In East Indian cooking, there is only one rice

Basmati rice is to India as fine wine is to France, specialty cheese is to Holland and chocolate is to Belgium.

Biryani is a one-dish rice-based meal that consists of layering cooked rice and meat in a casserole before baking it in the oven.

Basmati rice is to India as fine wine is to France, specialty cheese is to Holland and chocolate is to Belgium. Though there are many varieties of rice available — long grained, short grained, sticky rice, white rice, brown rice, “Texmati rice” . . . but for an East Indian there is only one: basmati rice.

In fact there are some who proudly claim that basmati rice is the queen of all rice and truly is the champagne of India.

What makes the basmati rice so unique from all other varieties? At initial glance, the only difference one might notice is the grain’s longer length. But once you have cooked a pot of basmati rice, it leaves no doubt why this majestic variety of rice has claimed the throne.

The post cooking elongation of more than twice its original length, combined with its nutty flavour and distinctive popcorn like fragrance has made basmati rice a delicacy.

Even though the highest quality of basmati is grown in the Himalayas in India and Pakistan, rice holds a special place all over India. On festive occasions, married women are honoured with a coconut, a handful of rice and wished a life of fruitfulness.

Mixed with red powder, rice is used to paint a red dot on the forehead for blessing, and it’s showered on bridal couples and guests.

Rice is strewn as a carpet before the images of gods, and showered on them as an offering.

Beyond these rituals, however, rice plays an important part in Indian cuisine. Every region of India produces its own variety, which means a staggering array of rice, from inexpensive, short-grain red rice to buttery, nutty baby basmati.

And one of the essential talents of a prospective bride is how she cooks the precious grain.

While rice commonly served as a side dish in American households, In India it forms the basis for most meals.

Idli and Dosa are an integral part of breakfast of most south Indian home. Both are made from a batter consisting of 2 part rice to 1 part de-husked black lentil (urad dhal — easily found in Asian aisles of most supermarkets).

Each is soaked separately for four hours and then finely ground together. The batter is then allowed to ferment in a warm place overnight.

For the Dosa , the batter is spread out like a crepe and then stuffed with savoury spicy potato. The idlis are steamed in special idli molds and served with a lentil curry.

All of India enjoy many variations of pulaos and biryani — rice and meat dishes. Vegetarians replace the meat with hearty vegetables. In Pulao, the meat and rice are cooked together while Biryani requires both meat and rice to be partially cooked separately.

The rice and meat are then layered together for the final cook.

The perfect end to spicy meal in India is to serve Kheer, the sweet flavoured rice pudding.

Making a pot of basmati is incredibly satisfying when the rice comes out fluffy and in separate grains. Begin by thoroughly washing the rice to remove the starch clinging to its grains. If basmati has one fault, it is that it has more starch compared to other varieties of rice.

So it does require that the rice be washed three to four times until the water is no longer cloudy. Though I often forget to soak my rice, the high end chefs of India suggest the rice be soaked for 30 minutes in cold water prior to cooking. They believe that this reduces the time the outer layer of the grain is exposed to high heat and prevent grains from sticking together.

The pre-soaking seems to allow moisture to penetrate the grain and reduce the cooking time which in turn allows the rice grains to be less sticky.

Drain the water the rice was soaked in. When cooking rice, the ratio should be 1 part of rice to 2 parts of water. For every 1 cup of rice you add 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of oil.

While the rice is cooking the salt will penetrate the rice grain to enhance the flavour while the oil further prevents the grains from sticking together.

Once the water begins to boil, turn the heat down to a simmer and cover with a tight-fitting lid.

It is also important not to take a peek while it’s cooking. It will take 12-15 minutes.

After cooking time, remove it from the heat and allow it to sit undisturbed for 15 minutes. This is when the real cooking happens so again resist the temptation to lift the lid.

Final step is to simply fluff the rice with a fork.

To add some pizzazz to the plain rice, you can also begin with heating 2-3 tablespoon of oil. Add some cumin seeds and finely chopped onion.

Once the onions have caramelized continue as above. Besides the flavour difference the browning of the onions will impart a brown colour to the rice.

You can also add some frozen peas to the onions with some fresh tomatoes, coriander powder, garam masala before adding rice and water and you are on your way to make a simple pulao.

Cook your favourite chicken curry recipe and then add rice and water.

Here are my favourite recipes for Biryani and Kheer. Don’t let the list of ingredients intimidate you.

Biryani

1kg chicken cut into 2” pieces (I prefer thigh pieces)

2 large onions chopped finely

10ml (2 tsp) garlic paste

10ml (2 tsp) ginger paste

125ml (1/2 cup) almonds

7 tbls cooking oil ( divide into 1 tablespoon and 6 tablespoon)

1” stick of cinnamon

5 cloves

3 pods cardamom

8 peppercorns

10ml (2 tsp) coriander powder

10l (2 tsp) cumin powder

10ml (2 tsp) garam masala

1 cup yoghurt

Juice of 1 lime

1 cup chicken stock (vegetable can also be used)

30ml (2 tbsps) finely chopped coriander leaves

30ml (2 tbsps) finely chopped mint leaves

Salt to taste

2 cups Basmati rice 1/2 teaspoon saffron soaked in 5 tablespoon warm water

Put the almonds in a bowl of hot water (enough to cover them) and set aside for20 minutes. After 20 minutes remove skins from all the almonds by pressing each one between your thumb and forefinger. The almonds will slip out of their skins.

Mix the garlic and ginger pastes, the peeled almonds and grind to a smooth paste in a food processor. Wash the rice and soak for 30 minutes. Then add enough water to fully cover the rice — at least 4 inches over the surface of the rice. Add salt and 1 tablespoon of oil.

Set the rice up to boil. Cook till almost done. To determine when it has reached that stage, remove a few grains from the pot and press between your thumb and forefinger. The rice should mostly mash but will have a firm whitish core. Turn off heat. Strain through a colander and keep drained aside.

Heat 6 tbsps of oil in a pan and add the whole spices — cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, peppercorns. Fry till the spices turn a little darker. Add onions and fry till they are translucent. Add the ginger-garlic-almond paste and fry for 2-3 minutes.

Then add all the spice powders — coriander, cumin and garam masala and mix well. Fry till the oil begins to separate from the masala and then add the meat. Keep frying till the meat is fully sealed (it will become opaque and lose its pink colour). Now add the yoghurt, lime juice, chicken stock, coriander and mint leaves and salt to taste . Mix well.

Cover the pot and allow to cook till the meat is tender.

Grease a deep baking dish and evenly layer the cooked rice, meat (and its gravy) in it to form at least 2 sets of layers (meat-rice-meat-rice). Over the rice sprinkle saffron water. Cover the dish tightly. If the dish does not have a cover use 2 layers of aluminum foil (shiny side of both layers pointing down towards the rice).

Put in a pre-heated oven set at 350C for 30 minutes. Turn off the oven and let the dish sit in the oven till you are ready to eat.

The way to serve Biryani is to gently dig in with a spoon so you get through the layers. Best served with mango chutney or Indian pickles.

Kheer (Rice Pudding)

10 cups of homogenized milk

1/2 cup of washed and soaked basmati rice

1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder

Sugar to taste

3 tablespoon of ground pistachios, or almonds

Into a medium pan, add rice, milk and cardamom, bring to boil while stirring frequently to prevent sticking. This does take a couple hours. Once it thickens, let the pudding cool. It will thicken more.

Add sugar. I usually taste and adjust sugar accordingly. Garnish with preferred nuts.

Madhu Badoni is a Red Deer-based freelance food writer. She can be reached at madhubadoni@gmail.com.

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