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Robina’s Polo with Tahdig (Crispy Persian Rice)

Thsi recipe appears in Jake Cohen’s “Jew-ish” cookbook. Reprinted with permission.

Yield: Serves 6 to 8
Prep Time: 20 minutes, plus 1 hour soaking time
Cook Time: 40 minutes

In almost every food culture, there’s an obsession with the “crispy bits.” Whether it’s the crunchy pieces of pasta at the corners of a lasagna or the coveted edge pieces clinging to the side of the brownie pan, we’d fight friends and family to the death for these prized morsels. Perched on this pedestal in Persian cuisine, tahdig may be the best crispy bit of them all. Literally translating to “bottom of the pot,” it’s the crispy layer that forms when rice is cooked low and slow. When you invert the pot onto a platter to serve, a mound of fluffy saffron rice is crowned with the golden, crisp tahdig, holding everything together until you break it open like a piñata. It’s just what you need to soak up any Persian stew or kebab. I do not know a better rice!

A few months into dating my husband, I arrived home to find a package from his mother. It contained two gifts that—as I’ve since discovered—every Persian mother sends to her child’s significant other: a Persian rice cooker and a copy of Food of Life, the Iranian cooking bible by Najmieh Batmanglij. The package was a not-so- subtle signal: learn how to make Alex’s favorite Persian dishes or else she would start shipping frozen Tupperwares of stews to keep him well- fed. I didn’t need much convincing, since, much as I had with Alex, I fell head over heels in love with Persian cuisine, and especially with tahdig.

My mother-in-law, Robina, taught me her method, which to this day is what my recipe is based on. She parboils long- grain basmati rice and then tosses part of it with a rich mixture of yogurt, saffron water, and tons of oil (though I use exclusively butter, of course). The inclusion of yogurt—a trick borrowed from tahchin, a heavenly baked Persian rice casserole often stuffed with chicken—helps the crust stay together and cook evenly. And while not every family uses yogurt in their tahdig, I find it makes the dish so much more luxurious! That yogurt- coated mixture lines her rice cooker before getting topped with the remaining rice and a lot more saffron water and oil. With the press of a button, the rice cooker goes to work, spitting out a perfectly golden tahdig every time.

Call me a glutton for punishment, but I was set on learning how to make it in a pot the old- fashioned way. I persevered through many failed attempts, involving both burnt and soggy rice, in order to get to where I am today. After mastering the classic dish, I eventually added many nontraditional variations to my repertoire, like latke tahdig and buffalo chicken tahchin.

Before we get too far, let’s go over some tips to help novices venturing into the magnificent realm of crispy Persian rice come out in one piece.

First things first: Invest in a cheap nonstick skillet. To this day, I use a pot I saved from Alex’s bachelor apartment kitchen, and I swear by it! I’m not going to add any science to this piece of advice—just trust me. Once you’ve got your vessel, practice makes perfect. The terrifying thing about this dish is your inability to see how it’s cooking until you flip it out. You need to birdbox the situation, so familiarize yourself with the smells and sounds the rice makes. Listen for a gentle, slow sizzle, which tells you the rice is slowly getting golden and not scorching, and then smell for a toasty aroma to know when it’s ready. You’ll also want to wrap the pot lid in a kitchen towel before you cover the pot to absorb steam and prevent the crust from getting soggy.

To be honest, my heart still drops a little each time I flip a tahdig out of the pot, but this recipe has never steered me wrong!

3 cups uncooked basmati rice, rinsed
3 tablespoons kosher salt
¼ teaspoon saffron threads, finely ground with a mortar and pestle
¼ cup boiling water
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
½ cup plain full-fat Greek yogurt
1 large egg yolk

  1. Put the rice in a large bowl and add cold water to cover by 1 inch and 1 tablespoon of the salt. Let soak for 1 hour, then drain.
  2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the saffron with the boiling water, then let sit until bright red, about 10 minutes. Whisk in 1 table-spoon of the salt and 6 tablespoons of the melted butter. 3.In another medium bowl, whisk the yogurt and egg yolk with half the saffron butter until smooth.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season with the remaining 1 table-spoon salt. Add the rice and boil until just tender but not fully cooked, about 5 minutes, then drain.
  4. Grease a shallow 10- inch nonstick pot with the remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter. Gently stir 3 cups of the parboiled rice into the yogurt mixture until the rice is well coated. Spread the coated rice over the bottom of the greased pot and 2 inches up the sides. Top with the remaining parboiled rice, then drizzle the remaining saffron butter over the top.
  5. Wrap a kitchen towel around the lid of the pot, covering the bottom, then place the lid on the pot. Place the pot over medium-high heat and cook until you begin to hear the rice sizzling loudly, 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the rice is golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. To know when the tahdig is ready, you’ll begin to smell toasted rice and you can even take a peek at the side with a spatula to ensure the edges are golden.
  6. Remove from the heat and run a rubber spatula around the sides of the pot to ensure the rice doesn’t stick. Place a platter over the pot and carefully but quickly invert them together, remove the pot so the crispy rice is on top, then serve.

Tahchin: Paralyzed with fear? You’ll still get a flawless crust if you lean in further to tahchin, the baked Persian casserole the yogurt mixture from the crust is borrowed from. Assemble it (or the sweet potato, latke, and other variations that follow) in a greased 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish, then cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake at 400°F for about 2 hours. The best part is you can see the bottom to ensure it’s golden before flipping it out of the dish.

Want to skip the dairy? Swap the butter for vegetable oil and either swap the yogurt for a plain unsweetened nondairy yogurt (I like coconut the best) or omit it altogether. If you want it vegan, leave out the egg yolk, too.

Potato Tahdig: Peel 1 small russet potato and slice it ¼ inch thick, then toss it with 1 tablespoon of the saffron water. Place the slices over the bottom of the greased pot before layering the yogurt- coated rice on top, making sure the rice fills any holes between slices of potato. Continue with the recipe as written.

Sweet Potato Tahdig: Peel 1 small sweet potato and slice it ¼ inch thick, then toss it with 1 tablespoon of the saffron water. Place the slices over the bottom of the greased pot before layering the yogurt- coated rice on top, making sure the rice fills the holes be-tween slices of sweet potato. Continue with the recipe as written.

Pasta Tahdig: Omit the rice and ignore steps 1 and 4. Cook 16 ounces dried bucatini until al dente, then toss the cooked noodles with the yogurt mixture. Using tongs or your hands, drape strands of the noodles around the bottom of the pot to make a swirl design. Top with the remaining pasta, drizzle with the remain-ing saffron- butter mixture, and continue with the recipe as written.

Buffalo Chicken Tahchin: Press the yogurt- coated rice over the bottom of a greased 9-by-13- inch glass baking dish, covering it completely. In a large bowl, toss 3 cups shredded rotisserie chicken, ½ cup plain full- fat Greek yogurt, 4 tablespoons (½ stick) melted butter, and ¼ cup hot sauce to com-bine. Season with salt, then layer the chicken evenly over the rice. Top with the remaining parboiled rice, drizzle with the remaining saffron- butter mix-ture, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake at 400°F for about 2 hours. Check the bottom to ensure it’s golden before flipping it out of the dish.

Latke Tahdig: Make my Saffron Latkes (page 78) and press the uncooked latke mixture over the bottom of the greased pot. Continue with the recipe as written.

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