Not Just Any Rice: Persian Kateh over Chelo

15 April, 2022
“Spring Gar­den Par­ty,” Reza Der­ak­shani, 2019, dip­tych oil on can­vas 200x240cm (cour­tesy artist Reza Der­ak­shani).


Maryam Mortaz


The first four years of my life I spent more time bedrid­den in hos­pi­tals than at home. The day I was final­ly brought back to stay, the scent of rice was the first thing that greet­ed us at the gate while my father was still fuss­ing with the out­side lock. Inside the court­yard even the neigh­bor­hood cats seemed stilled with that famil­iar aro­ma waft­ing over the shal­low pool. I remained wrapped over my father’s shoul­ders, charmed with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of life at last, while my moth­er stood in the ter­race watch­ing us. Her bel­ly full again, this time with my lit­tle sis­ter, her long black hair washed majes­ti­cal­ly over her expand­ing curves.

The aro­ma of kateh, the Per­sian “sim­ple rice” or “quick rice” can­not be mis­tak­en for any­thing else. Decades lat­er I still recall that moment in our court­yard as if the entire south­ern coast of the Caspi­an Sea, where much of Iran’s rice fields lay, had been put into a huge pot for steam­ing. My father and his fam­i­ly were Geor­gians who, like a lot of peo­ple from the Sovi­et Cau­cus­es had even­tu­al­ly migrat­ed to Iran and stayed. Rice, or the kateh ver­sion of rice was in my father’s blood. He’d been raised on that south­ern Caspi­an coast next to the pad­dies where rice with just about every­thing is a way of life.

I want­ed to head straight for the kitchen; instead they placed me inside a crib with tall white rail­ings. “Sleep is ben­e­fi­cial,” my father said. He only spoke text­book-learned clas­si­cal Per­sian that they’d taught him in school, since in his house­hold the lan­guage of every­day life was Geor­gian, Russ­ian and Azeri Turk­ish, with smat­ter­ings of the Gila­ki dialect of the south­west­ern Caspi­an. From behind the crib’s rails I could see a chub­by lit­tle boy, my younger broth­er, excit­ed­ly try­ing to crawl up to the crib. I imag­ined he had eat­en kateh every­day while I’d been in the hos­pi­tal. Even to my four-year-old mind, that rice’s per­fume was nos­tal­gic and mys­te­ri­ous. It was a scent I’d been around before, though not near­ly as much as I want­ed to. Now, in this house, the kateh aro­ma seemed to per­me­ate the very walls, and cer­tain­ly the white baby blan­ket beside me in the crib.

Kateh, as opposed to the more involved rice mak­ing rit­u­als of Ira­ni­ans, was a source of con­stant squab­ble between my moth­er and father. As a man of the Caspi­an regions, kateh was what my father pre­ferred. But my moth­er hailed from cen­tral Iran, was decid­ed­ly on the side of che­lo, the far more intri­cate Per­sian style of cook­ing rice that goes with tra­di­tion­al stews and kebabs and calls for stop­ping the process halfway in order to rinse your semi-cooked grain, rins­ing it, pour­ing oil into the bot­tom of the pot and mix­ing it with some saf­fron before plac­ing the rice back in the pot and let­ting it cook all the way this time. This was the rice of restau­rants and din­ner par­ties. The rice of kings. A rice that is not “wet” or bunched togeth­er in lit­tle balls, but rather grows in size when cooked prop­er­ly so that each gran­ule is dis­tinct from the other.

My father would of course have none of it. He’d say to my moth­er, “Waste is not prop­er. All the vit­a­min and taste escape in the man­ner of your cook­ing the rice, Madam.”

No two peo­ple could have been more unlike than my moth­er and father. In fact, you could say that their dif­fer­ences on the sub­ject of rice pret­ty much summed up the entire­ty of their relationship.

Shalizar pad­dy field and cul­ti­va­tion of rice in Iran (pho­to cour­tesy Shi­va Shamshiri).

It’s the very sim­plic­i­ty of kateh and yet its spe­cial charm that makes it so beloved to many a con­nois­seur in Iran. Bring any array of rice-ori­ent­ed dish­es from around the world — India, Spain, Chi­na, West Africa — and you are unlike­ly to remote­ly impress a Per­sian in com­par­i­son not to kateh but the roy­al che­lo. Not only the mak­ing of che­lo is a com­mit­ment of time and a show of nim­ble­ness with rice, it is — iron­i­cal­ly — the less­er part of what goes into mak­ing a ful­ly real­ized Per­sian meal, any meal, involv­ing either an elab­o­rate khore­sht (stew) or a mul­ti­lay­ered polo (solo or dry rice dish). At the same time since the art of Per­sian cook­ing tends toward pre­ci­sion in taste rather than spici­ness, any day spent in the kitchen can be a tight-rope act of sorts, where the slight­est mis­cue will ruin per­fec­tion and there­by defeat the dish in ques­tion. There is no hid­ing behind spice in Per­sian cui­sine, and the almost mys­ti­cal che­lo is an inte­gral part of the whole obses­sive process. Yet while che­lo reigns supreme, kateh holds its own for plen­ty of rice lovers on the Iran­ian plateau. With che­lo, if you know what you are doing, you can get cre­ative; you can, for instance, make the crunchy bot­tom of the pot, the tah

