Written by: Dora Levy Mossanen
Mama Bozorg, my paternal grandmother, was an outstanding surgeon. This, at least, is what my nine-year-old self believed when I watched her plunge the tip of a sharp knife into a piece of beef fillet and tease out in one long, unbroken piece the non-kosher gid hanasheh, or sciatic nerve.
At the time, my grandmother’s process of Nikkur to render the meat kosher by removing forbidden fats, sinews, veins, and imperfections in the meat, seemed nothing short of miraculous to me. Where did Mama Bozorg learn the anatomy of animals, where to find the veins and sinews, how to differentiate between treif and non-treif fat and what would constitute an imperfection?
This art, I assume, must have been handed down from mothers to daughters, until it stopped somewhere around my generation. Why labor for hours in front of a hill of meat, when one can purchase kosher meat these days? The answer, of course, is that those of us who consume kosher meat rarely have the luxury of enjoying the tender taste of the hindquarters of the animal, where the sciatic nerve and other forbidden veins are located, which my grandmother knew how to remove and I don’t. Even if I did I would not have found it worth the time and effort, as is the case with nearly every kosher butcher these days.
But in another life, having just immigrated from Israel to Iran at a time of great political turmoil, and hating every minute of it, I found a measure of solace in Mama Bozorg’s process of Nikkur, the way she scooped out forbidden nodules, dug in for veins, and shaved off blood clots. I am not certain why these long, monotonous hours proved comforting to me. Perhaps the removal of blemishes from the beef portended a slow mending of my own upended life. Perhaps it was the knowledge that once the meat was koshered, salted, quartered, and began to sizzle in crispy, golden-fried onion, what would inevitably follow was the scent of the most aromatic saffron-infused tahchin rice—a heavenly scent that continues to evoke the warmth and laughter of family Shabbat dinners.
This is a photo of my grandmother, Zoleikha Levy, with her father, whom everyone called Baba Zaghi, because he was blue-eyed.
From generation to generation, my grandmother, my mother, myself, and now my granddaughter have changed, added and embellished the recipe of tahchin, so that it carries the imprint of four generations of Jews. Yogurt and butter in this recipe have been replaced with grapeseed oil for those of us who don’t mix meat and dairy. One last note of caution: as neither my mother, grandmother, myself, or my granddaughter used or use exact measurements, I’ll try my best to give you some exact measurements, but you might have to practice a bit before you come up with your own best tahchin.
1—Two or three pounds beef shank or chicken if you prefer
2—One tablespoon salt
3—1/8 teaspoon white pepper
4—Three cups basmati rice
5—Three tablespoons lemon juice
6—One tablespoon ground saffron
7—Five egg yolks
8—Two cups grapeseed oil
9—Half a cup zereshk (barberries)
10—Half a cup almond slivers
11—Two tablespoons rosewater
12—Two medium-sized onions
1—Mix crushed saffron with six tablespoons of hot water in a small bowl and let it steep.
2—Peel and cut the onions into thin slivers.
3—Heat a pan over medium heat and add four tablespoons of grapeseed oil. Once the oil is hot, add the onions and fry to golden brown, then add the beef, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and brown on both sides. Add two tablespoons of the steeped saffron and a cup of boiling water and let cook until tender.
4—Rinse the zereshk numerous times until the water is clear. Toss the zereshk, almond slivers, and rosewater in a tablespoon of oil until lightly browned and set aside.
5—Wash the rice a few times in warm water until the water is clear.
6—Boil eight or nine cups of water and two tablespoons of salt in a large pot. Once the water comes to a boil, add the rice to the water and let cook for approximately ten minutes, until the rice is no longer crunchy under your teeth, but not over cooked.
8—Pour the water and rice into a colander and let it cool.
8—Preheat oven to 450 or 500, depending on your oven.
9—In an extra-large bowl whisk the egg yolks, lemon juice, salt, pepper, grapeseed oil, and the remaining saffron mixture. Add the drained rice into the mixture and mix until the rice is coated with the egg yolk mixture.
10—Grease the bottom and sides of a 9 by 13 Pyrex pan.
11—Spread half of the rice mixture onto the pan, making sure it is evenly spread.
12—Add the cooked beef over the rice.
13—Layer the zereshk and almond mixture over the meat. You can add the zereshk and almond mixture as garnish to the top of the tahchin once it’s cooked, but I prefer it layered between the rice.
14—Top with the rest of the rice mixture.
15—Cover with foil and place in oven. Reduce the heat to 450 if it’s on 500 and bake for an hour, then reduce to 350 and bake for approximately another hour. Check the bottom of the Pyrex to make sure the rice is browned and nice and crispy.
16—Once cooked, remove the foil, place a serving dish over the rice, and overturn. Make sure not to burn yourself. Enjoy the most deliciously aromatic tahchin.
Dora Levy Mossanen was born in Israel and moved to Iran when she was nine. At the onset of the Islamic Revolution, her family was forced to leave Iran.
They eventually settled in Los Angeles. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and a Master’s of Professional Writing degree from the University of Southern California (USC)
Love and War in the Jewish Quarter is Dora Levy Mossanen’s latest book.
Set against the backdrop of World War II, the author shows mastery in blending Iranian history, the European turmoil, and Jewish life in Iran with a subtle touch of erotica.