Monday, May 7, 2012

Persian Polo in Tehran

Tehran is an almost frenetically busy city, with broad streets, roaring traffic, and a great, seething bazaar – not to mention some of the country’s best restaurants – all lying in the shadow of the mighty, snow-capped Alborz Mountains. It’s just the place to hunt down one of the many variations of polo, the most exquisite of Persian rice dishes.

The Iranian capital cannot really be called a beautiful city. A sprawling, exhaust-filled metropolis with some eight million inhabitants, it is a place more usually associated with concrete blocks and seemingly endless streams of traffic. But look a little beyond this and you will find green parks, opulent palaces, and some of the country’s finest museums. To visit Iran without spending any time here is to miss something of what makes the country tick.
Though the history of Tehran stretches back several thousand years, it was not until the end of the 18th century that it became the Iranian capital under the Qajar dynasty. And if the modern city cannot itself be called beautiful, some of its surroundings certainly can. Tehran sits on a plain at the foot of the enormous Alborz Mountains. One of these, the volcanic Mount Damavend, is the highest mountain in Iran – an enormous, snow-streaked cone, almost perfectly symmetrical, that still belches sulfur from its summit.
Rich in associations with Persian folklore, the Alborz are now best known for their ski slopes and resorts, in particular Dizin and Tochal, accessible by a cable-car route that stretches from the more affluent northern suburbs of Tehran.
Tehran also has some excellent restaurants, from simple kebab shops to traditional places serving luxuriant rice dishes, such as polo. The rice in polo dishes is prepared using an elaborate cooking method known as chelo, during which the rice is washed, soaked, boiled until almost cooked, spread on the bottom of a heavy-bottomed pan (already coated with butter or oil), and finally steamed, very slowly, with a cloth under the lid to absorb any drips. When cooked properly, a thick golden crust, called tah-dig, forms on the bottom of the pan; it is served separately and is always a much-sought-after item at the Persian table. Chelo rice is heaped high on plates and served in generous portions to accompany kebabs, khoresh (stews), and other dishes.
In polo recipes, half the cooked rice is added to the buttered pan, and then cooked chicken, meat, or other ingredients are added. A second layer of rice is spread on top, and finally the whole dish is steamed. There are numerous well-known polo recipes, from zereshk polo-e morgh (with saffron, chicken, and barberries) and shirin polo (with orange peel, saffron, almonds, and pistachios), to its most elaborate and decadent form, tachin. There’s even a fresh herby version that is the perfect accompaniment to fish – sabzi polo.

The highly prized golden crust of tachin polo is achieved by slowly baking the cooked, layered rice and chicken in a buttered pan

Specialty rice dishes are always an important part of Iranian festivities, such as Yalda – the longest night of the year

The Golestan Palace was part of a group of royal buildings built within the mud-thatched walls of Tehran’s historic arg, or citadel

A Day in Tehran
The majority of Tehran’s sites are concentrated close to downtown, but a few – such as the Azadi Tower – are farther out; they can easily be reached by bus, metro, or taxi. The vast (and incomplete) Imam Khomeini Shrine is on the road to Ghom.
MORNING : Start from Imam Khomeini metro station, and walk south to visit the 16th-century Golestan Palace, site of the Qajar court in the 18th century.
AFTERNOON : Return to Imam Khomeini metro station, taking a slight detour to walk through part of Tehran’s enormous bazaar, and stop at the Khayyam Traditional Restaurant for lunch.
Visit the National Museum, which has a fascinating archaeological collection showcasing the country’s long history, and the small Ceramics and Glass Museum, which has excellent modern displays.
EVENING : Walk northwest, crossing the busy Enqelab Avenue to reach the Carpet Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Park Laleh, one of the most pleasant green spaces in the city.

The Best Places to Eat Polo

The Khayyam Traditional Restaurant

The Khayyam Traditional Restaurant, right in the heart of Tehran’s frenetic bazaar near the Nasreddin mosque, is one of the most beautifully decorated traditional restaurants in the Iranian capital. The historic building (originally part of the Nasreddin mosque complex) was recently restored, and now has a main area with wooden tables and chairs as well as partly enclosed areas with cushions for seating. Its brick-vaulted interior is moodily lit, highlighting the decorative mosaic tiles.
It can (and does) get extremely busy, particularly at lunch times, but the atmosphere always remains friendly and relaxed. The menu ranges from succulent kebabs served alongside a mountain of fragrant chelo rice to steaming plates of khoresh, abgusht, or dizi (meat stews) and, of course, polo dishes, including zereshk polo served with the requisite wedge of butter. Portions are generous and the prices, while more than average for Iran, are still very reasonable.
Khayyam Street, Tehran; open 11 AM–11 PM daily; +98 21 5580 0760 Also in Tehran
The busy Ferdosi Sonnati (+98 21 6671 4503; inexpensive), at the southern end of Ferdosi Street, serves plenty of traditional Persian dishes, including zereshk polo and tachin.
Other good options are Sofreh Khane Ayyaran (+98 21 6676 0376; moderate), which is sometimes inundated by tour groups but does serve a wider-than-average range of traditional Persian dishes, and the buzzing subterranean Sofreh Khane Ali Ghapoo (+98 21 8877 7803; inexpensive).
Also in Iran
In Isfahan, tachin is served at Nobahar (+98 311 221 0800; inexpensive) and Shahrzad (+98 311 220 4490; moderate). The Khan Gostar Restaurant (+98 311 627 8989; moderate) in the Hotel Julfa, Isfahan, is another excellent choice, and very popular with locals.
Around the World
There are many Persian restaurants in London, but the contemporary-styled Lavash (www.; moderate) at the top of Finchley Road is one of the few that serve tachin.
Little Persia (; moderate) serves several polo dishes in its colorful interior, and Alounak (www.alounak.; moderate) is another longstanding favorite in the UK capital.
A Celebratory Dish
Of the many delicious variations of polo, tachin is the best and most elaborate. Here the partly cooked rice is mixed with yogurt and saffron, and used to coat the inside of a heavy pan. The center is then filled with alternating layers of rice and chicken mixed with zereshk (barberries) before the whole dish is slowly baked until the outer surface forms a delicious golden crust. It is then turned out on to a plate. Tachin are sometimes seen stacked one on top of another, like the tiers of a wedding cake. It is not the sort of dish you find everywhere, and is typically made for festive occasions, but you have more chance of finding it in Tehran than anywhere else.
Getting to Tehran
Imam Khomeini International Airport lies 22 miles (35 km) from Tehran; there are shared or private taxis into town. Buses and trains connect Tehran with most places in Iran.
Where to stay in Tehran
Mashhad Hostel (inexpensive) is a hostel with rooms and dorms.
Atlas (moderate) is a good mid-range hotel with a small garden.
Ferdowsi Grand Hotel (expensive) is central and comfortable.

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