Cardamom and rose water rice cake

Cayk-e sheer berenji

کیک شیر برنجی

It’ll be no surprise that rice dishes are cherished and consumed in Persian cuisine. Rice found its way to Iran from China via the silk road, and took root in the Caspian Sea region, where the climate and landscape are very hospitable to rice production.

Recently I’ve been reading about the wide variety of rice that exists in Iran, and have been reminded of the distinctive characteristics of the rice we encountered when we traveled north to the Caspian Sea. I’ve been quite homesick for those familiar scents and flavors! Here in the US, the Basmati rice that I purchase at the Persian grocery store is the closest I’ve found to the rice I remember eating as a child in Tehran, with its signature flavor and texture.

Not only is rice consumed more or less daily as an accompaniment to the myriad of Persian stews, it’s also served in the form of desserts and offerings for a variety of both religious and secular celebrations.

There’s Sholeh Zard, a characteristically golden-yellow rice pudding which is the product of cooking rice slowly with water, cardamom, rosewater and saffron, then garnished with streaks of cinnamon and pieces of pistachio and almond. There’s also Sheer Berenji, another product of cooking soaked rice in milk, cardamom and rosewater.

This recipe, which I’m calling Cayk-e Sheer Berenji, is a bit of an improvised dessert that I came up with. I found that cooking the rice alone won’t give it the structure it needs to have it be served as a cake. So I reached into my pantry and grabbed my weapon of choice: agar agar, which is a jelly-like substance derived from seaweed. It’s often used instead of gelatin in vegan desserts. Disclaimer: neither agar agar nor gelatin are traditionally used in Persian desserts!

After doing some research, I found a version of this cake and its roots and traditions in the North eastern part of Iran, near the city of Mashhad.

I decorated my cake with shapes from the well-known Paisley design. The Paisley pattern originated in Persia, and spread to the rest of the world via India and Scotland!

Freedom of choice!

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Stuffed onions with beef, rice and herbs

Dolmeh-ye piaz

دلمه پیاز


Caution: you must be an onion lover to proceed!

Name a culture, and you will quickly realize how many dishes start with some member of the onion family. Onions and all of their relatives are cherished and celebrated in Iranian culture. The onion family includes red, white and yellow onions, green onions, garlic, leeks, garlic chives and shallots. And in Iran, you also have Museer, which is an Iranian variety of shallot that most closely resembles elephant garlic, as well as Tarreh, which is a cross between American leeks and green onions. In the US these ingredients are available dried at Persian markets.

Just about every dish in Iran starts with and includes some member of the onion family. It is customary to have fried or caramelized onions prepared ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator to start off the dishes. Still more dishes are finished off with gently fried garlic, mixed with herbs, as a finishing garnish.

This dish celebrates the art of stuffing vegetables, which in Farsi we refer to as Dolmeh. Thinking of stuffed grape leaves? Yup, that; as well as stuffed peppers, eggplants, potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes and so on!

In this dish, the onions are stuffed with rice, herbs and either beef or lamb, and slowly cooked in a rich broth to create a tenderized and sweet perfection.

A coming together of ingredients in creative ways to improve the overall experience of the dish.

Unity!

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Savory rice pilaf cake

Tahchin

ته چین

Rice is at the front and center of the Persian table, and there are quite a few techniques for preparing it, from simple steamed rice to more complex rice dishes in which various ingredients are layered into the rice to create a one-pot meal.

Tahchin translates to “arranged in the bottom” and is a classic casserole-style rice dish prepared by adding tangy yogurt, creamy eggs, golden saffron, and oil to the rice to create an irresistible savory cake.

Tahchin will typically have eggplants, chicken, or other ingredients that are decoratively arranged on the bottom or in the center of the pan. As with most Persian rice dishes, the bottom of the pot becomes crispy during the cooking process and then served upside down, showcasing the coveted crispy tahdig!

