December 12, 2017
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The Triumph of Tahdig

A home cook calls her fragrant and flavorful style of cooking Persianesque.

While Soli Zardosht adds a splash of crimson saffron water to the turmeric-stained yogurt-and-egg mixture already at the bottom of the pot—followed by a heaping pile of rice—she quips that most everything in Persian cuisine is slow-cooked. Earlier today, in a matte cast-iron crock that matches her sheer sky-blue shirt, she’d made a lamb stew, its meat falling off the bone. But her full concentration right now is on an everyday rice dish. It’s a celebrated side, one that’s defined by its much-anticipated crisp exterior, called tahdig, which she swiftly assembles. Once the rice is on the “hob” (a British English term for stovetop she uses), an hour and a half passes as we catch up on world affairs over mugs of black tea. This gives Soli just enough time to convince me that if the tahdig fails and falls apart, we’ll still have rice; it’s a pessimistic caveat, but an honest one. Ninety minutes later, Soli stands barely tall enough to clear the counter, with pot in hand and a plate hovering above, ready to invert what may or may not be tahdig. With that flip of the wrist, all the waiting ends with a climactic few seconds.

I liken it to celebratory timpano—the baked pasta dish in the movie Big Night, an upside-down bowl slowly loosened and lifted by the four hands of actors Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci—but Soli doesn’t know the reference. She kind of laughs at the fact there’s such an epic “food scene” in a film, explaining that Iranian food is central to her daily life but not really fetishized in the same way as the West. To her, timpano sounds less like tahdig than it does tachin, a Persian baked rice cake comprised of parboiled rice, cooked meat marinated in a yogurt-and-egg mixture, layered, then put in a pan and baked in the oven. Soli uses this same yogurt/egg method in her tahdig. It’s like the best of both worlds, and it’s more flavorful, too; the texture is a bit thicker than the traditional tahdig, but it still provides a pleasurable crunch.

Soli calls herself Persianesque, in reference to her birthplace of Shiraz, Iran, annotated by a London upbringing. She speaks Farsi, but not as often as she used to, mainly hearing her native tongue whenever her mother, Pari, recites Hafez, the 14th-century Persian poet, who wrote on the topics of life, love, and the human condition. These expressions of Persia find their way into Soli’s style of cooking and are then modified by her modern interpretation of her family’s heritage.

Soli is fashionable and was a menswear designer before opening up a café in London, which is now run by her sister Sanaz. While Soli now lives in Brooklyn, her move was part of an expansion plan, one that she hoped could nurture a present-day appreciation of Iranian culture. She’s now married to her musician husband, and even with a green card in hand, she fears returning home because of the current political climate. She wants to overcome that fear through Persianesque pop-ups here in the States, the same way she started serving food in the U.K., and publicly reconnecting to her past.

Her fare is all her own—a compilation of cuisines in the same way that Iran is Middle Eastern as well as Eastern European, due to proximity to Turkey, and borders southern Asia by way of Afghanistan, with the international city of Dubai due south across the gulf. For over 1,000 years the Achaemenid and Sasanian Empires were vast, their cookery combined within these borders. So why should Soli, or anyone, feel confined by what it means to be Persian, or a person overall?

She exchanges recipes with her sister Setareh in Minneapolis, which are easy and accessible, even in the Midwest. It doesn’t take much; an assembled advieh (or set of “the usual spices”) that a Persian pantry is made up of: saffron, turmeric, sun-dried black limes for tartness, salt, and black pepper. Cinnamon isn’t as necessary as some would think, and cardamom is far more for sweet things than for savory. With these limited ingredients, Persian cooking relies on time to really transform the dish.

“Patience,” says Soli, as she opens the pot to check whether the rice is setting up (though I’m told not to do this unless I really know what I’m doing and have made Persian rice a million times). Is it the right shade of gold? Will it come out in one piece? Will we have to scrape it off the bottom?

After dinner Soli might tell her mother, “The tahdig was delicious,” which is something that should be mentioned only if it comes out well and go unmentioned if it does not. It’s a centerpiece, that brittle little division placed in the middle of the table, separate yet synonymous with the rest of meal; relished in reflection, it’s a postscript. It’s not that it doesn’t matter; it’s just that other things may matter more. Tahdig is literally the bottom of the pan—all the rest is just rice.

