– 1 large sac Basmati long grain rice – 1 glass oil – 1 large family spread well across the world – 1 Iranian husband – A sprinkling of humor and tolerance and a kilo of pragmatism – Salt – Water – Saffron (preferably purchased in Iran by concerned mother-in-law who is unsure whether son is ever fed anything, let alone rice the way she cooks it)
For me, having an Iranian husband means cooking rice every night no matter what my day has been like. Dinner without polo is not dinner. Rice cooked in a rice cooker or in a way other than the proper way, is not good enough.
The following is a step by step guide to cooking Iranian rice based essentially upon my own personal experience. I do not in any way recommend it and exclude all liability whatsoever for the final result, in particular in terms of taste and the mental effects on the long suffering women who may be doing the very same thing every night of their lives.
For the staunch feminists out there who believe that men and women should share the chores at home, including cooking, I would say do not read on. I believe strongly in my rights as a woman but I am also a realist and married to an Iranian who loves his rice to boot. The only time he ever cooked for me was when he was trying to convince me that marriage was a good thing. I was in my early twenties and still believed that one day I could change the world.
The ritual must begin every night with a little Iranian music in the background. I find Haiydeh usually enhances the taste – none of your newcomers based in Los Angeles who seem particularly concerned about the way their hair is blowing in their videos (why do Iranian singers always have to take themselves so seriously when being filmed – I mean they are only singing and, okay, they may be good looking but really … ).
Their music is good but gives one a feeling of having ants in one's pants. I find it makes me cook quicker with a certain gher in my kamar – and so the food does not turn out quite so well. Good traditional music for good traditional food . The television must also be on, quietly talking to itself in the sitting room where my children must occupy themselves whilst I cook.
Next I must measure out the rice. There is usually a glass sitting in the large bag of rice and this step involves my dipping my hand in and taking out two to three glasses of the rice which must (so my Iranian cook book tells me ) be washed thoroughly in order to bring out the aroma. I wash it only because as a shipping lawyer I have seen what a consignment of rice goes through before it reaches my kitchen cupboard. Fellow Iranians I warn you – ALWAYS wash your rice.
Now the number of glasses is a tricky question, depending on the number of people you expect for dinner. In the heart of the English countryside, we do not get any unsolicited guests for dinner even though our next door neighbor is — would you believe it — also Iranian. In a way I wish that people would just call round out of the blue, we seem to have picked up the European habit of always planning our visits at least a week ahead but perhaps that is just because we are all just too tired after a long day at work and anyway it is just too cold or wet in this country to socialize.
Now about the time I start to wash the rice (just water no soap) the phone usually rings. It has to be my mother. A lengthy conversation ensues about the health and well being of her grand children (whom she last saw as long ago as yesterday), an account of what they have eaten and what she has bought for them again today ( the last bag of goodies still lying unopened in their room.)
My father then comes on the line. His latest check-up has been promising – one or two new medicines. Then I hear my mother going on in the background about her latest ailment- her leg must have been the only part of her which had not hurt before and now it is killing her – well it was bound to happen sooner or later. My mother collects ailments and likes to discuss them at length.
I have noticed that this is something common among Iranian women of her generation. I should have become a doctor specializing in Iranian women – could have made my fortune by now. I blame this entirely on the British. Had they not instigated a revolution in Iran, my mother would not have suffered so, her suffering now showing itself through her various illnesses, in particular high blood pressure.
I say a little prayer under my breath for my father's heart to go on ticking forever and my mother to go on ordering my life for another century. They are true survivors and I hope they always will be.
We say good-bye and I continue. Well, the rice is washed and ready.
Next I place a large pot filled with water and some salt (not quite sure precisely how much is needed but I sprinkle liberally) on the cooker to come to the boil. At this stage the evening news comes on and I hear a mention of Iran. I rush out to listen and hear the tail end of yet another report about riots or international relations being improved or even Salman Rushdie.
Poor man. Wouldn't like to be in his shoes. I must one day get beyond page two of his Satanic Verses just to know what it was all about. Is there anyone out there who has actually read it? I wonder.
I look around and notice that my two-year-old son is trying to feed my baby of 6 months with diet coke while she merrily chews on the fringes of the Persian rug .. The crisis is averted and I rush back to find the water is boiling away.
The rice is now poured into the water and allowed to boil. This is a crucial stage. Leave it too long and it becomes shefteh (husband won't touch it). Pick it up too soon and, well, it is al dente (husband will look at me as if I am insane.)