dig, which you will then turn over to dis­play a per­fect­ly round­ed, cake-like rice real­iza­tion, out of pota­toes or flat bread. And the crispy, slight­ly burned tadig itself can also be a source of end­less com­ments and assessments.

Kateh suf­fers none of these con­tests and the one-upman­ship. The rice is allowed to sim­ply boil and steam with­out inter­rup­tion. A lit­tle oil and salt is all that is required. And, need­less to say, an under­stand­ing, through prac­tice, of what it takes to turn out the per­fect kateh — soft but not over­ly mushy, tasty but unassuming. 

My father’s love of kateh trans­lat­ed into his eat­ing it around the clock. He’d eat it with bro­ken bits of feta cheese thrown in or with raw grat­ed gar­lic, or else with anchovies or carp. He could eat fried eggs and kateh for break­fast, kateh and salt­ed fish for lunch, and kateh and chick­peas for din­ner. If my moth­er refused to make kateh, he’d make it him­self — always in a large cop­per pot and then eat it imme­di­ate­ly while it was pip­ing hot. I often asked him if his tongue didn’t burn eat­ing the kateh so scald­ing. He’d only look at me with his bright blue Geor­gian eyes and smile, silent­ly let­ting me know that I was still a kid and when I grew up there would be oth­er ways I’d get burned but not from eat­ing rice.

“Mas­ters of Plea­sure,” Reza Der­ak­shani, 2008, mixed media on can­vas, 180 x 200cm (cour­tesy Reza Der­ak­shani).

I don’t know how I man­aged final­ly to get myself out of the crib that first day back home and into the kitchen. But I did. The kitchen was as white as the hos­pi­tal I’d spent so much time in and where my father also hap­pened to work. It would be a few years still before I found out he was an anes­the­si­ol­o­gist. He was just my father that day, the blue-eyed father with the odd way of talk­ing who had final­ly brought me home and who loved his kateh. I remem­ber him sit­ting behind the white met­al table in the kitchen not wear­ing his doctor’s white coat, but rather a but­ton-down blue shirt.

See­ing me in the kitchen, he said, “It hap­pens that hunger has come upon you?”

My moth­er walked in behind me and want­ed to take me back to the room. Her swollen bel­ly came around and was now block­ing my view of the cop­per pot. My father saw what I was after. He got up and came and picked me up so I could look into the frothy rice inside. Cream col­ored bub­bles grew large and burst and more took their place. It was as if some­one were play­ing drums in the dis­tance or rain was ham­mer­ing on the roof. In the mid­dle of the pot twirled a gold­en hued pool that gave off a but­tery smell. My face quick­ly col­lect­ed mois­ture from the steam. I turned to my father whose high and slight­ly creased fore­head was also wet with mois­ture. We stood there quite still, even my moth­er, and after a while the bub­bles seemed to sim­mer down and the rice became plain to see once most of the water had vapor­ized. Now, with his free hand my father placed the lid on the pot. The art of the kateh lies in this very moment, when to know to put the lid on and let the rice find its right tex­ture with the remain­ing steam.

I looked on as sliv­ers of steam still got past the lid and rose toward the ceil­ing. Rice was life. And I had lit­er­al­ly escaped the claws of death for hav­ing drunk some bad water I don’t know when. It was us — me and my father and my preg­nant moth­er with her mag­i­cal black hair right out of the sto­ry­books, and I took in that moment over the gas stove while I sus­pect­ed we all wait­ed for Genie to appear from some­where inside the siz­zling cop­per pot bear­ing his gift of kateh rice for the entire family.


Trans­lat­ed from the Per­sian by Salar Abdoh.

chelofoodIrankatehPersian cuisinericetadig

Maryam Mortaz is an Iranian-American writer, translator and psychotherapist. She is the co-translator and co-editor (with Brad Gooch) of Rumi: Unseen Poems (Knopf 2019) and also the author of the short story collection Pushkin and Other Short Stories, published in Iran (2000). Translations of her work have appeared in such journals as Bomb, Poetry Magazine, World Literature Today, New Review of Literature, and Callaloo. She lives and works in New York City.


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