In Search of the Holy Grain….Rice

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by rice.

The Holy Grain…Rice

The first memories are connected to my mother’s chicken soup. Many times instead of the usual vermicelli in the soup it would be served with rice.  I would heap mounds of the fluffy fragrant grain into the soup and mix it with the vegetables, creating a sort of concoction that in later life I would recognize as the ultimate Asian comfort food, Congee. Of course I was only about 12 at the time and had no idea what congee was.

Rice was a frequent part of our family menu and I can still remember my mother’s and my sister’s attempts at more exotic fare such as fried rice with cabbage or rice and peas.  My sister has eventually gone on to become an excellent cook. The curries and Biriani that she learnt to make in later life from her husband’s family still remain one of my all time favorite food memories.

In due course as I grew up and became more and more fascinated with all things culinary I would scour my scores of cook books and magazines for any recipe that included rice. For some reason rice just made sense and has remained until today my favorite cooking ingredient and my ultimate comfort food.

Eventually I went on to become a working chef and F&B professional and my travels have taken me to many parts of the world where rice is not only the staple but the ultimate staff of life…the holy grain.

The cultivation of rice has gone hand in hand with the social development of many cultures. Every ethnic society has its own way of harvesting; processing and eating rice which has in many ways formed the dietary habits of its cultivators and consumers.

The actually origin of rice cultivation has not been identified for sure but many experts indicate to the area of southern India around 12,00 years ago although others  negate this view and point towards the area of the Yangtze river in China as the another possible origin.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice     Ancient Rice Cultivation

Whichever is more correct the cultivation of the grain then migrated eastward and southward more than five thousand years ago and spreading into all of Asia becoming the staple food  of these “rice-fish societies”.

A typical Chinese / Asian greeting instead of “How are you?” is “Have you had your rice today?”

Eventually rice cultivation spread westward into Persia and Egypt and in due course Asiatic rice was brought by the Moors to Africa and the Iberian peninsula in the 10th century and on to Sicily where it eventually migrated Northwards into Italy proper, the Lombardy plains and the River Po where it was to become a staple crop and a feature of Northern Italian cuisine.

After the 15th century, rice spread throughout Europe and across the seas to the Americas by the Spanish conquerors as well as the African slaves that were brought over to work the plantations that included rice cultivation. The combination of rice and legumes characterizes cuisines from Cajun to Mexican.

Making this trans-cultural migration of the simple grain into the ultimate “fusion” cuisine.

Rice is probably the ultimate comfort food as well as the staple and every culture has its own favorites.

I am fortunate to have been able to sample a lot of these rice delicacies in their native surroundings with authentic flavors and cooking methods. The list is far too long to bring them all to you here in this blog but the following are just as few of my favorites.

Let’s start at home in Israel. There is no one identifiable Israeli style of cooking as Israel is a country of immigrants from all over the world who have brought with them their own “kosher” versions of the dishes that they knew from their previous host countries as well as many typical Middle Eastern  recipes that have become part of the daily menu repetoire .

T’beet

Chicken stuffed with rice and spices, slow cooked buried in more rice and spices for 24 hours is the traditional Sabbath meal of the Jews of Iraq. The aromatic spices of cinnamon, cardamom and pepper used in this slow-cooking dish give the rice and chicken a wonderful and delicate flavour.
Serves 8

T’beet. Iraqi Jewish Sabbath dish of chicken stuffed with rice and spices

Ingredients:

450 gram basmati rice

3 teaspoons cardamom

1 teaspoon cinnamon

3 teaspoons paprika

2 teaspoons black pepper

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons turmeric

5 teaspoons salt

1 cup chicken gizzards

1 whole chicken

4 chicken necks

8 eggs (or one for every diner)

Directions:

1.  Mix one cup of the rice with 1 teaspoon each of the spices and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Add the gizzards and mix.

2.  Stuff the chicken with the rice mixture (keep any leftover rice for later). Tie the chicken legs together and use toothpicks to fasten the opening.

3.  Put the chicken chest side down in a greased pot with the chicken necks. Add 4 cups of water and the rest of the spices and salt and bring to boil over high heat. Lower the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes. Turn the chicken chest side up and cook for 5 minutes more.

4.  Now add the rest of the rice (about 4 more glasses) all around the chicken and cook for 10 minutes more. In the meantime turn your oven to 225 degrees. Arrange the eggs above the rice.

5.  Cover the pot with the lid and then wrap aluminium around it, to keep the steam in. Transfer the pot into the oven for 7 hours or for the night.

6.  Before serving, pour 1 cup of water into the stew, to help release it from the pot. Let stand for 5 minutes. Transfer the eggs to a serving dish. Cover the pot with a very large platter and flip the whole stew into it. Or simply serve straight from the pot.

Majadra

A staple in every Middle Eastern country including Israel, the combination of lentils and rice topped with fried onions. It’s tasty, satisfying, and nutritious.

