In any conversation I have with friends we always get on to talking about food. It’s not just us: as far as I can see, it happens to everyone. And when cooking comes up there’s always someone who takes the opportunity to query me about dishes that never work out of them. It’s not complex dishes that are giving problems but some of the simplest ones in the book: like how to time the boiling of an egg so that the white is just set and the yolk nicely runny.
The query that crops up most of the time isn’t about eggs. It concerns rice —not paellas or risottos or Indian biryanis or other elaborate dishes in which so many little things can go wrong, but how to cook a decent plain white rice.This is not surprising when you consider that a survey not so long ago showed that 68 per cent of Britons said they cannot cook rice. The dish that causes most problems, even with housewives who are said to be good cooks, is plain white rice, the one we serve with a curry or other meat dishes in a sauce. A good plain white rice should be cooked through and should be dry and fluffy with every grain separate. How many of us get it like that?
Many cookbook writers tell you that rice, like pasta, should be cooked in vast amounts of water and drained when al dente. That method, at best, is a hit and miss affair and more often than it’s a bit of a disaster. Huge quantities of rice are consumed every day throughout Asia, so it makes sense to look at how plain white rice is cooked in that part of the world. The Chinese, Japanese and most other Orientals cook rice by the absorption method. This entails simmering the rice in a small amount of water that gets completely absorbed by the time the rice is cooked. It’s a simple technique, involves no fuss and, most important of all, it produces perfectly cooked white rice. This way of doing rice evolved because of the eternal shortages of water and fuel in the Far East as well as lack of kitchen space.
When making a plain white rice to serve with savoury Indian, Chinese or Middle Eastern dishes, you should always use the long grain variety. Authentic basmati imported from India is the one I prefer and it costs around €4.50 for a one kilo bag. Genuine jasmine, usually imported from Thailand, is also ideal and costs about €3.50. At supermarkets you will see basmati rice imported from India but costing around €2.50 a kilo. Why this huge difference in price? It’s because the authentic kind is stored for two years with aromatics of various kinds before being released for sale. When cooked it has a superb aroma and taste. The other basmatis, so abundant that most supermarkets have their own brand, are simply basmati rice that has been harvested and packed without undergoing those two years exposed to lovely aromatics. Is it worth paying the extra cost? I most certainly think so. When a genuine basmati is being cooked, the aromas fill the whole house, not just the kitchen. That alone is a lovely gastronomic delight.
However, if I have run out of genuine basmati rice and don’t have time to go to a Chinese or Indian supermarket in the Plaza Pedro Garau area, I use the basmati at El Corte Inglés. But it pays to visit the Chinese and Indian shops from time to time to stock up on imported products like basmati rice and genuine Asian noodles, of which there is a huge selection.
When making any kind of rice dish, the amount per person depends entirely on individual appetites. Most restaurants use 80-100grs of uncooked rice per person in paellas and similar dishes. A few of the more generous ones use 125grs, which makes a good main course for one or enough for two as a starter. When cooking plain white rice to accompany Indian, Chinese or Middle Eastern food, calculate 100grs per person plus 100-200grs for the pot. That should provide enough rice to allow for those with big appetites. If not, take note and next time use more. And if it’s too much, you can use the leftovers for another dish, perhaps a stuffing for chicken, aubergines, red peppers or tomatoes.
Rice cooked by the absorption method should first be washed twice in a big bowl of cold water. Strain it through a wire sieve and let it drain until you are ready to cook it. This can be done several hours in advance. Now comes the tricky bit: calculating the amount of water. Even if you always use the same brand of rice, it will not absorb water at a fixed rate. And different varieties have distinct absorption levels.
Another complication is that the age of the rice also plays a part: the older the rice, the more water it will absorb. So I can only give you guidelines on the amount of water you’ll need. For genuine Indian basmati or Thai jasmine, I allow the same volume of water as rice plus an extra 25 per cent. So for four measures of rice I use five of water. If I’m using only one cup of rice, then I add a cup and a quarter cup. Use a heavy based saucepan with a tight-fitting lid if you have one. Pour in the washed and drained rice and add the cold water. At this stage you can add salt to taste, although Orientals never do so. As they eat highly flavoured dishes, they reckon that the rice doesn’t need any salt. Bring the saucepan to the boil over a high heat, give the rice a single stir, put the lid on and lower the heat as much as possible. Use a heat diffusor if you have one. From the moment you lower the heat, cook the rice for exactly 10 minutes. Take the saucepan off the heat and leave it for another 10 minutes. The lid must not be taken off the saucepan during this 20-minute period. This 20-minute cooking time works perfectly for me when I use a cast-iron saucepan. You may find you want to change the cooking time by a couple of minutes either way.
These cooking times are for authentic Indian basmati and Thai jasmine. European long grain rice, and even a supermarket’s own brand basmati from India, are inferior in quality and call for shorter cooking times. If you make plain white rice frequently, there’s another very successful method. Go to a Chinese supermarket, such as the one in Calle Capitán Vila just off the Plaza Pedro Garau, and buy a Chinese electric rice cooker.
They have several sizes. I use the 2-litre one and it’s ideal for doing two to eight portions. Nowadays it’s the only method I use. Prices are most reasonable.