Tahdig is a Persian specialty. This golden, crunchy, pan-fried layer forms at the bottom of the pot when cooking rice. As with many delicious things, to make it well takes patience and practice. A well-made tahdig holds its disc-like shape when removed from the pot, and is perfectly caramelized. It is served either whole or broken into pieces so everyone can have a taste of the good stuff with their rice.
Author Louisa Shafia
describes it as Persian “soul food” – the heart of the meal – in her second cookbook The New Persian Kitchen
(Ten Speed Press, 2013). Shafia explains in great detail over six pages how to make tahdig, as well as how to cheat with a “faux” tahdig recipe. “In Iran, making rice is like making pasta in Italy. It’s a fine art and there’s a specific way that you do it. The texture of the rice should be fluffy and dry with all the grains separated,” she says in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn.
As a chef, Shafia has cooked at restaurants such as the vegan Millennium Restaurant
in San Francisco, and has dedicated her career to cooking healthy, flavourful and accessible food, which she often documents on her blog Lucid Food
. The approach she takes in The New Persian Kitchen is vegetable-focused (but not vegetarian) and health-conscious. Shafia estimates that half the recipes in the book are original, such as Grilled Shrimp with Lime Powder and Parsley-Olive Oil Sauce (recipe below); the other half classics such as Pomegranate Walnut Stew (Fesenjan).
The classic starch at a Persian meal – in addition to flatbread – is white rice. Many of the dishes in the book that would traditionally be made with white rice call for whole grains such as millet or brown rice, or the pseudocereal quinoa. Shafia points out that this is also true for tahdig, which can be made with any whole grain you prefer, and dishes such as Jeweled Rice (Morassa Polo, recipe below), which is made from a combination of brown basmati rice and quinoa. “I really try to make a point of showing people that you don’t always have to use white rice but you can still make the same dish,” she says.
Another healthy consideration is baking instead of frying in dishes such as the Persian classic Eggplant and Tomato Stew with Pomegranate Molasses (Bademjan). Traditionally, the eggplant would be fried first and then added to the rest of the ingredients. “You know when the stew is done because you see oil floating on the top,” Shafia says. “That’s not really the way that I would normally cook, even though it tastes delicious, so for my recipe I bake the eggplant on a baking sheet in the oven with a tiny bit of oil and that’s it, and it has the same wonderful, tender texture and full flavour.”
Shafia also made an effort to reduce the amount of oil, and to use healthier types of oil than would traditionally be used. Rather than using corn oil as a base cooking oil, she recommends grapeseed oil because it’s good for high-heat cooking. She also favours extra virgin olive oil, primarily for garnishing due to its lower smoke point, butter, and coconut oil, which is non-traditional but great for high-heat cooking. “I think that the flavour [of coconut oil] is really complementary to a lot of the more tropical dishes that use, say tamarind or lime juice,” Shafia says.
With a Muslim father who was born in Tehran, Iran, and a Jewish mother from Philadelphia, it was important for Shafia to include aspects of both religious traditions. “I really wanted to include the culinary contributions to the Iranian food landscape if you will, because there are a lot of really colourful details about the ways that the Jews have contributed and Muslims have contributed, and Zoroastrians have contributed,” she says. “Zoroastrianism was the original religion of Iran, dating back to the Persian Empire. So they’ve all really coloured the cuisine and I wanted to try to fit those in as well.”
The most colourful example of the Jewish culinary contribution, Shafia says, is Persian “matzoh balls” (gondi), which she includes in the book. “In the Persian language gondi is a salty expression for a male anatomy part – you can probably guess what it is,” she says with a laugh. “But these matzoh balls are so delicious. They’re made with chickpea flour and ground chicken or turkey, and they have really the same texture as matzoh balls but I feel like they’re easier to make; and they’re nice and light and fluffy. And gondi are actually seasoned with turmeric and cardamom, which is such a surprising use of those spices but it works.”
Unable to enter Iran due to documentation issues, Shafia researched the book in Los Angeles – home to the largest number of Iranian immigrants in the United States – and in Turkey, which neighbours Iran. In Los Angeles she cooked with relatives, shopped at Persian grocery stores, ate at Persian restaurants, and experienced traditional Persian family meals.
As Shafia learned, it’s expected that you arrive an hour late for family meals. Platters of nuts, dried fruit, baby cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and dry cookies for tea are placed on the coffee table for guests to nibble on as they chat. “After everyone has arrived, lunch is served and it’s laid out on a long table that’s covered with a beautiful cloth and everything comes out at once,” Shafia says. “You have your yogurt and your stew, and your rice and your kebabs. There are no courses; it all comes out at once because it’s all meant to be eaten together.”
Guests serve themselves and the atmosphere is casual; people sit on the floor, at the table, or on chairs away from the table. When everyone has finished eating, the host will serve chai – hot, black tea – in small glasses on a tray. “The chai flushes some of that rich food out of your system, and revives you for a second helping maybe a couple of hours later. And in the meantime, you chat with people, you chase around whatever children are there, you can even go take a nap. That’s perfectly acceptable,” Shafia says.
“You spend about six or eight hours just hanging out and nothing really happens. It’s just about spending quality time together,” she adds. “And at the end of the day, if there are still leftovers, you get sent home with some containers of whatever you had.” To aid readers who may be unfamiliar with Persian cuisine in preparing feasts of their own, Shafia offers suggested menus at the end of the book. The menus include dishes for celebrating holidays such as Eid al-Fitr, Thanksgiving or Mehregan, Passover, and Christmas, Hannukah or Shab-e Yalda, and seasonal menus such as Summer Barbecue and Classic Kebab Meal.