“Boil two cups of water, add a cup of rice and a quarter teaspoon of salt. Stir. Cover the pot and turn the gas down until two separate blue flames keep the simmer. Set the timer for eighteen minutes. When it rings, turn the burner off. The rice will hold for up to fifteen minutes before you fluff and serve it.” I spoke with the confidence a trained chef must have felt. “Works every time.”
“In Tehran my mother would mix rice prepared like that with yogurt and serve it to people without teeth,” my friend, Parichehr, said. I’ve had Parichehr’s Persian rice. She inverts it from a pan onto a platter and serves it in wedges like pieces of crusty apple pie. It‟s a toasted, nut-flavored, delicious mass, moist in the center with a crisp, crunchy crust, an unforgettable, gastronomic experience. She wasn’t being sarcastic. This woman knew how to cook rice.
“What kind of rice did your mother use… long or short grain, white rice, or brown?” “This same rice,” she said, fingering the long white grains of basmati from my canister. “When rice is cooked properly, a guest should be able to count the kernels… one, two, three. Not like this.” She attempted to stir the sticky glob in my sauce pan, then covered the mess with a lid, and pushed it away. She adjusted the embroidered cashmere sweater she wore over her shoulders and stepped away from my cooktop. “Would you tell me her secrets?” I said to my friend of over 20 years.
“My mother washed the rice three times, and soaked it in clean water for at least an hour before she drained it. Sometimes she soaked it overnight with a little bag of rock salt floating in the water. We ate rice every day.”
Parichehr left three sisters, two brothers, and her mother in 1960 Tehran to marry Yossef, her childhood sweetheart and college student in Manchester, Indiana. It was during the Shah of Iran‟s rule, before the revolution of 1979.
“Did your mother make you and your sisters wear the chador for protection when they left the house?” I said. She laughed and shook her head. “We were always accompanied by someone from the family when we went outside, like it is here. When we didn’t want to be watched, we played with the neighborhood children by climbing up on our flat roof and jumping over to theirs.” “I mean, when you were older. Did young women wear the chador?”
“Under Mohammad Reza Shah the country was modern. We chose the style of clothes we liked. Our tailor or women in our family copied outfits we found in French or American magazines. There was no dress code forced on the people of Iran like it is today. Just the very religious Muslim women wore the chador at that time, and then only when they visited a mosque or a Muslim shrine.”
“Parichehr, why in the world would anyone wash rice? Did it have something to do with making it soft or crispy or breaking the grains smaller? And why three times?”
My mother told us grain was dragged from one country to another, off-boarded from ships and arrived at dusty warehouses in burlap bags. After three good washings any bugs eating the grain floated to the surface would be washed away with the dust.” She glanced around my kitchen with built-in appliances and stone counters.
“In Tehran we didn’t have a place to prepare food like this. In my mother‟s kitchen she didn’t have the luxury of turning down the gas flame to a simmer like you do.” She turned on a burner and adjusted the flame low. “She cooked over an open fire fed with logs, and cooked to the whims of the fire, as it flared hot and as it burned low and finally went out.” She turned the burner off.
“Your home had a fire-place in the kitchen?”
“No. Our house was large…spacious rooms with high ceilings. Three vents like fireplace dampers pulled smoke from the kitchen. It sounds like it would be messy, but it wasn’t. Logs stacked outside the kitchen door fed the fire built between cement blocks on a bricked kitchen counter. Mother balanced a heavy copper pot of cold water on the blocks after the fire was going strong, when it was hottest.”
“How large a pot” “About four quarts . When that boiled she threw in about four good handfuls of rice, and a handful of salt.” “That‟s a lot of salt. No exact measurements?” “Wasn’t necessary. She knew. I‟ll show you how. Boil some water. Mother had big hands. For you, measure five cups of rice. Do you have turmeric” My friend from over 20 years moved to a hook on the log wall in my kitchen, removed an apron, and tied it around her small waist. “When I was still small kerosene stoves began coming in from Europe. The flame could be controlled like this flame from your stove. Before that we hauled wood.” She added the turmeric to the water as it bubbled which turned the rice a saffron yellow. “This is how my mother did it in Iran. I don‟t do it this way in my kitchen because the spice stains my white porcelain sink when I drain the pot. I add my turmeric later to the oil. This won’t stain your steel sink. Turmeric is a good spice for cancer prevention. ”
“How much turmeric did you put in?” I asked. “One or two teaspoons,” she said brushing her dark hair from her brown eyes. “You can’t add too much. In about fifteen minutes the rice will begin to swirl in the boiling water and individual grains will come to the surface. That‟s when we remove the pot and drain the rice through a sieve. We have to watch it closely and not let it cook too long.”
