Rice is not nice. Undeniably delicious and nutritious, also not nice. At least not to me, attempting to cook it any and every which way, when it proves resolutely unkind. I’ve tried more water, less water, hot water, cold water, rinsing, stirring, leaving it alone, covering it, salting it and standing over it murmuring talismanic incantations like a grainy shaman. Scraping the latest mushy mass bin-wards, I conclude it is simply Not To Be.
Luckily, I have plenty of compatriots blessed with superior skills with starches to sate my cravings for pilau, biryani, bisi bele bath, puliogare and pongal. I know I’m not alone- apparently a common taunt in the Indian restaurant kitchen is ‘you’ve turned your rice into kichuri’. And friends who grew up cooking in the family restaurant spent a childhood lived in fear of ruining an expensive and profitable commodity.
So, for anyone who has yet to conquer cooking of the confounding chawal, here’s a host of tips and tricks from the savviest chefs, bloggers, supperclub hosts and friends. You can chant them out loud over the bubbling pot if you feel it’ll bring good fortune your way. But in truth, when you’re rewarded with brilliant boiled Basmati- fluffy and dry, each grain distinct- it’ll be these people you have to thank- not some magical rice God looking down on you.
Arun Kapil, Green Saffron Spices
To end with the best dish, you have to start with the best ingredients. Particularly if you’re of slight ‘culinary dunce’ persuasion. Arun Kapil’s West Cork-based company dedicated over a year to the discovery of the perfect strain of Basmati- finally ferreted out by his cousin in the Himalayan foothills. It’s highly aromatic, and exceptionally well-aged- between layers of salt for up to three years. Best of all, the elongation is such that the cooked yield is double that of inferior varieties.
Arun suggests washing and draining the rice, covering in cold water in the ratio of two parts liquid to each of grain, bringing to a rapid boil, then IMMEDIATELY reducing to a gentle simmer, and cooking half covered until all the water is absorbed. He reckons this method produces failsafe, fluffy rice fast- with the whole process taking no more than 10 minutes.
For more information, recipes, and to purchase Green Saffron’s AAA Grade Vintage Basmati, visit www.greensaffron.com
For Arun’s complete guide to perfect boiled Basmati, download the PDF.
Asma Khan, Darjeeling Express supperclub
You haven’t had biryani ‘til you’ve tried Asma’s Hyderabadi behemoth. As both Vivek Singh and diners at her regular sell-out supperclubs would attest. Asma insists you must wash the rice in cold water until it runs crystal clear, treating it gently throughout, lest the grains break. If this happens, she describes the sticky, starchy mess you’ll end up with as the broken grains cook at a faster rate than their intact siblings. And she always pre-soaks with salt prior to rinsing, for around half-an-hour.
Cyrus Todiwala, Cafe Spice Namaste
Cyrus opines that the quickest route to perfect pilau is the oven. He agrees with Arun’s 2:1 water:rice ratio, and starts the dish by sautéing whole spices and finely sliced onion in a little oil (he vigorously champions rapeseed). To this mix, Cyrus adds the water, brings to the boil, tips in the rice and cooks, stirring, ‘til the liquid’s half absorbed. Then he pops the whole dish, half covered, into a 130 degree C oven, and leaves for 20 minutes before fluffing with a fork to serve. Simple, no?
To try rice the Todiwala way, visit Cafe Spice Namaste, 16 Prescot St, London E1 8AZ, www.cafespice.co.uk
Atul Kochhar, Benares & Indian Essence
For the nervous novice unsure of cooking times, Atul suggests using a pot with a glass lid, allowing you to keep peeping without letting all the steam out. Once the recommended cooking time has passed, he forbids removal of the lid until the moment you’re ready to fluff up and serve. Rather than serving plain boiled rice, the chef likes to spice things up- a particular favourite being a steam-baked rice dish with added butter and aromatic cardamom pods.
A variety of Atul’s rice creations are on the menus at his restaurants Benares, 12a Berkeley Square House, London, W1J 6BS, www.benaresrestaurant.com; and the newly-opened Indian Essence, 176-178 Petts Wood Rd, Kent, BR5, www.indianessence.co.uk
Chrissie Walker, food writer
Collaborating with 21 of London’s top Indian chefs for Capital Spice, Chrissie knows her rice. For cooking, she suggests seeking out a superior, fragrant and flavoursome brand. She also recommends finding flaked rice- poha, which needs just brief soaking and cooking; and murmura/muri (puffed rice), to make your own chaats and snacks like bhel puri. Chrissie also loves rice in desserts like kheer, and is working on an intriguing sweet biryani with a caramel crust.
Monisha Bharadwaj, food writer
Monisha has authored a library of well-regarded, oft-awarded cookery books including the inestimable, fantastically comprehensive ‘The Indian Pantry’, providing the lowdown not just on rice but every other subcontinental ingredient imaginable. She notes that there are hundreds of methods of cooking rice, each which can be equally successful. Personally, though, she does not soak the grain, uses 2:1 water:rice ratio, and uses the absorption method- especially with flavoured pilaus.
