[Living Within September 2018]
As a child, I always thought that I liked rice, without realising that I really knew nothing about it. But then I grew up in a house where we kept ‘Uncle Ben’ in the cupboard for use on rare occasions as a foolproof, ‘perfect accompaniment’ to a foolish stew masquerading as ‘curry’ (‘curry-powder’, raisins and apples transforming an English stew into something without provenance anywhere except 1970’s England).
To save my family further blushes, we didn’t yet know what we didn’t yet know. To start with, we didn’t know about the variety, culinary sophistication and importance of this staple in other parts of the world; come to think of it we didn’t know much about the complexity of the civil rights movement either, and how those who manufactured ‘Uncle Ben’ relate (or don’t) to that struggle -- I can only look back now and say that we had an awful lot to learn.
And I have learned much since then; first about Basmati rice, from my husband, who taught me a method of preparation and cooking that would bring out all the best qualities of this elegant and aromatic grain -- including adding just enough skill, water, heat, and confidence to allow the ‘alchemy’ of the ‘absorption method’ to happen. I have also learned through research, experience and practice about the ‘dum’ style used for biryani dishes – where the rice is soaked, partially cooked, strained then steamed with multiple layers of pre-prepared flavour and fragrance sealed tightly inside.
Most recently I have learned from Iranians – from whom the Subcontinent adapted its ‘dum’ technique many centuries ago. Iranians prize a high quality, super long grain rice – more robust than Basmati, perhaps less fragrant, but not widely available in this part of the world in any case. They call their method ‘chelo’ and they expect to develop a crust (known as a ‘tahdig’) as an extra special treat and part of its magic. I cooked a version this week with a classic Iranian combination of broad beans and dill that my daughter calls ‘the best rice in the world’ – and with grateful thanks to those who have taught me, I think I might agree with her. The method is as follows.
Wash a quantity of good quality long-grain rice (I used basmati) in as many changes of clean water as it takes for the rice to stop giving off any milky starch. Leave this rice soaking in enough well salted, clean, cold water to cover it by at least an inch or more while you prepare the rest.
Slice an onion(one medium onion will be enough for about 2 – 4 servings of rice) and one or two fat cloves of garlic. Soften in a pan with some oiland/or butter; add a little salt towards the end of cooking time. The onion should be soft and sweet when it is done, but needn’t take on any colour (although it won’t matter if it does).
Pod a generous quantity of broad beans (or use frozen ones if fresh ones are not available) – take them down to their inner bright green kernel if you want this dish at its finest – fresh podded beans will slip out of their loose pale green casings most easily if you blanch them in some boiling water for a minute first). Wash and dry a large bunch of dill leaves (discard the stalks), and chop finely. Add the podded beans and the chopped dill to the onions and garlic and cook gently together for a minute or two; adjust seasoning.
Put a large pan of water onto boil – when it is at a rolling boil, add salt with a fair amount of abandon, and add the soaked rice; allow the rice to boil for about 3-5 minutes (until the grain has extended but leaving it ‘al dente’ at its core). Drain the rice in a large sieve immediately it gets to this stage (one where the holes are fine enough to hold the rice) and run a little cold water over to stop it cooking further.
Take a pan with a heavy base, and a lid-- of a size that will easily accommodate the rice in two generous layers; have a clean tea towel ready. Heat some more oil and/or butterin the base of the pan (you can add a little pre-prepared saffron at this stage too if you want to), and when it is heated, add a layer of rice followed by a layer of beans and onions and then cover with a final layer of rice (if you are cooking in large enough quantities for a crowd, you can add several layers of each). Poke some holes in the rice with the round handle of a wooden spoon (and you can pour in a little more soaked saffron if you want to add additional elegance and flavour), then clamp the lid on top with the tea-towel wrapped safely round it, and leave to cook, turned to a low heat, for about 30 minutes – don’t be tempted to lift the lid during cooking! Turn off the heat, leave for a further 5 minutes, then turn out the rice, which should be perfectly separate and fluffy, forking the beans and onions through as you do so, and breaking up the crust that should have formed on the bottom to use as a garnish. Serve as an accompaniment to something else, or as a meal in its own right, maybe with some salad and yoghurt.
The Serpentine Galleries are featuring ‘Rice’ on Thursday 13 September, as part of their ‘Radical Kitchen’ lunchtime series of events at this year’s Summer Pavilion -- open to the public.