Ingredients

450 gram large brown lentils, washed, soaked if required

1 onion, finely chopped

Olive oil

Salt and black pepper

200 gram long-grain rice (Persian Style), washed

2 onions, sliced into half-moon shapes

Directions

Boil lentils in water to cover until tender. Fry the chopped onion in 2 tablespoons oil until soft and golden. Add it to the lentils and season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix well and add rice, together with 2 cups (400 ml) of water. Season again and simmer gently, covered, for about 20 minutes until the rice is cooked and each grain separate.

Fry the sliced onions in 2 tablespoons very hot oil until they are brown and sweet, almost caramelized.

Serve the rice and lentils on a large shallow dish, garnished with fried onion slices.

This dish is delicious served either hot or cold and accompanied by yoghurt.

Italian Risotto          

Risotto with peas and zucchini

The classic Italian Risotto is a rice dish prepared with feeling and love. A dish that once you start you need to caress and cajole into a smooth and rich texture of firm rice grains bound in a velvety sauce, making it unlike any other rice dish in the world.  Only use specific types of rice with the highest content of the glutinous starch that produces the creamy texture for traditional risotto. Rice cultivated in the Po valley of Italy such Arborio rice, Vialone and Carnaroli.

Zucchini and Pea Risotto
Ingredients

200g risotto rice.
1 small stick of celery, chopped finely.
1 small onion, chopped finely.
1 clove of garlic, chopped finely.

200 gram frozen or fresh garden peas, blanched

2 small zucchinis scraped and diced, blanched
1 glass of white wine.
1 liter (or so) of chicken stock, in a saucepan, next to the risotto pan.
Olive Oil
Salt and Black Pepper

Butter.
Parmesan cheese or Grana Pardano

A squeeze of lemon.
Optional: fresh parsley (not dried)

Method

1. In a thick bottomed pan heat the olive oil and gently sauté the celery, onion and garlic without coloring.

2. Turn up the heat to medium-high and add the rice and stir.

3. Add the wine and stir until most of the liquid has evaporated.

4. Turn the heat down to medium and add a ladle of stock along with a good pinch of salt. Stir.

5. Keep stirring gently until the stock has been absorbed by the rice.

6. Repeat adding stock and stirring until absorbed  and the rice becomes soft on the outside with a bite in the middle (al dente)  it should creamy but and dry.

7.  At this point, add the vegetables to the pan. And continue to cook

8. To finish, off the heat add a knob of butter, the grated cheese, a squeeze of lemon and if using, a sprinkle of chopped parsley.

9. It is important to put the lid on and let it rest for up to three minutes. This allows all the flavors to fuse. Taste and season accordingly.

10. To serve, ladle into a big bowl and add a final flourish of grated parmesan, a further sprinkle of freshly-ground black pepper and a quick drizzle of olive oil.

China

Yang Zhou Fried Rice is one of the most popular varieties of fried rice served in almost every Chinese restaurant around the world. Chinese barbecued pork or ‘cha shao’ (叉烧) is an essential ingredient in Yang Zhou Fried Rice. It is the barbeque pork that gives it its special sweetish flavour.
Ingredients:
3 cups cooked, cold rice (Thai Jasmine makes the best)

Yang Zhou Fried rice

1/2 cup shelled and cleaned shrimps
1/2 cup Chinese barbecued pork (cha shao/叉烧)
1/2 cup green peas
2 eggs – lightly beaten
3 stalks green onion (scallions) – chopped
3 Tbsp cooking oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp sugar
2 cloves garlic
3 thin slices ginger
1/2 tsp soy sauce
Dash of salt and pepper
Method:
1. Mix the salt and sugar with shrimps and let marinate for 20 minutes.
2. Heat wok on medium heat and add cooking oil. Fry Ingredients the garlic and ginger for a few seconds until fragrant, then add shrimps. Stir-fry till shrimps change colour & and remove, leaving oil in wok.
3. Pour in beaten eggs and scramble slightly. Add in rice, salt and pepper, soy sauce sugar, stir-fry for a few seconds. Then add barbecued pork, cooked prawns and green peas. Continue frying for several minutes till rice is aromatic.
4. Add green scallions and turn off heat.
5. Mix well and serve.

India
Biryani a rice-based casserole of fragrant spices, meat and vegetables originating in Persia and brought to the Indian sub-continent by merchants and travellers and adopted and perfected by the Mogul rulers of Northern India into Mughlai Biryani, a regal dish fit for a king or Rajah.