Anjum Anand, food writer and founder of ‘The Spice Tailor’
With the testing of a full portfolio recipes for her various cookbooks under her belt, Anjum’s cooked her way through a good few sacks of rice. She’s even done it ont’ telly, dontcha know- and for Auntie, to boot. Anjum advises vigilance when purchasing, checking to ensure rice grains are intact (although the broken stuff is also purposely sold for dishes where you want it to break down quickly). She takes her time over washing, and loves brown Basmati for a nutritious change.
Vivek Singh, Cinnamon Club, Kitchen & Soho
Vivek’s got a maverick method for pilau… using a microwave. Purists might be aghast, but he promises it removes all the tricky estimation, and leaves you with no messy utensils to clean. He soaks the 250g of grain for half-an-hour, then washes, drains and pops in a dish with 375ml water and salt. In go whole spices and onion fried in ghee, and some fresh mint and coriander. Then it’s 15 minutes in the microwave before stirring, covering with clingfilm, and giving it a final 5 minute burst.
Vivek’s rice creations are showcased on the menus at Cinnamon Kitchen, Cinnamon Soho and Cinnamon Club. For more information and to book, visit www.cinnamon-kitchen.com, www.cinnamon-kitchen.com/Soho-Home, and www.cinnamonclub.com
Reza Mahammad, Chef and star of Food Network UK
If you’ve seen ‘Spice Prince of India’ you’ll recall Reza’s lavish pilaus, strewn with fruits, nuts and petals. But he can keep it simple, too- for perfect plain rice he washes 350g in hot water, rinses well in cold water, and soaks in salted water for 30 mins. The drained grain is boiled with salt in an open pan with 450ml water until craters appear on the top. The heat’s reduced and the pan covered with a dry tea towel and lid, and the rice cooked, covered, for 15-20 minutes on the lowest heat.
Reza is the patron of The Star of India restaurant and regularly livens up ITV’s ‘This Morning’ and Food Network UK. For more information, visit www.rezamahammad.co.uk. Find more rice recipes in ‘Reza’s Indian Spice’.
Meena Manchoo-Bhana, Chai Lounge supperclub
Despite being a seasoned cook, Meena admits to finding rice cooking a touch troublesome. But she’s picked up a few tricks over time, whether it’s for softer, comforting Gujerati-style starch or fluffy, loose grains (‘fly-away rice’). She sticks to the 2:1 ratio, and washes and soaks prior to boiling with salt and oil until the water’s absorbed. To keep grains separate, Meena says add a dash of lemon juice with the salt; for a stickier finish, add ½ cup boiling water to the cooked grain and let it steam.
For more information on Meena’s Chai Lounge supperclub, visit http://chailoungesupperclubedinburgh.blogspot.co.uk
Manju Malhi, food writer
Chef and writer Manju knows her way around the kitchen, having authored a generous handful of Indian cookbooks. She likes rice with sauce-based dishes, and uses ‘earthy’, aromatic Basmati for preference. Manju notes you’ll end up with twice the weight of cooked grain to raw, so 225g- 250g of uncooked rice should do 4 as an accompaniment. Leftovers must be quickly cooled and chilled, and are then good to re-use for 24 hours, either cold or re-heated until piping hot throughout.
Poornima Kirloskar-Saini, Kunda’s Kitchen
On a perpetual ‘biryani quest’- the name she’s adopted on Twitter- Poornima is particularly exacting with her grain-based dishes. She always uses Basmati, and Kohinoor is the only brand that will enter her kitchen. Once you’re happy with the water:rice ratio, Poornima suggests using a rice cooker, which you can leave to do its thing unwatched. She doesn’t add salt or ghee until cooked, in case the batch is ruined- either overseasoned or clumpy and sticky- and says never, ever stir during cooking.
Claire Fisher, Ganapati
Claire’s diners often remark how tricky they find rice. She advises them to wash the rice in a few changes of warm water, then soak for 20 minutes in a decent amount of warm water to remove starch and reduces cooking time. To cook, Claire brings a large pan of water to a rolling boil, adds the drained rice, gives it a quick stir, and salts. After about ten minutes, the cooked grain will float to the surface- taste a bit to check. Drain in a colander and let sit for 10 minutes more.
Ivor Peters, Urban Rajah
Blogger and culinary adventurer Ivor likes to start his rice by coating it in the oil that he’s fried onions and whole spices in, ‘til the onions are translucent and the cumin and coriander seeds, bay leaf and green cardamom pods are aromatic. Then he adds water and salt to cover the grain by 1cm, when he says, poetically, ‘the mix will cackle as the water mocks the oil’. He stirs, and keeps topping up the water until it’s absorbed, adding a scatter of ‘pert, plucky peas’ just before the rice is fully cooked.
And, finally- a couple of solid book recommendations from my extensive library, useful for all things rice:
- Jenni Muir’s ‘A Cook’s Guide To Grains‘, published by Conran Octopus
- Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid’s ‘Seductions of Rice‘, published by Artisan
- Michael Freeman’s ‘Ricelands- The World of South-east Asian Food‘, published by Reaktion Books Ltd.
- Shilpi Gupta & world chefs’ ‘Basmati- Fragrance, Flavour & Finery‘, published by APEDA