I only recently came to know that my grandfather, whom we call Agha, was part of the field hockey team which represented Afghanistan at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Agha died when I was a child. I was two years old. I don’t remember him at all. It was only recently, after I asked Baba, my father, how we were related to an old family friend, Uncle Yusuf, that I stumbled upon more details about my grandfather. Uncle Yusuf and Baba’s great-grandfathers were friends and had served together as Ministers in the Afghan King Nadir Shah’s Cabinet in the 1930s. Baba’s great-grandfather, who was the Minister of Agriculture and Sports had been instrumental in developing a first rate hockey team for Afghanistan.
It was then that I googled “1936 Afghanistan Hockey Olympics” and started to go through the list of names. I saw my grandfather’s name – Shazada Saadat Malook – on the internet, and I started to cry. Maybe for a grandfather, Agha, whom I never knew, who died too young, silently, when his heart one day decided to stop beating; maybe for my father, who lost Agha when he was in Washington, DC, a young professional at the World Bank, starting out a new life with his wife and young child, far from his family in Pakistan. Or maybe because I am a nostalgic person and I wish that Agha had lived just a little bit longer, to tell me about his trip to Berlin and about growing up in Afghanistan where quince trees grew abundantly and scotch was poured like water.
Ever since I was a child, whenever I met Uncle Yusuf, I thought he was Baba’s cousin. And he is a cousin, of sorts. The story of their dosti; friendship, hearkens back to the 1930s when their grandfathers worked together in Kabul as Cabinet Ministers. I wonder if they sat together sipping tea, enjoying a flaky, sugary gosh-e-feel, Uncle Yusuf’s favourite childhood sweet treat. And today, more than ten decades later, this dosti continues, even if they only see each other every few years in a decade. This summer Uncle Yusuf and his lovely wife, Aunty Farhana came to Toronto from Pakistan to visit their children who live here. Baba was visiting us during the same time, so we decided to host a dinner at our home for these very special friends. During most of the evening, as we went through slices of pistachio-adorned tah-chin, I remained uncharacteristically quiet, listening to fascinating stories of the Pakistan of Baba and Uncle Yusuf’s childhood, of their grandparents and relatives – those stories which started three generations ago.
These are the stories of my family and heritage which come to my mind when I work in the kitchen, a place where I feel most happiest in life, cutting, tasting, writing, tasting, stirring, tasting, eating and thinking about what Agha may have enjoyed eating had he still been with us. I want to replicate those dinners in my home, which my father and Uncle Yusuf enjoyed as children, with family and relatives, filling their plates with clove-spiced pilafs and ten different meat stews, each one more fragrant and delicious than the next.
I want my son to grow up in Toronto in this sort of a home, surrounded by those friends who are family and with whom my friendship, like Uncle Yusuf’s and Baba’s, transcends the ties of blood. Those who bring Tiny Spoon Peter Rabbit Wedgwood gifts, because they want him to relate to the same fictional character his mamma loved as a child; those who do my make-up one snowy afternoon during my maternity leave, just to cheer me up in the midst of the cold Toronto winter; those with whom we celebrate birthday lunches every year over shared plates of pasta; those who brought and continue to bring containers of their Maman’s tahdig, saffron-crusted rice and fall-off-the-bone lamb and fresh herb stew, so I do not have to cook the night after coming home from DC that morning. Or maybe she brings it because she knows I am missing my mother’s food.
There are so many others to thank – you were all there in October to celebrate with me and my husband – thank you for making it a memorable milestone for me.
The intense vermillion colour of this tahdig comes from saffron from Iran – always given to me as a gift from my Persian family here – it reminds me of all the good things in life. I just wish that I could have made this for my Agha. But I will continue to dig for the stories of my family – and find them as we eat and break bread together.
You will need a heavy-base pot with a lid which has a 25cm/10in base. Usually pots go by litre/quart capacity, but in this case, the dimensions of the base are highly relevant. Think of this as one would a baking recipe – the dimensions of the cooking vessel can make or break the recipe. Just bear in mind that if you do decide to use a pot with a larger or smaller base, you will have to change the cooking time, otherwise you may not get the desired result.
Serves 4 with a main dish
*25cm/10in pot with a heavy base
*400g/2cups Basmati rice
*Cold water (to pre-soak rice)+100ml, divided
*1 tbsp salt
*2L/8.5cups + 2tbsp boiling water, divided
*1 tsp heaped saffron threads, crushed in a pestle and mortar
*3 tbsp neutral-flavour oil, such as canola or grapeseed
*Parchment paper to line the pot
*Wash Basmati rice under cold water, then soak for one hour in cold water, allowing water to come 3-4cm (1-1.5in) above the rice (the rice will expand in water, so you want some extra water in the bowl to prevent the rice from drying out).
*In the meantime, prepare the saffron water – combine saffron powder and 2tbsp boiling water and set aside.
*After the rice has soaked for one hour, place a heavy-base pot (see Notes above) on the stove on high heat, adding 2L of boiling water.
*Once the water starts bubbling, discard cold water from the rice and carefully transfer rice to the pot.
* Decrease the heat to medium-high and allow the rice to boil for 10-13 minutes. At the 10-minute mark, take a grain and if it looks parboiled and easily breaks between your finger and thumb, remove from the flame (cooking times vary for certain types of rice; be sure to check the rice every few minutes so it doesn’t overcook).
* Drain the rice through a fine mesh colander and working very quickly (you don’t want the rice to sit for too long), rinse your pot and line it with parchment paper. Some of the parchment paper should come up the sides of the pot.
*Add oil and saffron water in the pot and add a few serving spoons of rice at a time to coat with the oil and saffron water. With your hands, keep combing rice with the oil and saffron water so that you form an even layer of saffron-infused rice of approximately 2cm (3/4 of an inch) thickness. This will transform into the tahdig or the saffron crust we are looking for.
*With a serving spoon, add the rest of the rice on top of the saffron-infused rice layer, without stirring it.
*Sprinkle 100ml (a little less than ½ a cup) of cold water on the rice. Then place a tea towel or paper towel between the lid and the pot to prevent the steam from escaping. Remember to secure the tea cloth corners on top of the pot’s lid.
*Turn your burner to high heat and when it is ready, place pot on top for exactly 60 seconds. This will shock the rice and start the formation of the crust.
*After 60 seconds, immediately turn the heat to medium-low. (Note: If you are using an electric burner, remove the pot from the burner at the 60-second mark and place it back once the burner has reached the desired temperature.)
*Allow the rice to cook for 20 minutes.
*At the 20-minute mark, check the crust. With a fork, carefully lift a bit of the bottom crust from the side of the pot, you will see a vermillion crust if it is ready. If you feel it isn’t crunchy enough, cover with the lid again and let it cook for another 7-10 minutes.
*When ready, remove the pot from the burner and allow it to rest for 10 minutes, then decant and serve, adorning the white rice with the vermillion pieces of the saffron crust rice on top of the snow-white rice.