Rice

Rice

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

In the West – by which, rather ethnocentrically, we mean Australia, North America, England and most of western Europe – people traditionally have not eaten much rice. Rice is, at best, a starchy stomach-filling accompaniment to Chinese or Indian takeaways and, at worst, bland, pappy baby food.

Almost unfathomable then, is the fact that rice is the main sustenance of nearly three-quarters of the world’s population, largely because of economic necessity but also, curiously, through choice. All around West Africa, India, China and South-East Asia people have developed a fierce devotion to this grain, each community preferring their own particular local variety, for its unique texture, aroma and flavour – differences which most of us in the West would be hard pressed to distinguish. But even those Mediterranean countries which grow their own small (in world terms) rice crops prefer the home-grown variety: for northern Italians there is only Arborio, ideally a superfino such as Carnaroli or Vialone Nano; for Spaniards a paella can only be made with their very own arroz de Valencia.

In the Middle East, rice is also a serious business. Like bread, it is often referred to as ‘aishi’ (the Arabic word for ‘life’) and forms the basis of most daily meals. However, it is not native to the Middle East. The first grain of choice in this region was wheat, which originated and flourished in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers known as the ‘Fertile Crescent’. The origins of rice are somewhat less clear. Primitive strains of numerous different varieties are believed to have evolved independently all through Asia, but its earliest cultivation is thought to have centred around the hot, humid foothills of the mountainous region between China and India. Its spread from there was comparatively slow, for rice cultivation requires sophisticated farming and irrigation techniques.

Rice is though to have reached ancient Persia via northern India about 2000 years ago. The Persians, with their farming know-how and advanced irrigation systems, farmed it quite happily for several hundred years. It was virtually unknown in Europe, though, until the Arabs started cultivating it in their new territories. They took it with them as they forged a trail west from Persia, introducing it on the way to Turkey, Sicily and Spain, until by the tenth century the secrets of irrigation and rice cultivation were known throughout the Muslim world, and began to influence local cuisines in ways that endure to this day.

Selecting, storing and using rice

There are many thousands of different varieties of rice cultivated around the world. If you would like to know more about rice, The Rice Book by Sri Owen makes compelling reading. On the whole, though, Middle Easterners use long-grain rice, unless making a stuffing or puddings, in which case short-grain rice is preferred.

Long-grain: as a general rule, long-grain rices are the least starchy, so the individual grains remain separate, dry and fluffy after cooking. For this reason they are ideally suited to savoury dishes and pilafs. Good quality long-grain rices include the aromatic basmati rice and fragrant jasmine rice, although the latter’s very distinct flavour is probably better suited to Thai dishes. For many Middle Eastern rice dishes we use a good basmati rice, which swells up to three times longer on cooking, but retains its elegant slimness.

Medium- and short-grain: medium-grain rices are plumper and shorter than long-grain varieties, and are ideal for the Chinese style of cooking. Short-grain rices are the plumpest and shortest of all, and tend to be starchier and quite sticky when cooked. They are good for Middle Eastern stuffing mixtures and other dishes for which the rice is required to clump together, such as Japanese sushi and Spanish paella. Their propensity to break down to a soothing, creamy mass also makes short-grain rices perfect for puddings.

Risotto rice, known as ‘arborio’, is probably better defined as round-grain. Its grains are larger, with a firm, chalky centre. Risotto rice is never washed before cooking, as the lovely, smooth, surface starchiness is essential for making creamy rich risottos. Our favourite risotto rices are Vialone Nano and Carnaroli.

Other varieties of rice, outside the scope of this book, are South-East Asian varieties such as glutinous rice and black rice. Then there is red rice from the Camargue in France, and brown rice which has its bran still attached and is enjoyed by the virtuous and nutrition-conscious. Wild rice is not rice at all, but the strong-flavoured grain from a species of North American wild grass.

As far as storing rice goes, the same rule applies to them all: once opened, the packet should be kept it in an airtight container. The general consensus is that most refined rices available in the West keep fairly well for up to three years, although aromatic rices gradually lose their fragrance. Cooked rice has a surprisingly short life span. Harmful bacteria will grow very quickly above 4°C, and will even grow slowly in the refrigerator. Cooked rice should therefore be refrigerated and eaten within two days.

Using rice

In the Middle East, rice cooking is almost an art form and different regions and even different families swear by their own particular method. At its most straightforward, long-grain rice (which is preferred for most occasions) is cooked by a simple absorption method, so that each perfect spoonful is light and fluffy, never sticky, each grain firm and separate.

From here the variations are endless – some people like to sauté the rice in a little oil or butter first, others add this afterwards. Some people soak, others don’t even wash the rice first. Many people cover the rice with a tight-fitting lid, others only partly cover the pan. Even the amount of cooking water used and the cooking time will be endlessly disputed.

We have included in this book a number of risotto dishes, which are of course not at all Middle Eastern. Greg spent part of his training in Italy, where he cooked risotto every day. As a result he is quite passionate about it – he always includes a risotto dish on his menus and we cook it at home as a regular treat. They work beautifully with many Middle Eastern ingredients and make a terrific accompaniment to many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes.

Recipes in this Chapter

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