I find there is no better way to get to know a culture than by cooking some of its festival food. When I saw a recipe in Margaret Shaida’s absorbing historical cookbook, The Legendary Cuisine of Persia, for a special rice dish, traditionally served at weddings in Persia, I couldn’t resist. Not only does it describe a way of cooking rice I was completely unfamiliar with, but one of the ingredients is dried rose petals.
The ancient land of Persia has influenced cuisines all over the world for the last 3000 years. Many dishes that we might think of as Arab, Indian, or even European originally came from Persia. For example the candy that we call “Turkish Delight,” is rAhat loqum in Farsi which, liberally translated, means “goes down easily,” which it certainly does!
Lemons, saffron, pomegranates, and pistachios were first brought to the west when the armies of Alexander the Great returned from their conquest of Persia in the 4th Century, BCE.
After the death of Alexander, the Persians reasserted their dominance and created an Empire which would last almost 1000 years, including Baghdad, eastern Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan and the eastern half of what is now Turkey. This vast empire lay at the crossroads of the east, forming a bridge between the classical Roman and Greek world and the mysterious exotic lands of India and China.
The Arabs conquered Persia in the late 7th Century, CE. Many historians remark that while Islam was eventually accepted by many Persians, causing a sharp decline in the indigenous religion of Zoroastrianism, the Persians largely kept many other aspects of their culture, including their food, intact. In fact, their Arab conquerors were so pleased with what they found on the tables of Isfahan and Ctesiphon (modern Baghdad), they proceeded to take many ingredients and dishes along with them as they swept into power in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.
Later, knights returning from the the crusades in the 12th and 13th Centuries brought stories and examples of aromatic ingredients they had sampled in the east, many of which had been absorbed into Arab cuisine from the Persians. Once tasted, these exotic (and expensive) flavors were craved by the European aristocracy, and thus began the search for route to the east where they might obtain these treasures for less. Who knows, America might never have been discovered if it weren’t for the European love of these exotic spices.
The Moghul emperors of India were actually the descendants of Muslim Mongols who had galloped down from the Steppes and conquered almost all of Persia in the 14th Century, and then stayed and became Persian in culture, language and food. The influence of Persian cuisine can be felt in several regions of India to this day.
I won’t lie, this recipe is fussy, you can imagine an entire family of mothers, daughters, sisters and aunties, in the kitchen taking care of all the details involved. But that’s exactly what festival food is all about, bringing everyone together for a celebration.
Ms. Shaida recommends serving Jeweled Rice with a some very simple chicken. I steam/sauteed some chicken breasts with salt, pepper and onions and a little liquid saffron (see below), but any simply flavored chicken will do, the rice is very complex and needs an almost silent partner.
The visual impact of Jeweled Rice is really worth all of the fuss, the ingredients are cut to be symmetrical and complimentary in color and shape. It does taste sweet, but it’s not too much, with the barberries providing a tart contrast. And what a display of wealth; just imagine the cost of the cinnamon, sugar and saffron for a Persian family of the past.
This very special dish is like precious jewels spilled onto a silken pillow, with glowing red barberries playing the part of rubies, pistachio emeralds, and finally a sprinkling of crushed rock candy diamonds, all accompanied by the scent of saffron, orange peel, and rose petals, conveying wishes of a rich, sweet life to the newly married couple.
Adapted from Margaret Shaida
Serves 4 to 6
The unfamiliar ingredients such as the barberries (zereshk in Farsi) can be found at shops specializing in Indian ingredients. Kalustyan’s in New York, sells them via mail order.
1 pound good quality basmati rice
coarse sea salt, or kosher salt
4 teaspoons liquid saffron (see below for recipe)
1 pound carrots
3 small oranges
2 tablespoons unroasted, unsalted pistachios
2 tablespoons blanched almonds
2 tablespoons dried currants
2 tablespoons dried barberries
1 teaspoon Persian spice mixture (see below for recipe)
vegetable or peanut oil
¼ cup clarified butter or ghee, melted
2 tablespoons of crystalized sugar, aka rock candy
Wash the rice in 2-3 changes of cool water and drain. Put a cup of fresh water in a bowl, along with 2 tablespoons of coarse sea salt or kosher salt and stir until the salt is mostly dissolved. Pour the washed rice into the bowl and add more water until the water is about 1 inch above the level of the rice. Allow the rice to soak for 3 to 6 hours.
Peel the carrots and cut them into julienne strips about 1½ inches long and ¼ inch wide. Put a little oil in a saute pan and fry the carrot strips over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in a tablespoon of granulated sugar, two teaspoons of liquid saffron, and 2-3 tablespoons of water. Cover and cook for 4-5 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced. The carrot strips will turn a darker shade of reddish-orange from the saffron.
Use a vegetable peeler to peel the oranges, be careful to only take the orange part of the peel and not the bitter, white pith. Cut the peel into julienne strips as you did the carrots. Put the orange peel strips into a small saucepan and cover with cool water. Bring to a boil and then strain. Do this twice more, to get rid of any bitter flavor in the peels.
