Elisha Rahimi's Zereshk Polo

It's true when they say that food brings friends and family together. This series of stories about food focuses on young people and their favourite dishes passed down from their mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles and grandparents. It celebrates the connection between food and culture, and how food can often act as a gateway to stories of yesteryear. These dishes in this series are particularly special to our storytellers; all of whom have migrant parents or grandparents, and use food as a firm foundation for their understanding of their family's history and culture, and connects them to foreign yet familiar lands. 


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It is just part of who we are, you know, it’s like connection to culture and heritage and all that’s come before, and that sense that—in the sphere of culture and those kinds of things that are not really tangible, physical things—I feel that space and time don’t really exist. So, when I make the dish now compared to when people made it 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or are still making it now in Iran, or all over the world—space and time doesn’t exist for those things. There is no difference who is making it, or when, or where, it’s just this universal thing with no barriers, it’s a language that everyone can speak and enjoy.

My name is Elisha Rahimi, and I study Population Health at the University of Western Australia. My dish is zereshk polo; literally translated, zereshk means barberries, wild barberries, and polo means rice. It is rice cooked in this sort of special Iranian way where it is steamed out rather than all the water cooked with the rice and it just makes this really amazing fluffy rice where all the little parts are separate, and it is just the best thing ever. Until I was about like 12 or 13 I thought this was the only way to cook rice and then realised there were way easier ways.

In Farsi, which is the language of Iran, they call it chelo kesh. It’s basically a straining method where you salt the rice in water, let it soak for a bit and then boil it until it is half cooked. You then strain the water out, the rice then goes back into the pot so all the water that is left after you strained it sort of steam-cooks the rice. The main thing is that when you cook rice just in a pot with water, that way, it just absorbs all the water. It can turn a bit sticky which is great for dishes where that is what you want. But for Iranian people if the rice is sticky they are like “oh my gosh throw it out”. So yeah, the method involves trying to get all the parts of the rice separate to each other which is what makes it really fluffy and tahdig, which literally means ‘the bottom of the pot’. So when the rice goes back in the pot you, there is a generous amount of oil in there, and usually really thinly sliced potatoes that are salted. Then you just layer the potatoes on the bottom and the rice goes over the top. They do that so the bottom doesn’t burn and then when the rice is cooked, if you are really skilful, you can flip over the whole pot and it comes out as a cake almost with this crispy potato bottom. It’s just the most delicious golden crunchy potato thing and everyone fights over it.

My mum taught me to make zereshk polo. I kind of grew up watching her cook everything so, yeah, I learnt from her. But everyone kind of makes it differently I think that it’s like this with a lot of big ethnic families, all the different aunties and grandmas make every dish slightly differently based on how they like to do it.

I think it evokes a feeling of a strong connection to culture, especially to Iranian culture and Iranian people. Over time, I grew up with stories of my dad who would always tell stories of Iran and how beautiful it is and the role that it played in history in a really nice—you know sometimes people get super patriotic—but he just shared in a really nice way that these are all the other things that come from your country, just sort of like the architecture and the literature and the music and the stuff that is really profound.

So this dish in a way, more so than any other Persian food or cooking for me, embodies that sense of grace and finesse that is still kind of down to earth that Iranian art and culture represents. And that, because it is just a really beautiful dish—the rice and the bright yellow from the saffron, and saffron itself is just a lovely—I don’t know—adds an elegant touch to something. Then the bright red barberries that are all glossy from a little bit of butter and the almonds and pistachios make it really nice. The chicken, as well, is saffron chicken, but that’s considered as a side to the dish. The rice is the centre piece.

I think the other sort of feelings that zereshk polo evokes is the resilience of Iranian people. My family are all Bahá'ís, by faith. In Iran they are really heavily persecuted so a lot of Bahá'ís have had to escape over time, especially around the revolution in 1979. My parents escaped, so I’ve never actually been back to Iran and there is a really good chance I won’t be able to in my lifetime. So these kinds of—I don’t know—the food and the memories of sharing them together—especially because it’s still like a celebratory dish—kind of always reminds me of the resilience of, not just my family but, all people that have had to go through this and that are still going through it. There is still so much persecution, so it kind of embodies that sense of joy in the face of adversity still.

When people say, ‘do you feel like you are Australian or Iranian’ I never feel like I am one or the other and I don’t think I need to either. I don’t think that anyone is necessarily just ‘their country’ or where they are from. We are just citizens of the world really. But that’s where I think that our culture and where we are from is just part of our identity just like the rest of the world is. It builds this really rich tapestry that makes up all of humanity I think, so I definitely do feel a connection, but I don’t feel it has any sense of like, ‘this is my culture’. I don’t feel like I get territorial over it, but it is one of those things that everyone has. Everyone has their own sense of culture—or I don’t know, like meaning and heritage from some part of the world or from their family or just from whatever experiences they’ve had in life—and I think it is understanding that about each other that’s what makes up our humanity and our sense of compassion and empathy for one another.

