Cooking rice seems to be an art form in the Arab world. Rice is eaten everyday, it's cooked with care and attention and enjoyed in a way we can only aim for in the west.
Which might explain why many Arabs take rice with them when they go on holiday. If you've flown out of the Middle East on a Middle Eastern carrier to a long-haul destination when you waitin for your luggage at baggage arrivals, you'll come across endless rice sacks being extracted from the aircraft hold.
Years ago I remember trying to explain to an English woman how rice was cooked in my husband's family house. We were being listened to by a Gulf Arab and after a while he could contain himself no longer. He had to disagree with me, long and loud and was completely passionate about how to cook rice, in a manner which was different from mine.
I also remember a trip to Pakistan where the air hostesses couldn't give away the food because there was no rice in the main course.
The Recipe for Rice:
To make rice like an Arab you'll need to follow the directions below:
1. Put the water for the rice on to boil and switch on the ring so it warms up
2. Measure out the rice you will need into a large saucepan and add cold water
3. Agitate the rice with your hand(s) to release the carbohydrates, when the water becomes cloudy drain off the water. Do this as many times as it takes for the starch to disappear, usually it will take about three washes to remove the clouds of carbohydrates
4. Once the water runs clear add the boiling water to the rice and put the rice on the ring to boil
5. Boil the rice until it is almost soft, but has a slightly hard bit in the middle. Remove the rice from the ring and put in a sieve. Wash the rice with cold water to stop it cooking
6. Dry the saucepan and add butter, ghee or margarine to the bottom of the pan and put on the ring to warm
7. When the fat is melted, put the rice in the pan and warm on a low heat for an hour or so
8. Once the rice is cooked the pan can be taken from the heat and then turned upside down. You’ll find your rice will come out together, a bit like a sponge cake. On the top of the rice you’ll have a crispy, fatty circle of rice called the telfa [tel-fah] a Persian word which children (and adults) fight over.
When melting the fat, fry a couple of chopped onions until brown and leave them in the saucepan. Add the rice on top and cook for an hour
Once the rice is in the pan, add 5 cardamoms, saffron water (saffron infused in hot water for half an hour) and three sticks of cinnamon. Cook for an hour and eat.
Eating Rice and Bread at the Same Time
I once read a book by Anthony Bourdain, an American who appeared to have no cultural understanding of what happened outside America. He opened a restaurant in Japan and got really mad with the Japanese chefs because they would continually serve rice and potatoes together. I remember reading it and thinking, well they do that here in the Middle East too.
I contemplated his thoughts one day during a meal where in front of me were four carbohydrates; rice, potatoes, bread and spaghetti. All four were being served at the same time, at the same meal. In the Middle East it is the eater, not the chef, who decides which and how many carbohydrates they want to eat with their meat.
Other Types of Rice
Various meat dishes have specific rice dishes to go with them. Fish is always eaten with rice which has dill mixed through it. Another classic way to cook rice is to add lentils. Whilst a classic dish for Ramadan is kushery [cush-er-ree] a mixture of rice, pasta and lentils.
In the Gulf the rice for rice pudding is ground until it becomes a rough flour texture. This is then cooked with milk, saffron and cinnamon, put into individual bowls, chilled and served cold.