Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cooking Rice, Part I

Imagine you've enrolled in culinary school. You've done with the poultry module, the fish module..... You've learned how to bake bread, make cheese, do pastry.... You've mastered French, Italian and Chinese cuisine. Now you've got to fulfill the requirements for Middle Eastern & North African cooking. Among this group of cuisines (Moroccan, Turkish, Tunisian, Lebanese, Persian.. ) you choose Persian cuisine. *

What would be the first lesson you would learn? Got it! cooking rice.

A professor of psychology in one of US colleges (bringing up memories of the days he was dating a Persian girl) mentioned that:

"Persian rice is unique, the process takes a week, they pre-soak it, leave it for a day, then boil it, then steam it…It tastes awesome. It’s the best type of rice I’ve ever had in my life.

As I mentioned when I gave a lecture at Harvard** on How to Cook Persian-style Rice, just as Eskimos have around 50 words for snow, using different ones for "falling snow" and "fallen snow", Persians have different names for rice, depending on the way it is prepared.

Rice is the main staple in Persian dishes and its prepared in a rather different way compared to other cuisines.

Let me tell you a story: a Persian friend of mine goes to an East Asian country for a science conference. At lunch he sits next to a Japanese guy and both start complaining about the quality of the rice they were eating. "This is bad", says my friend, and "Yeah, its horrible" replies the Japanese guy. They keep on nagging until after a while my friend realises that while they are both unhappy with their rice dish, they would feel disgusted at what the other person thinks as the ideal rice! That is my friend considered its too sticky, while the Japanese guy thought its not sticky enough!

Yes, persian-style rice is not sticky, its not supposed to be sticky, and it should not be sticky (except for kate, a particular type that people living near the Caspian sea prepare). Since the rice is fluffy and the grains are well separated, its difficult to eat it with a fork, thus you need a spoon.

Yes, we eat rice with a spoon and I cant think of eating rice with a fork, except for risotto.

Rice being the main staple in persian cuisine, can be prepared in a variety of ways. It might be drained (aab-kesh, literally meaning water-drained) after being parboiled and then steamed. Alternatively, it might be steamed after the water has evaporated through boiling (dami). Among the terminology, there are two other ones: Polou and Chelou, the former being used for rice mixed with meat, vegetables, fruits, herbs, legumes and nuts, while the latter is applied to plain rice served with stews or kebabs: A useful (counter-intuitive) mnemonic is polou, starting with "p" is NOT plain!!

The scientist would say polou vs. chelou and dami vs. aabkesh are orthogonal axes regarding each other: that is your rice could be either polou or chelou and at the same time either aab-kesh or dami .


* This culinary school is definitely not CIA, as to my knowledge although having master chefs from 16 different countries, they don't teach Persian cuisine!

** Don't get me wrong! I don't teach at Harvard (at least Harvard does not offer any culinary degree!) Actually I had to take a course on Instructional Styles during my second year and give a 5-min mini-lecture on whatever topic I prefer, so I picked up one which would be fun and of most interest to a general audience.

Cooking Rice, Part I continues

I will give instructions on how to make aab-kesh. Although involving a few more steps, it gives way better results and there is less room for things going wrong. So why bother with learning dami? the fact is its believed draining the parboiled rice would remove some of the nutrients during the procedure. This is probably true, however, at least nowadays rice is not the sole source of nutrients, so don't worry about malnutrition if you aim at making the higher quality version.

To get started, you need rice. The type of rice which I find in US most similar to various persian rice is (long grain) basmati. Of course, this is not exactly the same as persian rices: the ones at home (the high-quality ones of course) give off a fragrance even when uncooked, and if not, you faire de "haah" ***, and then your olfactory apparatus would be pervaded with the aroma. Anyway, basmati is the best available choice, and the rey is pretty good (another persian rice terminology refering to the increase in length of a rice grain after cooking).