Moghul Lamb Biryani

Ingredients:

1kg lamb/ chicken cut into 2″ pieces (if using chicken, use breast or thigh fillet)

4 large onions sliced thin

2 tsps garlic paste

2 tsps ginger paste

1/2 cup peeled almonds

6 tbsps ghee/ vegetable/ canola/ sunflower cooking oil

1 stick of cinnamon

5 cloves

3 pods cardamom

8 peppercorns

2 tsps coriander powder

1 1/2 tsps cumin powder

1 tsp garam masala

1 cup yoghurt

Juice of 1 lime

1 cup chicken/ beef stock

2 tbsps finely chopped coriander leaves

2 tbsps finely chopped mint leaves

2 cups Basmati rice

Hot water

Salt to taste

 Preparation:

Mix the garlic and ginger pastes, add the almonds and grind to a smooth paste in a food processor.

Wash the rice in a sieve and add enough water to fully cover the rice. Add salt to taste. Set the rice up to boil. Cook till almost done. Turn off the fire. Strain through a colander and keep drained aside.

Heat 3 tbsps of oil in a pan and fry 2 of the onions till golden brown. Drain and keep aside on paper towels for later

Heat 3 tbsps of oil and add the whole spices – cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and peppercorns. Fry till the spices turn a little darker.

Add the 2 remaining onions and fry till they are translucent.

Add the ginger-garlic-almond paste and fry for 2-3 minutes.

Add all the spice powders – coriander, cumin and garam masala and mix well.

Fry till the oil begins to separate from the masala and then add the lamb/ chicken. Keep frying till the meat is fully sealed.

Now add the yoghurt, lime juice, stock, coriander and mint leaves and salt to taste. Mix well.

Cover the pot and allow cooking till the meat is tender.

Grease a deep baking dish and evenly layer the cooked rice, meat (and its gravy) in it to form at least 2 sets of layers (rice-meat-rice-meat-rice). Garnish with the previously caramelized onions. Cover the dish tightly aluminum foil.

Put in a pre-heated oven set at 180 C for 20 minutes.

Turn off the oven and let the dish sit in the oven till you are ready to eat. Only open when you are ready to eat. The way to serve Biryani is to gently dig in with a spoon so you get through the layers.

Eat together with a yogurt, cucumber and onion raita

Bali / Indonesia

To the Balinese rice is more than just the staple food; it is a fundamental part of the Balinese culture. The ceremonial festivals celebrating the cycle of planting, maintaining, irrigating, and harvesting rice enrich the cultural life of Bali beyond a single staple can ever hope to do.

Here are two of the ultimate rice recipes courtesy of my good friend chef Heinz von Holzen of Bumbu Bali fame http://www.balifoods.com/

Nasi Kunning (Balinese Yellow Rice)
Yellow, one of the four sacred colors makes this festive rice dish strikingly different from the normal, everyday steamed rice. The rice is cooked in lightly seasoned coconut milk and chicken stock for extra flavour, while the touch of oil in the coconut milk gives it a glistening appearance and keeps each grain separate.

Ingredients:
1½ cups long grain rice, washed and drained  
2½ cups coconut milk
¾ cup chicken stock
1 salam leaf (substitute curry leaves which can be found in Indian grocery stores)
1 pandan leaf
1 stalk lemon grass, bruised
2 tbsp turmeric water
2 cm galangal cut in 4 lengthwise slices (can substitute fresh young ginger root)
1 tbsp salt

Preparation:
Combine all ingredients in rice cooker or heavy stockpot and simmer, covered until done.
If your are not using a rice cooker, cook the rice over high heat until the liquid comes to the boil, then lower heat and cook gently so that the coconut milk does not catch and burn on the bottom of the pan.

 NASI GORENG (Fried Rice)

There are about as many different ways of preparing Nasi Goreng in Bali, as there are cooks. The only constant ingredient is rice; everything else is determined by the cook’s taste or the availability of ingredients. Please be certain to use only cold rice, as warm rice will stick to the wok.

Ingredients:

Indonesian Nasi Goreng

6 tbsp oil
6 shallots, peeled, halves length wise and sliced
6 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
200 gram   chicken meat, sliced
150 gram medium size shrimp, peeled
¼ small white cabbage, shredded
4 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp sambal tomat or Sambal oelek (Indonesian spice pastes found in most Asian groceries
700 gram cold cooked rice
2 tsp salt
1 tsp sliced bird’s eye chillies
2 tbsp fried shallot

1 fried egg

sliced tomato and cucumber

Preparation:
1. Heat vegetable oil in wok or heavy fry pan until very hot.
2. Add shallots and garlic and fry for 1 minute until golden yellow.
3. Add chicken and shrimp and fry for 1 minute, and then add cabbage and fry for 1 minute. Add sambal and mix well.
4. Add eggs and continuously stir for 30 seconds before adding rice and salt. Increase to very high heat and fry for 3 more minute, stir continuously.
5. Add chillies, mix well and serve immediately, garnished withsliced tomatoes and cucumber, fried shallots and a fried egg.

These are just few of my favorite dishes. The recipes for many more are listed under the recipe section of this blog as well as a glossary of the different rice types:

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