As we watched the pot she caught me up on the progress of her five grandchildren, her children and her husband‟s career in education. “Do you have a medium-sized heavy-bottomed Teflon pot with five or six inch sides? No.” She pointed. “That stainless steel pot will work.”
I asked her how she met Yossef, whom she calls Joe.
“Heat a half cup of oil…olive or canola…whatever you normally use for cooking. Don‟t let it get too hot. This is when I add the turmeric and a half cup of water to the oil. You can add it either time.” She stepped back. I saw her white teeth, and her tastefully made-up eyes gleam. She was clearly enjoying this. “Joe was from a family who were friends of my parents.” “Was your marriage arranged?” m“Not exactly. We knew each other growing up. He came home after being gone to America, came to our house and…(Parichehr..what happened?)
“Parichehr! If you add water to the hot oil it will spatter.”
“No, you don’t let the oil get that hot. Swirl the liquid to mix it. Remove half the oil and water and reserve it in a bowl. Add the drained, cooked rice. Polk holes in the rice from the top down with the handle of a table knife…every inch or so, like this.” She made about ten half-inch holes from the surface down to the bottom of the pot. “Now cook it on medium until it starts to steam, about 20 to 30 minutes. It depends on the thickness of the pot and the temperature of the stove. You have to watch.”
“And then you pour the rest of the oil down the holes?” “No. These holes are chimneys to let the steam escape evenly from all layers of rice in the pot. This is the stage when the fire has died to embers and the rice gets crispy on the bottom of the pan, without burning.”
Parichehr ripped several layers of paper towel from my kitchen dispenser, folded it and lined the already tight-fitting lid of the pot. “You can use a cotton kitchen towel.”
“Are you trying to capture the steam in the pot?” “No, I‟m trying to absorb moisture from the rice into the towel. On your stove, turn the heat to simmer and check the pot in 30 minutes. Taste it to see if it‟s ready. If it‟s still steaming, it has longer to cook, from 45 to 60 minutes more, depending on the thickness of the pot. You can simmer it longer if the bottom of the pot is thick. The rice just gets softer. Meanwhile, get a sink of ice water ready.” “How much ice?” I said. Oh, fill the bottom, and add some water. Ice doesn’t start cooling until it melts.” When the rice stopped steaming on the stove, she said it was crispy and stuck to the bottom of the pan. We removed the pot from the heat and plunged it into the ice water, which made the rice on the bottom contract and come free. Parichehr placed a platter over the pan, inverted it, and the rice dropped onto the platter in a perfect golden round.
“There. Now serve it. If it doesn’t come out in one piece, spoon the soft rice onto the platter, break up the crisp parts and arrange it attractively around the edge of the plate. Individual rice kernels should be meaty and crunchy, and slightly yellowed from the turmeric.”
“I remember your Persian rice with almond and orange peel in it.” “You can add cumin and raisins, or peas and dill, or fava beans and dill in layers during the cooking. The time to add them is after the rice has boiled the first time and is drained. Start by covering the bottom of the pan with plain rice for a heat filter. If you mix in something sweet it would burn to the bottom, so you always put that on the second layer to protect it. If you‟re using peas and dill, mix them evenly into the remaining rice and add to the pot. Cook it only over medium heat. Almonds and orange peel make rice special for occasions. Green beans and carrots fried separately, or kidney beans and carrots can be added at the same point…after the first boil. What you add depends on if you are cooking for a person with a body type that is cold or hot.”
“What determines if a person is cold or hot?“ “Think of it like a food allergy. My mother classified certain foods as hot or cold. For instance, bananas. They are high in calories, a hot food. If bananas don‟t agree with you, avoid them, or if you must eat them, balance the meal with cool foods unless you want to break out with blisters on your lips. If you add raisins or figs to rice, something high in sugar and calories, you must balance it with a cool food, like orange watermelon or sweet lemon to recover or prevent a reaction. Remember, hot foods like raisins, figs, and bananas used in baked goods also add more calories…just like adding sugar.
You must balance it in your meal with a cool food, like peas or beans. If you serve all hot foods or all cool foods you will make people sick.”
“Parichehr, cooking must have kept your mother in the kitchen for most of the day.” “My mother always had help. When I was very young it was my grandmother, my father’s mother. She became a widow at a very young age. Later on we had a live-in housekeeper.”
“Was it common to give a home to single family members or parents…like the Chinese used to do?
“My grandma worked all over Tehran setting broken bones with splints. She also was a sought after midwife. She charged very little. She lived with us to help my mother with her large family, not because she needed a place to stay.”
“Did she also cook?” I asked. “Sure. We all helped. But my mother always made the rice, because it was important to get it right.”