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Corby's Table
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar
The Universal Grain
Special Everyday Persian Rice
Hen-and-Egg Rice
Spicy Puffed Rice Snack
Cucumber-Sesame Salad
Spicy Yogurt Sauce with Ginger
Sesame Sea Salt

January 27, 1999

ricebook picture Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford love food, each other, and discovering new cultures -- I'm not sure in what order. What I am sure of is that they write fascinating and beautiful books, filled with Jeffrey's stories of vagabonding around Southeast Asia, India, and China, camping in various tents and yurts, and Naomi's lush, gorgeous photographs. Their Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker's Atlas established the couple as world-class guides to little-noticed cuisines. Now Seductions of Rice shows us the many varieties of the universal grain, and the many cultures that survive on it.

The book begins with the most useful glossary of different rices I've ever encountered, along with explanations of brown versus white rice, sticky versus fluffy, and the many decorative colored rices. I hadn't known about bash ful, the wonderfully named parboiled Bangladeshi medium-grain rice, or rosematta, a parboiled rice from South India, but after reading enthusiastic descriptions of them I am eager to try them, especially because Alford and Duguid have given me new respect for parboiling -- a time-honored method for preserving the nutrition in rice by boiling it briefly before it is milled. Parboiled rice takes longer to cook, counterintuitively, but it keeps longer. The couple also defends cooking rice in a pot rather than a rice cooker. They offer excellent and lucid instructions for various cooking techniques, including absorption (premeasured rice, premeasured water), boiling in "lots of water" and then draining (this technique is good for basmati, which should be soaked first so that it will cook to its full length and not break), and steaming.

riceauth picture
Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford

I like any method that leaves a crust on the bottom, because I love anything browned (all right, burnt) and caramelized. The best-known name for the crust is the Persian tahdig; Alford and Duguid's recipe for "Special Everyday Persian Rice," cooked with butter, yogurt, an egg, and optional saffron, will yield an irresistible golden tahdig.
Discuss this column in Post & Riposte.

Previously in Corby's Table:

  • A Passion for Pastry -- December 1998
    Two books that will have you dreaming of the perfect holiday dessert.

  • Soup With Style -- November 1998
    A look at the new book by Barbara Kafka, a cook who takes a fearlessly original approach to soup.

  • Mangia, Mangia in the Mountains -- October 1998
    A trip to Abruzzo with Anna Teresa Callen, whose new book draws on culinary memories of this less-traveled Italian region.

  • Adventures in Grains and Greens -- August 1998
    Paula Wolfert's latest Mediterranean explorations.

  • Vegging Out -- July 1998
    The ultimate guide to eating your vegetables.

  • America's Favorite Crustacean -- June 1998
    Jasper White gets up close and personal with lobster claws, tails, and tomalley.

  • A True Taste of Tuscany -- May 1998
    A rare book that shows Italy unromanticized -- and more appetizing.

  • Comfort Food -- April 1998
    New reasons not to get out of bed in the morning.

  • Survival Cooking -- February 1998
    In Ruth Reichl's new memoir, Tender at the Bone, food is about more than eating.

  • A Moveable Fiesta -- January 1998
    South America's well-traveled cuisine.

    More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound
  • The Seductions of Rice abounds with comfort foods, perhaps because rice lends itself to them and perhaps because the couple has two small children, who keep their Toronto household lively. "Hen-and-Egg Rice" is a version of the one-pot rice meal donburi, familiar from Japanese-restaurant lunch specials; this recipe calls for a few dried shiitake mushrooms and chicken breast, but it's the sort of dish that is best with leftover bits of this and that. You can even start with leftover rice.

    Puffed rice is a snack in many parts of the world, not just a breakfast cereal. You can start with a cereal box of puffed rice to make a piquant Indian salad of fresh shallot, plum tomato, and cucumber, spiced with mustard, cumin, anise, turmeric, cayenne, and jalapeño. The seasoned puffed rice minus the vegetables (which will turn the rice soggy after a while) would be an original and superior variant to Chex-and-pretzel-stick-based party mix.

    Finally, I've included three simple and savory condiments that will give interest to plain boiled rice -- but after reading this book, you probably won't think of boiled rice as plain anymore.

        -- Corby Kummer

    Excerpts from Seductions of Rice, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan)

    Special Everyday Persian Rice


    As the more elaborate form of everyday rice, chelo is a wonderful treat, usually served with kebabs or with a moist stew-like khoresh. The rice is soaked, then briefly cooked in plenty of boiling water. To create a delicious crust and perfectly textured rice, the rice is then returned to the pot and gently steamed for thirty minutes. But first the bottom of the pot is covered with oil or butter with a binder such as egg or yogurt (or both) and a thin layer of rice or some flatbread or thinly sliced potatoes. This bottom layer cooks to a golden crispy crust known as the tahdig and is served beside or on top of the finished dish.

