Dish 12: Chelo ba Tahdig
Contents Intro Prepping the Dish Cooking the Dish Overall Impressions Final Word Recipe Intro
In my humble opinion, rice is a kitchen staple everyone should have at least three different varieties of, provided there are no health constraints standing in the way. Our pantry has four and we’re short one (brown rice) that we really should have on hand. As loyal readers can probably guess, I have a sore spot for anything that can be used in multiple ways with lots of inactive cook time and rice certainly satisfies both these criteria. Rice, though, is often one of those staples that is susceptible to overuse, blandness, or both. I knew rice dishes had to be part of this cooking venture, but in no way could these dishes come anywhere close to bland.
What I loved about this dish is I didn’t find it; it found me. A few months ago, I was listening to my favorite food podcast, The Splendid Table, in the shower and one of the features in the episode I was listening to was from a Persian author talking about Chelo ba Tahdig, a steamed Persian rice with tahdig. From what I gather, the tahdig is just a crunchy layer of rice at the bottom of the dish that parboiled white rice finishes cooking atop of. What struck me about the dish wasn’t the novelty of the dish’s preparation, but the author’s poetic description of and reverence towards the dish, which at its core is cooked with long-grain, white rice.
You should really read that entire recipe because it’s written very conversationally. If you’re pressed on time or don’t want to open another window, read this quote from it that describes a rather dramatic way of serving the dish:
“… for a more dramatic and applause-worthy presentation, place an appropriate-sized platter over the pot, take a deep breath, and quickly and confidently flip the pot over. There should be a swish sound of the release of the tahdig. If your tahdig turns out golden, crispy, and regal, pour yourself, and family and friends, something celebratory, do a little dance, and dig in. If the tahdig doesn’t quite turn out as expected—do the very same. It’s just a pot of rice, after all. And there’s always the promise of next time. As many tahdig do-overs as you like.”
As I read (and reread) those words just before I started gathering my ingredients, I knew everything about this rice dish would be both novel and shatter all my notions of what a rice dish could be.
It’s worth pointing out that this dish used two recipes: the one mentioned above and one from America’s Test Kitchen. I did this because there were some things in the Splendid Table recipe I didn’t have (saffron), or didn’t want to do (soaking the rice from 30 minutes to 8 hours). Similarly, I had no interest in buying yogurt just to make the tahdig layer, a step the Persian recipe never called for. In hindsight, I really should’ve written a single, combined recipe. I don’t think that cost me, but do as I say not as I do! The recipe below incorporates what I should’ve written down.
Prepping the Dish
As is the case when cooking most white rice, washing it before cooking it is necessary and important because it removes all the starch that can cause the rice to become gummy. That aside, all the dish needed to be prepped was some chopped parsley, cubed butter, and ground cumin.
If you can’t see the rice, you’re not done cleaning itCooking the Dish
Following a brief 15 minute soak in lukewarm, slightly salty water, it was time to parboil the rice. I’ve never parboiled rice before, but presumed you’re looking for a similar texture to parboiling dry pasta. Both recipes gave me the impression this process would happen quickly and recommended setting a timer, which I did. Once I determined the rice was done cooking to the necessary doneness, it was showered with cold water to stop it from cooking.
After some olive oil, butter and cumin was placed in my glorious, lapis blue, Le Creuset Dutch oven, it was time to make the tahdig layer, which was just enough rice to cover the bottom of the pot.
Oil and butter with cumin added shortly thereafter
I though I had a spatula that would enable me to pat everything down easily, but it felt awkward. While I’m pretty sure I got it all packed down, I went in with my hand just to make sure. With the remaining rice scattered on top, it was time to pile the rest of the rice in, and cook the tahdig layer. After cooking for ten minutes, the heat was lowered from medium to medium-low, and butter cubes were added to small holes made with the back of the spoon then put a dish towel over the lid to catch any condensation. From here, two important steps emerged: 1) don’t poke the holes through the tahdig layer so the layer can become one big, crunchy piece of rice, and 2) ensure that dish towel isn’t draping down the side in such a way where it can catch fire! (See later image for that setup.)
With all that done, I set two timers: one for 35 minutes to serve as my overall timer, and another for 12 minutes that would remind me to rotate the pot ⅓ of a turn to ensure even cooking. During this time, I was anxiously keeping a nose out for anything that smelled really wrong, and an eye on the pot to make sure everything looked okay.
