Like most of my friends, I had an Iranian boyfriend. He was my boyfriend for about three years until our lives diverged to the point that we went our separate ways. It was not a good relationship, but it had its good bits, and I learnt an awful lot about an awful lot of things. Looking back, I think that his experience was very far removed from my own and that I had little understanding of the struggles that he had to overcome. Like most Iranians who found themselves in Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was student and well connected. His father had been an army officer close to the Shah but had died early, leaving his mother to raise three children of whom he was the eldest. She came to England with him while he took his ‘A’ levels but returned to Iran, only to find herself a prisoner there once the revolution happened and the Shah was exiled. He found himself without any money and imprisioned in his family’s expectations.
He could not go back to see her, and she could not leave to see him. They were separated for about five years. Long, expensive telephone conversations were their only communication. And yet he was the oldest son and responsible for everything that happened to his family. From time to time he would hear of friends who had escaped Iran through the mountains. One close friend tried this route in winter, but she was never heard of again. His mother found living under the new regime almost intolerable. Her sister had escaped with her Christian husband and lived in a council flat in Ealing but at night dressed in silk and painted her nails and piled her blonde hair on top of her head to hang out with other exiled Iranians at the Tara Hotel in Kensington.
Eventually when my boyfriend did return to Iran he stayed longer than his re-entry visa to the UK allowed and he was detained by Immigration officers at Heathrow. Only the interventions of John Gummer, a Conservative Member of Parliament and government minister at the time, kick-started by my mother, made possible his return to the UK. I remember being interviewed by immigration officers at Heathrow when he was detained, and for ten years or so afterwards I had some of the sun-dried limes and herbs that he brought back with him – and used them to cook lamb casseroles until an Iranian friend of mine bought some more for me. Eventually, after a total of more than ten years in the UK, he was given permission to remain in the UK indefinitely and he rang to tell me that he and his brother were both OK.
When the money ran out, as it often did, he used to support his studies by doing painting and decorating jobs, but always found enough to send his mother the best quality black tights that he could find, a small rebellion against the repressive regime. A friendly bank manager allowed him to deposit his precious silk rugs as security for a loan when he really had no money left. He drove a 2-litre red Triumph Vitesse that always seemed to need a new gear box, but at least it stood out from the crowd.
The relationship left me with several important legacies, not least some understanding of what it means to be a refugee, a comfortable familiarity with Iranian culture, and an ability to cook rice quite well.
My boyfriend was an excellent cook. I thought perhaps his mother had taught him, but another Iranian friend suggested that perhaps it was more likely that he missed the food his mother used to cook when she went back to Iran and that those long phone calls were used to deliver instructions on how to prepare the Persian national dishes. I think my old boyfriend owns or runs an Iranian restaurant in London now – which is as much as I want or need to to know about him.
There is really only one way to cook basmati rice, if you want beautifully light, separate grains every time. The Iranian method is reliable and not time-sensitive and I never use anything else.
Here is one man’s description which uses the same method I was taught:
“The Iranian housewife goes through 14 steps to make a bowl of chelo, crusty steamed rice. Starting with two and a half cups of good long grain rice, she washes it and rinses it three times in lukewarm water. She soaks it overnight, covered, in heavily salted water. The next day she sets two quarts of water to boiling with two tablespoons of salt, and adds the drained, soaked rice in a stream. She boils the rice for 10-15 minutes, stirring it once or twice, then puts it in a strainer and rinses it with lukewarm water. Next she melts half a cup of butter, and puts a third of it in a cooking pot, to which she adds two tablespoons of water. She spoons the boiled rice into the pot so as to make a cone, and pours the rest of the butter evening over it. She covers the pot with a folded tea towel to make the rice cook evenly, and then puts on the lid. She cooks it for 10-15 minutes over a medium heat, and for 45 minutes over a low heat. She places the pot in cold water, to make the rice come free from bottom of the pan. She turns it out so that the golden crust on the bottom, which is the specific asset that makes Iranian rice the World’s best, flecks and accents the whole fluffy mound of distinctly separate grains. She puts 2 or 3 tablespoons of rice into a dish and mixes in a tablespoon of saffron. She pours the coloured rice over the rest, and she is done.”
(W H Forbes, The Fall of the Peacock Throne)
I still soak the rice occasionally, but never overnight. Twenty years ago it was common to find small stones in the big bags of basmati rice we bought. Those stones floated to the surface when the rice was soaked, as did any other impurities. Soaking removes some of the starch, and begins to open up the grains making cooking slightly quicker, but it is not really necessary.
Nor do I use as much salt, or cook it for as long before I drain it, or rinse it at this stage unless I have left it too long. I always test a grain to see if the rice is ready to be drained. The outside should be translucent, but the inside of the grain still brilliant white. I think this is more likely to be after less than five minutes of boiling.
When I return the rice to the pan, I will often slice up raw potatoes in slices about 2mm thick, and lay these across the base of the pan. I often mix butter and olive oil and stir a cupful of rice into it before returning the rest on top. I do not bother with the extra butter poured over the rice.
I have an Aga, an old-fashioned range-type cooker, and the cooler bottom oven is the perfect place to finish off the rice once it has been drained. It can be left there for hours without coming to any harm. The method becomes slightly more hairy on a gas cooker since it is fairly easy to set light to the trailing corners of the tea towel. A low heat is essential otherwise the bottom of the rice will burn.
Iranian basmati rice is a comfort food for me. After I’ve been ill, once of the first meals I will prepare for myself is Iranian rice into which a egg yolk has been stirred and then mixed with butter. Try it.
In a perfect world the rice would turn out like this every time, but it rarely does. Perhaps there is a Persian woman or man somewhere whose rice turns out in one golden cake every time.