Sabzi Polo

Sabzi Polo

4-4 servings


  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons dried powdered mint
  • 2 cups finely chopped herbs, dill and parsley preferred, but you could also use cilantro and chives
  • salt
  • 1 tablespoon butter, cut into a few pieces
  • 1 tablespoon saffron water (mix ½ teaspoon saffron powder with 1/3 cup water)
  • 1 small egg, beaten
  • ¼ cup Greek or full-fat yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric, ground
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ground
  • ½ teaspoon tomato puree, dissolved in 2 tablespoons of hot water
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • ⅓ cup water
  • 1 tablespoon saffron water

The more traditional way of making tahdig involves cooking the rice first. The dish is known for its addictive exterior crust, whose crunchy bite you’ll crave the second it’s set on the table. It’s quite commonplace in Iranian cuisine and serves as the centerpiece to many a meal, but most other rice dishes will seem too characterless after this one. A generous handful of fresh herbs adds to its charm.

    To cook the rice

  1. Rinse the rice in a fine-mesh sieve with cold water until the water runs clear of the starch. Allow it to fully drain.
  2. Bring a nonstick pot of water to a boil, adding 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Tip the rice into the pot and stir to separate the grains. Place the colander back in the sink. After 2 minutes, check the rice; the grains should have stretched a bit but still be a bit opaque and feel hard if you bite into them.
  3. Quickly empty the rice into the colander and rinse out the extra starch with room-temperature water from the tap.
  4. Keep aside a third of the fresh herbs and mix the rest into the rice along with the dried mint and some salt to taste.

To make the tahdig

  1. In a cup, mix egg, yogurt, turmeric, cinnamon, and tomato puree together until smooth and consistent. Set aside.
  2. Add the vegetable oil to a nonstick pan over medium heat.
  3. Empty the tahdig mixture and the water to the pan, moving it around to cover the whole base.
  4. Tip the rice into the pan, forming a conical shape—a mound if you will—leaving room all around the edges for some steam to travel through. Turn the burner to medium-high.
  5. Using your finger or the end of a spoon, make a few holes on the surface, almost reaching down to the tahdig base.
  6. Cover the lid in a clean dishcloth, tying it tightly to keep the steam in. Turn the heat down to the lowest setting and leave it alone for 1½ hours, without lifting the lid.
  7. After 1½ hours, unwrap and lift the lid, add a few knobs of butter, the reserved fresh herbs, and saffron water. Without touching the bottom, gently stir to mix so you end up with speckled yellow and white rice.
  8. Place a flat plate or tray on the top of the pot, and with one swift movement, turn the tahdig and rice out, and serve.


  • 1 ¼ cup basmati rice
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt

A one-step, one-pot version of sabzi polo. While it doesn’t allow for mix-ins, it makes up for it in calm. It’s an easy recipe to practice on before making the more complex tahdig, while still satisfying all the crisp rice requirements along all its edges, rather than just the top (once inverted onto a serving tray).


  1. Rinse the rice in a fine-mesh sieve until the water runs clear of starch. Drain well.
  2. Heat the oil in a small nonstick pan.
  3. Add the turmeric with water, and swirl the pan around to dissolve.
  4. Tip the rice into the turmeric oil, and gently shake the pan to help flatten the surface.
  5. Pour in enough boiling hot water to cover the surface of the rice by 1 inch.
  6. Add butter and salt, and stir to mix. Taste the water to see if more salt is needed. Bring to a boil.
  7. Wrap the lid with a clean dishcloth and place it on the pan, turning the heat to the lowest setting, and let cook for 1½ hours.
  8. After 1½ hours, turn off the heat and remove the lid.
  9. After 2 minutes, place a flat plate or tray on the pot and with one swift movement, turn the tahdig and rice out, and serve.

Michael Harlan Turkell

Michael Harlan Turkell is an award-winning pho­tographer and cookbook author of the recently published, ACID TRIP: Travels in the World of Vinegar. He has photographed many prominent chefs’ cookbooks and hosts The Food Seen podcast on Heritage Radio Network.

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