For reasons not too clear to me, sadly we didn’t make tahchin in our household when I was growing up. So, I only came to experience this as an adult when I learned how to cook Persian food for myself.

Regrets.

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Cumin Turmeric Rice Pilaf layered with Chickpeas and Potatoes

Zireh polo

زیره پلو

Today I found myself wanting to stay close to home and do all kinds of domestic things. After the chores had been knocked off one by one, I was still longing to do something comforting and truly homey.

Naturally, I ended up in the kitchen, and I started to explore some less well-known Persian recipes. I found myself changing them around just a little to suit my craving for comfort food.

The result of this pursuit was this rice pilaf, based on a dish that originated in the Kerman province of Iran, on the eastern side of the country. The recipe I came across doesn’t have any meat or beans in it; as it is traditional with Persian dishes, the protein is often cooked separately and served alongside of the dish. Alternatively, I can totally see this dish accompanied by a couple of sunny side up eggs, with turmeric sprinkled on top, of course!

I opted to make this dish vegetarian by using chickpeas, but I would venture out and say you could also use lamb, beef, chicken, or prawns for the protein. Enjoy exploring while blending cultures and flavors!

Exploration!

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Rice pilaf layered with green beans and beef in a seasoned tomato sauce

Lubia Polo

لوبیا پلو

Ask an Iranian what their favorite rice dish is, and they’ll likely say it’s Lubia Polo. They’ll then proceed to tell you how they make their version and why it’s the best! Though quite simple in composition, this dish has such richness because of the way the ingredients are cooked and the integration of lots of umami flavors such as tomato paste, turmeric, and cinnamon!

On a visit with my mom recently, we reminisced about this dish and prepared it together, exploring the various traditions and techniques associated with this well-known dish. She recalled how she used to make it for us in Tehran using good quality lamb meat with a thin layer of fat. She very specifically used an aromatic and flavorful oil called Roghan Kermanshahi, which is a type of sheep or beef lard from the city of Kermanshah.

As you might expect, it’s hard to find Roghan Kermanshahi in the suburbs of Chicago, so we opted to use European style butter in its place. With a good quality cut of beef (with some marbling), and a flavorful Italian tomato paste, the result was simply divine!

It never ceases to amaze me how a familiar flavor or scent can stir up so many emotions, memories and thoughts. My aunt Azar made the world’s best Lubia Polo!

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Catch me on “Your Last Meal” podcast

Keeping company with Samin Nosrat (“Salt Fat Acid Heat” on Netflix) and Andy Baraghani (Senior Food Editor, Bon Appetit) on Rachel Belle’s podcast! Rachel Belle has an awesome podcast called “Your Last Meal” in which she interviews people from all walks of life about their favorite food.

On February of 2019, I was honored to be interviewed about Persian rice and the delectable tahdig in an episode that also featured the lovable and brilliant Samin Nosrat and Andy Baraghani.

Your last Meal

Fresh fava bean and dill rice pilaf

Shiveed baghaleh polow

شوید باقالی پلو

This is one of many mixed rice dishes in Persian cuisine and I would say my second favorite! Favorite being the barberry rice (zereshk polow). This rice dish is typically served with stewed beef or lamb as well as roasted or stewed chicken with the usual Persian spice mixture called advieh. A side of yogurt or fire roasted pickled eggplants (liteh bademjan) would complete this dish!

There are a few variations to this dish and the fava bean can be replaced by lima beans and the herbs can be expanded to include parsley, cilantro, fenugreek leaves as well.

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Polo

Persian steamed saffron basmati rice

پلو

Tahdig

Rice, or as we say in Farsi, polow is the main grain consumed in Persian cuisine. Persians have mastered the art of cooking rice and have taken it to a whole different level. Rice is soaked and masterfully steamed to create a light and fluffy texture. The bottom of the pot is also cooked to a crispy perfection by adding ghee or butter and saffron and served upside down to showcase the beautiful and enticing golden crust, tahdig.

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