I had logged on to a video call to talk to Najmieh Batmanglij about the iconic Persian dish javaher polo—to get her tips for cooking the rice that forms its base and to learn which nuts and fruits she uses to garnish it—but I soon found that she had more in store for me than a standard interview.
Midway through our call, the cookbook author and culinary legend stood up, walked to her kitchen, and tied on a bright green apron. Our discussion transformed into a full-fledged cooking demonstration. I watched, captivated, as Batmanglij expertly scooped fluffy rice onto a silver platter and then scattered a rainbow of slivered almonds; vibrant green pistachios; candied orange peel; and tiny, tart zereshk (barberries) across the white canvas. As the dish took shape, Batmanglij’s love for javaher polo radiated through my computer screen. “Jeweled rice is the queen of Persian cooking,” she declared.
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Words cannot capture the essence of javaher polo. Yes, it is simple enough to describe the recipe—cook basmati rice; top with a treasure chest of gemstone‑like garnishes—but, as Batmanglij demonstrated, this is a dish that is meant to be seen. It’s thus no surprise that the dish originated as special‑occasion fare: 17th-century records of Persian feasts describe mammoth basins of rice dishes like javaher polo presented atop gold brocade tablecloths and extravagant china. These days, javaher polo remains a staple of wedding buffets and holiday tables, its edible jewels arranged as intricately as the occasion demands. When she makes the dish at home, Batmanglij simply places the toppings between layers of rice, but for special events, Persian cooks carefully arrange the edible jewels on top of the grains to create dazzling stripes, sunbursts, spirals, and more.
Four Steps to Perfect Pilaf
The jewels might be the most spectacular component of javaher polo, but the rice is the heart of the dish. Achieving the fluffy individual grains signature of javaher polo and the stunning, crispy tahdig layer at the bottom of the pot requires patience and the utmost care. Here’s our step-by-step method.
- RINSE: As starch granules on the surface of the rice absorb water during cooking, they swell and burst, releasing gummy molecules that glue the grains together. Rinsing the rice removes any excess surface starch, helping the grains stay separate.
- SOAK AND PARBOIL: The more water that enters the grains of rice before steaming, the fluffier the finished rice will be—so a 15-minute soak in hot water makes a significant impact on the rice’s texture in a short time. We wondered if we could skip this step and go straight to parboiling, but weighing batches of soaked and unsoaked rice showed that, even after parboiling, soaked rice contains more water than unsoaked rice.
- STEAM AND FRY: In the final phase of cooking, a portion of the parboiled rice is coated with yogurt and oil (to encourage browning) and spread into an even layer on the bottom of the pot—this will become the tahdig. The remaining rice is mounded on top into a cone shape, allowing steam to easily escape from the bottom of the pot so that the crust can crisp. Poking holes into the mound and inserting butter cubes adds richness and a little extra steam power, thanks to the water the butter contains. Finally, the mound is drizzled with water, and then the pot lid, wrapped in a clean dish towel to pull excess moisture from the rice as it steams, is placed on top.
- COOL: After cooking the rice, we place the pot on a dampened dish towel set in a baking sheet. The rapid cooling causes the rice grains to contract, helping the crust release more easily.
But even the most ornate design can’t outshine the rice at the heart of the dish. In Iran, rice is so essential that it is heavily featured not only in the country’s cuisine but also in its art and writings. (Case in point: A 278-couplet-long epic poem from the 15th-century satirical poet Bos’haq Atameh, narrating the hero’s journey of the grain from the humble rice paddy to its coronation as the king of food.) Persian cooks prepare rice in a number of different ways, but the rice for this dish is cooked chelow-style: It is soaked, parboiled, and cooked using a hybrid method of steaming and frying, resulting in fluffy rice with separate grains and a crisp golden tahdig, or crust, on the bottom of the pot. It’s a tricky preparation that is doubtlessly a labor of love.
Make Edible Art
When adorning a platter of javaher polo, “there is no rule,” Najmieh Batmanglij told me. “You want to just present it beautifully.” For formal occasions, Persian cooks use the dish’s colorful toppings to create edible works of art, arranging them into striking patterns. Here are some ideas for designs you can try.
In addition to the pearl-white grains of rice, in my recipe for javaher polo, I dyed a portion of the rice yellow with saffron, which I used to make a golden crown of rice at the center of the platter. While there are a wide variety of toppings that can adorn javaher polo, from dates to crushed rose petals to gold leaf, I stuck with the most common garnishes: caramelized zereshk to represent rubies; slivered pistachios to represent emeralds; and slivered almonds, candied orange peel, and julienned, lightly sweetened carrots to represent gold. Serve javaher polo as a side dish for bold braised or roasted meats or kebabs—but prepare for it to steal the show.