Blanch the pistachios in boiling water and squeeze them out of their skins. Then soak in cool water along with the blanched almonds for about ½ hour to soften them. When soft, cut the nuts into slivers. Take 1 teaspoon of the almond slivers and toast them in a dry saute pan until browned (be careful not to burn them, they will brown quickly). Put the browned almonds in a separate bowl along with 1 teaspoon each of blanched almond slivers and pistachio slivers. This will be used to garnish the rice at the end. We’ll be adding a few other things to this “garnish dish” as we go.
Put ⅓ cup water in a small saucepan with 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar, heat on low, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the remaining nuts and orange peel to the sugar syrup and stir. Bring to a boil and cook for 30 seconds. Strain the nuts and peel and reserve the syrup.
Soak the dried currants in warm water for 10 minutes and strain. Add 1 teaspoon of them to the garnish dish.
Pick over the barberries, to remove any extraneous vegetable matter, then fry them gently in just a little bit of oil for a couple of mintues, until they turn bright red. Be careful not to overcook them, as they burn easily.
After your rice has soaked for at least 3 hours, drain it.
In a 3-quart saucepan bring 2 quarts of water with 2 tablespoons of coarse sea salt or kosher salt to a boil. Pour the washed rice into the boiling water. Bring it back to a boil and cook for 2-3 minutes. At 2 minutes taste the rice, if it is done it should be soft on the outside but quite firm in the center. When it is done strain the rice and rinse it with tepid water.
Rinse out the 3-quart saucepan, return it to the heat and add ½ cup of vegetable or peanut oil and 2-3 tablespoons of water. When the pan is sizzling, sprinkle one layer of rice onto the bottom of the pan. It is important to sprinkle the rice as it separates the individual grains which helps in the steaming process. If it is too hot to handle, use a serving spoon to shake the rice into the pan.
Next sprinkle a layer of the carrots, orange peel, nuts, currants and spice mixture on top of the rice in the pot. Next sprinkle another layer of rice and then another layer of carrots, orange peel, nuts, currants and spice mixture. Continue in this manner, making layers, creating a conical shape in the pot, finishing with a layer of rice.
At this point, pour the reserved sugar syrup over the rice along with the remaining liquid saffron.
Use the handle of a wooden spoon to poke 2 or 3 holes in the rice, all the way to the bottom of the pot. Wrap the cover of your pot in a kitchen towel and place it on the pot. Cook on high heat for 2-3 minutes and then lift the lid slightly to see if it is steaming. You want to see a large amount of steam coming up, if not, cover and cook for another couple of minutes. Once you have lots of steam turn the heat down to low and cook for 30 minutes covered with the cloth-wrapped lid.
After 30 minutes, the rice is done, however, if you have other things to prepare, it can be left over low heat for up to an additional hour without causing any harm.
When you are ready to serve it, fill your sink with a couple of inches of cold water and put the covered hot pot of rice in it for about 2 minutes. This will cause a final burst of steam and help to loosen the rice at the bottom of the pot.
Gently toss the rice in the pot to mix the layers, don’t scrape too far down in the pot, leaving the browned rice at the bottom intact, this will be served separately.
To serve, sprinkle the rice onto a platter, creating a pleasing mound. Garnish the rice by sprinkling over all the items in the garnish dish, plus the barberries. Pour the melted clarified butter over the rice. Finally, crush the rock candy into “diamonds” and sprinkle over the rice.
Go back to the pot once more and use a spatula to pry the crunchy, browned rice disk from the bottom and serve it on a separate plate, don’t worry if it breaks into pieces. In Persian homes, this is considered a delicacy, fought over by everyone, and sometimes it doesn’t even make it from the kitchen to the table.
Serve with a some very simply flavored chicken breasts, leaving the rice to be the star of the show.
The best saffron in the world is grown in Iran and costs about $175/ounce. But an ounce is a lot, since a little goes a long way. Less expensive saffron is available from Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Italy, so shop around.
20-30 strands of saffron
Make sure your saffron threads are quite dry, if not put them in a warm (not hot or they will burn!) oven for 2-3 minutes to dry them out. Put the saffron in a mortar with a small pinch of sugar, and use the pestle to pulverize them into a fine powder. Add 4-5 teaspoons of tepid water and let stand. Within 15-20 minutes the liquid will turn a dark orange color and is ready to use.
Persian Spice Mixture
Removing the seeds from cardamom pods can be tedious. Shops like Kalustyan’s, which sell Indian ingredients, will often have unground cardamom seeds, which is a lot easier. They are also a good source for the dried rose petals, which might be shelved with the teas.
¼ cup unroasted, unsalted pistachio nuts
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons cardamom seed
3 tablespoons dried rose petals
10 threads of saffron
If you have a spice grinder, put all of the ingredients in it and grind them coarsely. Otherwise, pulverize the pistachios in a food processor, roughly crush the cardamom seed, rose petals and saffron together in a mortar and pestle and then mix them together with the cinnamon and ground pistachios.