you were walking on an unknown trail or hearing a complex song for the first time. Why? Because this is not how we typically cook rice in the United States.
If you grew up in Iran, on the other hand, making this might be as easy as riding a bicycle, something you never forget, even if you haven’t done it in years. It is classic Persian home cooking, adapted primarily from a recipe in Yasmin Khan’s “The Saffron Tales” (Bloomsbury, $35, 2016), one of my favorite Iranian cookbooks. Khan suggests that if your crust comes out soft, you should increase the heat a bit next time. If burns, lower the heat in the initial stages of cooking.
Whenever I serve this fragrant rice, I like to have plenty of good whole milk yogurt alongside, either Bellwether Farms or Straus.
Many versions of this recipe call for Greek yogurt, but that is not necessary in Sonoma County, as we have thick, rich, tangy yogurts that resonate beautifully with Middle Eastern foods. Greek yogurt is typically a bit sweeter or at least less acidic; the acid makes the flavors blossom.
Serves 4 to 6
1 ¾ cups white basmati rice
— Kosher salt
— Pinch of saffron strands
— Pinch of sugar