It is amazing that as a lawyer I can argue for hours on end, eloquently and with force (if I say so myself) on behalf of complete strangers, but when it comes to my cooking and arguing before my husband I lose all powers of thought and reasoning. I become a blabbering idiot and assure him tomorrow night's dinner will be better, even though the poor man has never commented on it. This must be something ingrained in my psyche.
The phone rings again. It's my brother from the U.S.. He is like a whirlwind on the phone. I worry about him- it's good to hear from him. Being based in Los Angeles his life style is very different from ours. It seems in Europe we are not so preoccupied with day to day economics and lead a less complex life, with fewer expectations.
I feel like a country bumpkin each time I go to visit him, even if I have been to Vidal Sassoon in the heart of London for the latest hair cut. No matter what I do I just seem to lack that certain glamorous quality the women have out there.
But then I wouldn't miss an opportunity to go to a good Iranian wedding in Los Angeles with a life time's worth of tickets for the Oscars or the best show in the West End of London. One wedding and I feel my need for entertainment has been fulfilled for at least a year if not a lifetime.
The other thing I would not miss in Los Angeles is an opportunity to go to one of the many Iranian beauty salons in Westwood. Although I have so far resisted any bleach coming within a mile of my rather boring dark brown hair, I will say that they work wonders in the area of hair removal. After childbirth it is probably the second most painful but rewarding experience I have ever undergone – and I had my fortune told at the same time (I see you cooking, it looks like rice … for the rest of your life …).
I say good-bye to my brother and I look at the rice bubbling away. Yes it's time to get the colander out (aab-kesh stage). The telephone rings again. It is my Iranian friend. We haven't had a good gossip for days. Nothing like a good Iranian gossip to cleanse the soul and prepare one for the day ahead. First our children must speak to one another. Their fluent Farsi is becoming a little worrying now – they are about to go to school in England, they were born in England and can barely speak the language. I even caught my son saying “haav arrr yoo” the other day (too much exposure to my mother).
We eventually get the kids off the phone and start off with the latest news and the usual responses: “No! … You're lying! … Really? … Did she?” and so on. Then suddenly I notice I have forgotten the rice AHHHHHHHHHH- disaster if I don't get to it — and soon. So I tuck the phone under my cheek, pick up the rice, pour it into the colander , the steam fogging up my Giorgio Armani glasses (well some of the Los Angeles thing has rubbed off) so that I can no longer see and aim some of the rice straight at the sink.
We say good-bye and I pour cold water on what is left of the rice as my long dead grand mother's voice rings in my ear – something about the Koran saying that you must not waste a single grain of rice. I am not sure how accurate she was in her recitals of the Koran – let's just say I am a little suspicious – but I compulsively make sure there are no grains of rice left sticking to the colander. I wonder if all the pressure of work, children and running a home has finally taken its toll. Am I going mad?
Now this part is all made up by me. I pour some oil at the bottom of the pot together with some more water and pour the rice on top. Then I get out the saffron and start to pound it just enough so that it has some color when I pour boiling water over it. Throw this on top of the rice, get an old cloth out , wrap it around the lid and place the lid on. Allow rice to cook on low flame and hope to goodness you get some tah-dig out of it too.
This time the door bell rings – it is my English neighbor. What a wonderful aroma, she says. What are you cooking? Little does she know. Then she sees the cloth bound pot sitting in the corner of the cooker and seriously wonders if I am cooking dish cloth for dinner. Lucky for her, her husband is happy with oven fries and sausages. We have a little chat and I listen to lengthy descriptions of their plans for the garden (now this is something you would not catch any self-respecting Iranian talking about at such length). She leaves.
The telephone rings again and it is my cousin. I listen to her telling me all about her trip to Iran and how all my family are out there. I can hear it all but cannot visualize any of it. All I have in my head is a picture of lots of dinner parties which is what all Iranians seem to talk about (mehmooni). For a serious and religious nation, I think we are also very fun-loving people and even a revolution has not dampened that quality. She has brought back some sweets which we can have when we see her next.
At last, many hours and Iranian tapes later, I hear the key in the lock. Dinner is ready (the rice probably burnt out of all recognition by now – I blame it on the British), I am fast asleep on the sofa, my children are in bed their little bellies filled with rice, and my husband can eat his rice. Of course there is khoresh with it and torshi from Iran bought at the local Indian shop but that's a whole different story.
If only his mother could see him now (elaahi bemiram baraat – ghazaa meekhori?) Perhaps she would worry a little less. He tells me he has spoken with his mother in Iran today- she sends her love and asks if we need anything like sabzi or some more saffron. I pipe up. My rice wouldn't be the same without it.