It is just part of who we are, you know, it’s like connection to culture and heritage and all that’s come before, and that sense that—in the sphere of culture and those kinds of things that are not really tangible, physical things—I feel that space and time don’t really exist. So, when I make the dish now compared to when people made it 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or are still making it now in Iran, or all over the world—space and time doesn’t exist for those things. There is no difference who is making it, or when, or where, it’s just this universal thing with no barriers, it’s a language that everyone can speak and enjoy.


Zereshk Polo (in Elisha's own words) 

COOKING TIME
Look, I’d say you need about three hours. But I like to take my time when I cook. In a beat, you could probably do this in two hours (it’s gotta simmer for forty minutes, and then simmer for another forty minutes, so be aware of that).  

SERVES
4-6 people

INGREDIENTS
Saffron rice with barberries
3 cups long grain basmati rice
2 tbs oil
1 large potato, sliced into thin rounds (1-2cm thick), salted
1 cup barberries, washed and rinsed
1/2 tsp saffron, finely ground* see note
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp sugar (optional: the barberries are quite tart so sugar can be used to sweeten them)
3 tbsp slivered almonds, toasted
2 tbsp slivered pistachios (optional: adds beautiful colour)

Slow-cooked chicken
6 chicken pieces (we use drumsticks; thigh and breast are fine as well)
1 tbsp oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp Persian advieh*
1 tsp salt
Pinch of chilli powder
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp liquid saffron *see note
1 tbsp lemon juice

METHOD
Saffron rice with barberries
1. In a large bowl wash the rice, changing the water twice to clean and wash out some starch from rice. Add 1 tbsp salt, cover with water and soak for half an hour.
2. Place saffron in a small bowl, add 3 tbsp hot water, then place aside.
3. In a large non-stick saucepan, bring 2 litres water and 1 tbsp salt to the boil. Drain the rice and add to boiling water over high heat. Boil for 5 minutes until al dente. It should be tender on the outside and firm in the middle. It is important not to overcook the rice so that the grains don’t stick together. Drain and rinse rice with cold water.
4. On medium heat, add 1 tbsp oil in saucepan, and arrange the potato slices along the base. This protects the rice from burning and also makes heavenly crunchy potato “tahdig”. Tahdig literally means “bottom of the pot”, but refers to this crunchy potato - an intentional byproduct of Persian rice that is served alongside most meals. It is the best part of Persian food, and everyone knows it. Persian children worldwide will have stories of infamous fights over the best piece of tahdig.
5. Next, pour the rice back into the pot on top of the potatoes. Pour the remaining 1 tbsp oil over the rice. To build steam, wrap the lid in a tea towel (wrap the underside of the lid) before covering the rice – this will make the rice fluffy rather than sticky. Leave on medium heat for 2 minutes then reduce heat to very low. Cook for 30 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the barberries and sugar (if desired), stir well until they plump up a little, then remove from heat. Once the rice is cooked, add 1 spatula of the rice to the liquid saffron in a small bowl, mix and set aside for garnish.

Slow-cooked chicken
1. Heat the oil in a large pan, frying the onion and garlic over medium heat until onion becomes lightly golden.
2. Add chicken and stir until slightly brown. Add the turmeric and season with salt before mixing all together.
3. Add the advieh, chilli, tomato paste, and stir well. Finally, pour 1 tbsp liquid saffron, lemon juice and 1/2 cup water to the pan. Cover and cook on low heat for 30 minutes.

To serve
To serve this dish you basically layer each element onto each other. First, pour the cooked rice onto a large serving platter, and then carefully pour the saffron rice over the top. Next arrange the chicken however you like over the top of the rice. Lastly, arrange the barberries, almonds and pistachios over the rice and chicken – some like to sprinkle it all over, others like to arrange it all in the middle or around the sides of the dish. Scrape the crusted potato tahdig from the bottom of the pot and serve on a large plate. Serve slow-cooked chicken straight from the pot, pouring the juices over the chicken and rice on each plate.

*Notes
1. To grind saffron, place 1 pinch of saffron threads and 1 pinch of sugar in a mortar and grind until it turns to powder.
2. For liquid saffron, simply add 1 tbsp to 1tsp of ground saffron and stir.
3. Advieh spice may be purchased in Persian or specialty stores. Alternatively, you could use equal small amounts ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, ground cardamom, and half ground cumin. It’s not the same, but fairly close.


The beautiful illustrations in our Soul Food series are courtesy of Emmi Kerkham at Elks. Emmi loves to create beautiful things that share her ideas and experiences with others. If she's not at her desk, you’ll probably find her exploring new places, whether it’s roaming through her own back yard or wandering around on the side of a mountain 7580kms away from home. She's always on the hunt for new inspiration and experiences that she can share with others through her practice. Follow her adventures on Instagram: @hello.elks

Copyright © 2018 Elisha Rahimi

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.