What I do is go to an Indian store and get my basmati rice over there. Recently I've been getting Zafarani, but you will be happy with any other basmati you find there.

Remember, if you want to to have rice for lunch, you've got to make the decision the night before! The reason is that you need to wash and pre-soak the rice for a few hours. My mom also inspected the rice in advance, making sure there were no pebbles, but that is not necessary with rice bought in US (at least till now people have not reported encounters with them, nor have the dentists!). Washing is done with cold or lukewarm water, covering the rice, emptying the water and repeating it 3-4 times. It removes both the excessive starch coating the rice and the smell of the burlap, from which most rice sacks are made of. Pre-soaking is just covering the washed rice with cold water, adding 2-3 tablespoons of salt for each cup of rice, and leaving it away for a couple of hours.

Are you saying I've got to decide on what to eat for lunch before I've had dinner the night before??? Well, the more you pre-soak the rice, the better the quality you get. However, if you do it for even half an hour or less, provided you don't skip any further step, the rice will still be delectable.

Wait till the next post to pursue your Persian culinary adventure!


*** As if warming up your hands with steam from an exhalation in a Boston-like winter weather! (isn't there any English verb for this action?!!)


Anna said...

It's curious that you pre-soak the rice with salt. Does that do something special to the rice? Looking forward to the next installment of the rice-cooking primer!

maryam a said...

It seems fantastic.keep moving forward.

mehdi said...

Welcome Anna!

I liked your Q, as I had not thought about it before. I would think of 3 reasons for pre-soaking rice:

I)Historically, rock salt was used as the salt, which is cheaper than ordinary salt, as it was obtained from the nearby salt mines (this is not fancy Himalayan rock salt!). Even nowadays this type of salt is used for large scale cooking. Since it takes a few hours for the rock salt to dissolve, it would be added during the pre-soaking phase: It is usually wrapped in a cotton cloth and placed on top of the rice (why, I dont know). The habit might be just from that practice even though table salt, which is used nowadays would have enough time to dissolve.

II)It is said that adding salt during the pre-soak will make the rice less likely to break when boiling. Is it better compared to adding salt when bringing the water to boil? Maybe. proper experiments can address this point. Besides, even if the rice breakage prevention is true, it would most likely be for rice of low quality, not for Basmati.

III)This brings us to a simple funny explanation: personally, I might forget to add salt if I've got to do it just before boiling, and if you forget to add salt during boiling, you cant add it later (you dont want to sprinkle salt on top of the rice grains). For me,and may be most persian rice-cooks its the final part of the rice washing ceremony.

I know i havent given you a clear explanation after the lengthy response. I think there is none.

PS: I'll ask my grandma next time I speak with her on the phone, but I'm not very optimistic! Most likely she would bring up the 2nd reason, but the evidence,....

Cindy said...

Hi Medhi, that was a nice post! I'm glad you told me about your blog today at beer hour. When I was little and my mother taught me to cook rice, I had to wash it very thoroughly, scrubbing the rice with my hands and changing the water many times until it ran clear. We didn't soak it overnight, but presumably the extensive washing accomplishes a similar aim as overnight soaking, i.e. washing off the excess starch. Anyway, I look forward to reading more of your posts, and hopefully some recipes!

mehdi said...

Hi Cindy,

Thanks for checking my blog. Its interesting that in Chinese cuisine (right?), you also washed and scrubbed the rice, since any way the rice would be sticky, so why bother remove the excess starch. I'm curious to know the reason.

Hopefully now that the rice section is done, I can write shorter posts and recipes!

Alex said...

thanks for the post, i'll have to try this! I love the bademjaan dishes I've had so hoping to see more of that too (or other vegetarian stuff, although I know vegetarian is not what Persia is famous for)

Elindreki said...

Hi Mehdi,
what a beautiful Tahdiq, and what a beautiful blog! I look forward to seeing more, after just having discovered this! I hope you're doing great!