When the time elapsed, it was time to place the pot on a damp dish towel set in a rimmed baking sheet to stop the cooking and help set the tahdig. This created a decent amount of steam and a sustained hiss from the dish towel, but that was the extent of any danger. With Katie just about home, I let the pot rest and chopped up the parsley.
This definitely stopped the cooking.Overall Impressions
I carefully removed the pot and dish towel, which revealed a scene that looked like well-cooked rice. “Good,” I thought to myself, “I see nothing obviously wrong or burnt!” I also spotted another piece of immediately good news: the edges of the tahdig layer looked golden brown – exactly as advertised. I didn’t have a plate big enough to attempt the dramatic flip so everything would be removed with a spatula. Somewhat cautiously, I went to carve out the first piece and my spatula was met with a crunch that I immediately knew was a crunch of success. Sure enough, I brought the first piece out and it was golden and in a solid chunk. To say I was delighted would’ve been an understatement!
After scattering some parsley on for some color, it was time to take a bite. Katie rightly pointed out that the crunchy tahdig layer tasted and smelled a lot like popcorn. Does butter plus olive oil plus cumin plus rice always get you something that tastes and smells like popcorn? I’m not sure, but I didn’t mind this result at all! After a few bites, the full dish came into picture. It was a really good, flavorful crunchy layer of rice – easily broken up with a fork, but sturdy enough to hold rice like a chip – plus steamed rice that was perfectly cooked.
Cross-secion of the tahdig layer. Note the difference in color between it and the rest of the rice.
I will say that as I was packaging up the leftover, I noticed the parts that were in the center of the pot with the most heat exposure were burnt/much more well done. Less time and heat will probably prevent that from happening in the future.
The successful execution of this dish left me feeling the same way I did after making the soufflé for Katie’s birthday just over a month ago. As a bonus, the tahdig layer gave an ordinary rice dish a very fun layer of flavor complexity and texture.
Maybe it was because I had that podcast still echoing in my head as I was making this dish, but more than any other dish I’ve made so far, I felt the culture come through in this one. I’ve never been to Iran or anywhere in the Middle East for that matter, but I can picture this dish being consumed at dinner tables across that region.
What I keep coming back to is the primitive simplicity of this dish. It only calls for a humble, everyday ingredient cooked in unique, but very approachable, way. That plus water, heat, fat, and the necessary pot will leave you with something you could see being consumed along the Silk road. It doesn’t have the complexity of a soufflé, nor does it have the ingredient list and flavors of the satay, but it will leave you just as happy as either of those. This is a dish I look forward to making again, and I hope you will, too.
Chelo ba Tahdig
Time: 1 hour Yields: 4-6 servings
Ingredients 2 cups long-grain white rice such as basmati or jasmine 2 tablespoons unsalted butter plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 cubes 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley Directions Place rice in fine-mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water until water runs clear. Place rinsed rice and 1 tablespoon salt in medium bowl and cover with 4 cups hot tap water. Stir gently to dissolve salt; let stand for 15 minutes. Drain rice in fine-mesh strainer. Meanwhile, bring 8 cups water to boil in Dutch oven over high heat. Add rice and 2 tablespoons salt. Boil briskly, stirring once, until rice is mostly tender with slight bite in center and grains are floating toward top of pot, 3 to 7 minutes (begin timing from when rice is added to pot). Drain rice in large fine-mesh strainer and rinse with cold water to stop cooking, about 30 seconds, then place by stove. Rinse and dry pot well to remove any residual starch. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and swirl with the oil and cumin to coat the bottom and sides of the pot. As soon as the oil starts sizzling, with a spatula, add enough rice to fully cover the bottom of the pot in a thin layer. Pack down the rice with the back of a spatula to firmly pack the tahdig layer. Gently scatter the rest of the rice over the tahdig layer in a pyramid shape, making sure the tahdig layer is covered with more rice. With the handle of a wooden spoon poke a few holes in the rice without hitting the tahdig layer, to allow the steam to escape and carefully wrap the lid in a dish towel, making sure it won’t catch fire. Turn up the heat to medium-high, cover, and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, rotating halfway through, for the tahdig to set. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook until rice is tender and fluffy and crust is golden brown around edges, 30 to 35 minutes longer, rotating the pot a few time to ensure even cooking. Remove covered pot from heat and place on damp dish towel set in rimmed baking sheet; let stand for 5 minutes. To serve, you can remove the rice onto a serving plate and present the tahdig layer on top of it – either whole or in pieces. Similarly, you can place a serving plate big enough to cover the pot over the pot and quickly rotate the pot and plate allowing the tahdig to release onto the plate. Serve with the parsley.