In the West, we are frequently reminded to be cautious with our diet. There are books, websites, television programmes and so on about what we should and should not eat. X has this health benefit, whilst eating too much of Y can be bad for you.
We are advised to be careful with our carbohydrate intake for example. We are told that excessive consumption of this can lead to many health risks, such as an increase of body fat, being just one of the health aspects that we are told to keep an eye on.
In Iran however, this type of advice is seemingly unheard of and doesn’t exist. At lunch, the main meal of the day in Iran, you will literally see mountains of white steamed rice, called ‘chelo’. This can also be seen at dinner time. You will never see brown rice, like we’re advised to eat here in the West. Always, always white rice.
We also eat rice that is cooked with other ingredients such as spices, nuts, saffron and barberries, which are commonly served with lots of different types of dishes and is called ‘polo’. There is also ‘baghali polo’ which is traditionally served with chicken or fish. This particular type of rice is cooked with dill and fava beans.
In Iran, rice is usually made by steaming it in a rice cooker. Any boiling on the hob in a pan is seen as an incorrect way to cook this vital staple item. Like you could say the Italians are particular about the way you cook pasta, Iranians have a special and refined way of cooking rice, and it’s all in the glorious rice cooker. I was often advised by my family to take a rice cooker to university, and yes, I do definitely prefer rice cooked this way with it being ever so fluffy and not the slightest bit soggy, as you may otherwise get when boiling your rice in a pan.
When you eat in a Persian household and they serve you rice, you may see a flat spatula being used to shovel the rice on to your plate to accompany your stew or kebab. No teeny tiny portions, literally heaps and heaps.
After the rice is served and is all out of the rice cooker, you may notice some scraping and digging. The person is chipping away at the ‘tahdig’. This is the crust from the bottom of the rice cooker and more often than not includes slices of potato and is a well-loved favourite in Iran.
The potato is put in first into the rice cooker, raw and uncooked, with a little oil at the bottom and then the rice is put on top. After the rice cooker has done its job, the potato becomes a gloriously golden, crispy and crunchy accompaniment to the meal.
You may also see a knob of butter wrapped up on your plate of rice in a restaurant. Put this on top of the rice and then blend and mix it in, folding the layers of rice on top to create an even softer texture – a nightmare of a Western dietitian you might say.
When you’re invited to an Iranian’s house for lunch, or even dinner, just simply expect rice. There’s none of this health conscious carbohydrate alternative like couscous, buckwheat and quinoa, which we have latched on to in the West over recent years. Know that there will be rice and lots and lots of it.
More often than not, you will be shocked at the portion size in Iran, and in turn if you get used to it, you may well leave thinking that any Western sized main meal will never again suffice.