Rice is not indigenous to the Middle East. It's likely that the first taste of it was brought by traders from the Far East (the oldest evidence of rice cultivation, from 15,000 years ago, has been found in Korea), but the rice that is now grown in the region is actually descended from African stock.
I give you below a fail-safe method for cooking long grain rice à la general purpose Arabian.
Rice - A Foundation Course
In a hurry? Use this method to produce perfectly cooked long grain or basmati. Rice varies, not just from region to region but from batch to batch, and so some will require less water, and some rather more: Middle Eastern housewives usually cook off a tiny quantity of a new sack of rice just to see how it is.
The important thing here is proportion. But, for the record, most rice measuring cups have a volume of 200ml/7fl oz/generous ¾ cup and will hold 150g/5½oz of uncooked rice.
- 1 measure of rice per person
- 1 measure water per person
- 1 dessertspoon butter or ghee per person
- salt to taste
Rinse the rice well. Some people use boiling water to get rid of the starch, but be warned that over-washing removes many of the nutrients. Not that white rice has a lot of those in the first place.
Put the water, butter and salt in a pan and bring it to the boil. Add the rice, bubble away for a few minutes and then turn down the heat really low, wrap the lid of the pan in a clean cloth and simmer for another 20 minutes.
The rice should be perfectly cooked and the grains separated. Let it sit, covered, for another 5-10 minutes, then fluff with a fork and serve.
Rice - Intermediate Level
On to Iranian rice. Iranians are truly oryzivorous: bread may still be consumed more in rural areas, but in the cities rice has taken a firm hold. Residents of the North of the country (where the humidity allows rice to be grown) are famed for eating rice three times a day. And they eat it in quantity as well. As a guide, a standard rice measure is 180ml/6 fl oz (150g/5½oz/¾ cup). This gives a good Persian portion, but will produce at least twice as much as a regular rice eater can manage.
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Iranian rice (and brown basmati) should be soaked in cold salted water for at least 1 hour before use, but Indian or Pakistani basmati rice does not need this.
There are three basic ways of preparing Persian rice (berenj, in its raw state), although they all depend on the absorption principle.
The first and most basic is known as chelow - plain white rice - and I have given the method of preparation for this below. The second is known as pulao - it is prepared in the same way as chelow, but is made more of an event by the addition of spices, vegetables or fruit (or meat or fish) layered through the rice.
The last is known as katteh, and is prepared by absorption, but the rice isn't drained after its initial boiling, and so the rice remains waterlogged and cooks into a glutinous lump. Rice prepared this way is very popular in the north of Iran; it is certainly more nutritious and filling, as the nutrients and starch aren't drained away, but it is, shall we say, an acquired taste.
Katteh does have one very important thing going for it - it is one of the world's best remedies for an upset tummy. Last time I was feeling bleurrgh, my very sweet husband insisted on force-feeding me katteh with yoghurt, which was actually the last thing that I wanted and caused me to behave like a spoilt child at the time. But d'ya know, within half an hour I felt like a new shopkeeper. Just trust me and try it.
All Iranians aim to get a good tahdik on the bottom of their rice, regardless of how they are cooking it. Tahdik (literally, 'til the bottom of the pan') refers to the golden, sticky crust that is encouraged to form in the bottom of the pan. And which will, of course, be the top of the dish once it is inverted on to a plate. It can be achieved with practice in a normal saucepan, but for those with a penchant for eating pukka rice, I strongly recommend the purchase of a Persian rice cooker, which does all the hard work for you. They are built to last: my mother-in-law has two that have been working for over 20 years (though the removable inner pan has been replaced). They are readily found in Persian shops.
'Chelow' - White Rice
If you are using a rice cooker, wash and soak 1 measure (150g/5½oz/¾ cup) of rice per person, drain it and then tip it into the pan with 175ml/6fl oz/¾ cup water per person; add 1 teaspoon of butter/ghee and ½ teaspoon of salt per person. Cook according to the instructions for your cooker model. To serve, simply invert a plate over the pan, and turn upside down - the non-stick interiors turn out perfect rice cakes again and again.
Right, on to the slightly harder stuff - the saucepan method. This assumes you have read the preceding paragraph and that you have thus washed, soaked (if applicable) and drained your rice. Bring a pan of salted water to a rolling boil, tip the rice in, and cook for around 7 minutes; the rice should thereupon be soft outside, but still hard inside - pinching a grain between your thumb and forefinger should determine this.
Drain the rice thoroughly in a sieve (as clearly it would pass through a colander). Heat a knob of oil or ghee in the saucepan, and add 2 tablespoons water. As soon as it starts to sizzle, carefully spoon a layer of rice across the bottom, followed by another and another until all the rice is piled into the pan. Resist the temptation to pour the rice into the pan, as this will weight it down and it will not have the legendary Persian fluffiness.
Poke the handle of a spoon or a skewer down through the rice to the bottom of the pan - do this 5-6 times to make steam fumeroles. As soon as the rice starts to steam visibly, wrap the lid of the saucepan in a clean tea towel, and turn the heat down very low. The rice will take about 35 minutes to cook, although it will keep quite happily on that setting for a further 30-40 minutes, or until you are ready to serve.
To evict the rice from the pan (and it usually proves a little reluctant to move), sit the bottom of the pan in a couple of inches of water in the sink - the sudden cold will cause the rice to contract from the sides, and you should then be able to turn it on to an inverted plate with ease.
Rice - Advanced Course
Once you have achieved the above, you will be ready for the tahdik masterclass - wherein you will learn how to use assorted secret ingredients at the bottom of the pan to create the perfect crust. The most common variant is to use saffron, sprinkling a little steeped, ground saffron into the sizzling ghee just before you start to layer up the rice. Or there's always:
- Tahdik with yoghurt - Mix a spoon of the hot, drained rice with 2 tablespoons yoghurt and a beaten egg, then spread it into the hot oil - this gives a really tasty, glossy crust.
- Tahdik with potato - Peel and thinly slice 2-3 medium, waxy potatoes and lay these in the hot oil, then gently spoon the rice on top.
- Tahdik with bread - This is my favourite. Simply lay slices of flat bread in the sizzling oil - halved pitta will do, or lavash bread, or best of all, halved Arabic khobez, which is already round and will fit the saucepan. Then pile the rice in as above.
This extract is taken from Veggiestan by Sally Butcher, published by Pavilion.
Image photography by Yuki Sugiura