Southern Angola, early nineties...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The basics (1) - Boiled Rice

If, like me, you thought that cooking rice meant simply tossing a load of it into a pan and boiling the hell out of it until it was soft and then draining the excess water away before serving the sticky mess, then you might be surprised to learn that some people treat the cooking of rice as seriously as they would do a main dish and have turned it into a fine art. Like so much fine art, its secret lies in its simplicity.

We were clearing landmines from a road in Northern Mozambique and, being both tired of cooking slops for ourselves, and now close to a local village, we employed a young girl to cook for us. I showed her what ingredients we had and when I told her to serve the dish with boiled rice as well, she asked for garlic, onions, bay leaves and olive oil. To make boiled rice? Hungry and not wanting to waste time arguing, I gave her the few Meticais necessary for her to buy the extra ingredients and she duly cooked and served up the dish. Brilliant. The rice was fantastic. No gloopy, sticky mess, just al dente, steaming white rice that flowed off the serving spoon and onto the plate. That evening, I paid close attention to the way she made it.

First, get some fresh water up to the boil.

Take a clove of garlic and an onion and chop them up as finely as possible.

Put a pan on the heat and pour in a couple of tablespoon’s full of olive oil and heat the oil up.

Tip in the chopped garlic and onion, and a bay leaf and sweat the ingredients off. Do not let the onion brown, all we want is that soft, glassy texture.

Pour in a mug full of rice and stir it around until all the rice is golden with the oil and starting to stick on the bottom of the pan. Again, do not let the rice burn brown, all we want to do is heat it up and get it to absorb the oil.

Take the same mug you used to pour in the rice and use it to pour in a mug and a half of boiling water into the rice. It will sizzle like mad and the rice will stick to the pan so use a wooden spatula to move it around and unstick it. Sling in salt to taste and then stop stirring, put the lid on the pan and turn the heat down not to low, but a lowish sort of medium. We do not want it to cook too fast, but equally, we do not want it to steam away so slowly it turns to sludge. Please be brave and resist stirring it every few seconds. Try to ignore the pan for about ten minutes.

Have a squint at the rice. The water level should now be below the level of the rice and the surface of the rice should be cratered as the plop, plop, plop of boiling steam forces its way through the surface. Give it a quick, gentle stir just to make sure that there is nothing sticking to the bottom of the pan and that there is no free water left (if there is and the rice is still very wet, give it a few minutes longer), have a nibble of the rice to ensure that it is almost completely soft (the middle should be a little solid still but not crunchy) and then put the lid back on, turn off the heat and leave the rice to steam gently in its own moisture.

Ten minutes later, just before serving, fold the rice over a couple of times with the spatula and transfer it to the serving dish or straight onto the plates. Remove the bay leaf when you come across it.

The thing is, you will not see a single bit of onion in the rice. All you will see is beautifully cooked rice with a lovely texture, not at all sticky (unless you could not resist stirring it every few seconds). Timing and the quantity of water do depend to a certain extent on the type of rice so the trick is to practice a bit with the rice you like/is locally available. The secret is not to keep messing with it and stir too much, just let it cook in its own time.

If you are doing, say, a curry and want the rice yellow, then sling a bit of saffron (we could get that in Mozambique by the bucketful, believe it or not) or a small teaspoonful of turmeric in with the onions when you first fry them up.


JC said...

Followed this recipe tonight and can't believe the difference! Thank you.

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