No matter where in the world you go, you'll find eerily similar dishes spun out with regional ingredients. They're humble, universal plates. Dishes such as chicken soup (pho ga and ají de gallina, for example), skewered and grilled meat, and savory fillings wrapped in tender dough seem to speak to everyone's soul regardless of origins.
Among the greatest commonly held dishes around the world are those served with rice partially encased in a crusty, near-burnt shell. They call it pegao in Colombia and Puerto Rico, cocolón in Ecuador, and concón in the Dominican Republic. Ten thousand miles away in Korea, there's bibimbap and nurungji. In Senegal on the West African coast, the beloved national fish dish called ceebu jën is always on home tables accompanied by a heap of crisp xooñ.
However, it's Persians, who mostly live in modern-day Iran (and Los Angeles and Long Island), whose crispy rice dish is among the world's most intricate and treasured.
You can get a glimpse into the varieties of ways crispy rice is prepared in the Persian tradition in Shireen Rahimi's forthcoming cookbook, Shiraz: The Food of My Family Tree. Rahimi is a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Miami who was raised in Southern California and grew up cooking her mother and grandmothers' recipes. The book is named for the city in south central Iran where her mother was born. Her mother and father immigrated to the United States in the 1970s and 1983, respectively, as political refugees after a revolution overthrew the American-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
"The food we cook has traveled across our generations, and the story of this changing food is told through our recipes," Rahimi said in a recently launched Kickstarter video seeking to gather funds to publish the book. As of Friday morning, Rahimi had raised more than $5,500, far surpassing the $1,800. So now it's not a matter of if but when, and a $30 pledge gets you your own copy of the book. In it, find recipes for the pomegranate walnut stew called fesenjan alongside others for shallot-and-cumin-inflected soft scrambled eggs and the butternut-squash-and-prune stew called khoreshteh kadoo va aloo.
Most important, it includes recipes for the Persian crispy rice dishes tahdig and kateh. New Times spent an afternoon with Rahimi to make the latter, which is the simpler of the two but yields a gorgeous golden-brown dome of crackly rice encasing fluffy, fragrant grains. Rahimi's preferred brand is Zebra long-grain basmati.
Rinse two cups of rice three times until the water runs clear. Then load the rice into either a nonstick pot or Pyrex dish. This is the most important part. The rice won't pop out of most other crockery. Then add four cups of water (Rahimi prefers filtered), a tablespoon each of yogurt and butter, two tablespoons of oil, and two teaspoons of salt. Set the mixture on high heat and bring to a boil; then turn it down to medium-low and cover with the pot's top, wrapped in a kitchen towel to help the rice steam, for about a half-hour.
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The smell of the kateh cooking is how you monitor it. At first, your kitchen will fill with the rice's starchy aroma, complemented by the yogurt's sour tang. As time passes, the smell of the cooking yogurt tapers off and is replaced by the nutty fragrance of the rice finishing. The crust begins forming in earnest as that scent begins to deepen and intensify. Don't pull it too early — that'll arrest the formation of the crisp crust, which is what you're after. But letting it go too long will char it. Rahimi says you know you're done when you give the cooking vessel a shake and the whole mass will nearly jump out of the pot. Place a plate over the top, carefully flip, and you're ready to go.
If preparing the dish yourself sounds too complicated, visit Fooq's Miami, where Rahimi will host a Persian dinner tonight. There, executive chef Bryan Rojas has figured out that a ripping-hot cast-iron skillet, along with plenty of salt and oil, allows the kitchen to turn out the deep-brown disks of tahdig at a restaurant's pace. "I've done it with potatoes, which are really nice," he says, "and we're going to start doing it with noodles."
Fooq's Miami's Persian dinner with Shireen Rahimi will take place today, November 7, at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $100. Call 786-536-2749 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.