Rice in many guises

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Yemisi Ogbe

December 17, 2009 06:54AMT

After long periods of eating rich spicy food, a simple bowl of white rice becomes excruciatingly appealing. I am always in search of the perfect Basmati rice; the sort that you can steam briskly till you get single grains that bounce off the plate. It is true that white rice is not particularly good for you, and draining rice when it is cooked instead of letting the rice absorb the water nutritionally depletes it further. Nevertheless, I tend to cook my rice by letting it soak for twenty minutes in cold water, then washing, then boiling briskly and draining it.

It is the easiest way of getting each grain of rice to be a perfect, whole individual. If my rice is perfectly cooked, I find I can eat and enjoy it with just a tablespoon of coconut oil, or with some yogurt, or with homemade green pesto.

There is also something temperamentally appealing about a bowl of rice with green peas cooked in coconut milk. I love the contrasts of green and milky white both in colour and coolness against the violence and heat of red pepper stew, the smell of coconut and the sweet bursting texture of briskly cooked peas.

I once retained a rude and obnoxious cook for months on the merits of one rice dish that he cooked breathtakingly well. Of course, once I had learnt the secret of the dish, he was promptly fired! The secret was fundamentally the stock in which the rice was cooked. It was a quarter of a chicken in about 2 pints of water, some garlic, ginger, fresh aromatic hot pepper and salt. Added to this was a generous pinch (and a half) of allspice, freshly ground cinnamon and some fish sauce.

The cook's version was made with Maggi stock cubes, but I don't cook with Maggi! This stock is brought to the boil and then the heat turned down. At the same time that the stock is simmering, in a small non-stick frying pan, a quarter of a kilo of mincemeat is cooked without any oil, salt or water. This means it must also be cooked over very low heat and moved around to make sure it doesn't burn. If it is being cooked properly, the water from the meat should keep the whole enterprise going without the need for any added water.

When the mincemeat is cooked, it is added to the chicken stock, everything simmered together for about an hour over very low heat, until the flesh of the chicken is falling off the bones.

The chicken is lifted from the stock, the flesh removed and returned to the stock. Half a tin of sweet corn and two tablespoons of coconut oil are added to the stock, and then the Basmati rice, which has been soaking in cold water, is washed and put in the stock. The stock should stand above the rice by about half a finger's height. More fish sauce and or salt are added if needed.

The heat is turned down to the lowest possible flame until the stock has been absorbed, the rice is fluffy, the grains single...

When we first came to live in Calabar, I was offered coconut rice.

I had already begun to salivate at what I imagined would be a plate of rice plainly cooked in coconut milk, served with goat meat stew. The rice arrived, and it was a bowl of muggy looking rice with no stew. It smelled predominantly of fish, not coconut and the smoked-fish littered face of the rice gave the impression of hard smelly inedibility. There was nothing subtle about its look or smell so I was instantly put off. I was even less consoled when I learnt that I was in the presence of a ‘Crossriverian' delicacy.

Perhaps it would be redeemed by a more subtle interpretation - One matured sweet coconut, grated and washed with lukewarm water, and put through a sieve to give about 2 cups of coconut milk. One cup of washed long grain rice (not Basmati as it is not sturdy enough) is added to the coconut milk.

Along with two finely chopped medium onions, some parboiled lean pork, some beef and its stock, or the flesh of an old-layer chicken and its stock. Also some smoked catfish softened in the beef stock, some peeled deveined fresh crayfish, lots of chopped hot pepper, fish sauce, salt, and bush pepper. The rice is simmered with all the ingredients until cooked. The fishy smell is avoided by excluding dried crayfish.

Even this version, I can only stand in small quantities, as I find it very heavy and tiring on the palate. I think, as offensive as this idea might seem to Crossriverians, this dish might be much improved by a handful of raisins!

Dec1709 Food Matters
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