    Though the instructions may seem elaborate, you'll understand the sequence and be delighted by the perfection of the results after you've made this rice once. Serve it with Persian Lamb Kebabs with Sumac, Golden Chicken Kebabs, or Silk Road Kebab, with a yogurt sauce and sliced ripe tomatoes or cucumbers.

    Serves 6

    2 1/2 cups basmati rice 1 large egg
    1/4 cup salt 2 tablespoons plain yogurt (whole-milk or 2%)
    1/4 cup vegetable oil or 4 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon saffron threads, dry-roasted, crumbled to a powder, and dissolved in 3 tablespoons warm water (optional)

    Wash the rice thoroughly, then place in a large pot with 3 tablespoons of the salt and enough cold water to cover by 2 inches. Let soak for 2 to 3 hours.

    Drain well in a fine sieve. In the same pot, bring 4 quarts of water to a vigorous boil. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon salt, then gradually sprinkle in the rice. Stir gently to prevent sticking, and bring back to the boil. After the rice has been boiling for 2 minutes, test for doneness. The rice is ready when the outside is tender but there remains a slight uncooked resistance at the core of the grain. If the core of the grain is brittle, it's not done enough. Continue to check the rice until done, usually about 4 minutes, then drain in the sieve and rinse with tepid to cool water (to prevent it from cooking any more).

    Place the pot back over high heat and add the oil or butter and 1 tablespoon water. In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt and egg. Stir in about 1/2 cup of the rice, then place in the sizzling oil and spread over the bottom of the pot. Gradually add the remaining rice, sprinkling it in to form a mound. Use the handle of a wooden spoon to make three or four holes through the mound to the bottom, then cover the pot with a lid wrapped in a tea towel. (The towel helps seal the lid and absorbs moisture from the rising steam.) Heat over medium-high heat until steam builds up, 1 to 2 minutes, then lower the heat to medium-low and cook for about 30 minutes. When it is done, the rice will be tender and fluffy with a flavorful crust, the tahdig, on the bottom.

    The tahdig comes off more easily if, before removing the lid, you place the pot in an inch of cold water (in the sink) for a minute. Then remove the lid and, if you're using saffron, gently spoon about 1 cup rice into the saffron water mixture; stir to blend. Mound the remaining rice on a platter. Sprinkle on the saffron rice, if you have it. Place chunks of the crust on top or on a separate plate; it's a big treat.

    Note: You can substitute brown basmati for white. Boiling until tender will take 12 to 15 minutes, depending on the rice; begin testing the rice at 11 minutes after it comes back to the boil.

    Herbed rice: In spring and summer, when fresh herbs are available, you can add to the rice 1 to 2 cups of a mixture of some or all of the following, finely chopped: tarragon, flat-leaf parsley, dill, and/or chives. Add the herbs just before the rice finishes boiling.

    Crust options: Instead of mixing the rice with the egg and yogurt, you can use pieces of flatbread (split pitas, or flour tortillas, for example) or some grated potato for the crust. Place the oil or butter and water in the pot and heat. Line the bottom of the pot with pieces of flatbread or with the potato. Pour the egg and yogurt mixture over, then mound the rice on top and proceed with the recipe.

    Leftover chelo: Because it has some oil in it, chelo will stay fairly tender for a few days if stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator. It can easily be reheated by tossing it in a lightly oiled skillet or wok. It also makes a filling lunch dish whisked with a little egg, seasoned, and gently cooked in a thin omelette like the classic Spanish tortilla; serve with a green salad.

    Hen-and-Egg Rice

    Oyako Donburi

    This is Japanese comfort food, easily prepared at home but most often eaten for lunch in small neighborhood restaurants. Donburi are one-dish meals in which a topping of well-flavored meat, eggs, tofu, or a combination is served over rice. (The name donburi comes from the large bowl of the same name that the dish is served in.)

    Kyoto is known for its
    oyako don, or "parent and child donburi" (because both chicken and egg are used in the savory topping). The whole dish can be prepared in forty minutes (including soaking time for the mushrooms) -- the length of time it takes to prepare the rice properly. It makes a good lunch, with miso soup, or less traditionally, a salad such as Cucumber and Wakame Salad or Intensely Green Spinach with Sesame Seeds.

    Serves 4

    2 cups Japanese rice 2 tablespoons soy sauce
    2 1/3 cups cold water 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
    4 dried shiitake mushrooms 1 teaspoon sugar
    1/2 cup warm water 2 scallions, minced
    1/4 pound boneless skinless chicken breast 4 large or extra-large eggs
      Pinch of salt
    2 tablespoons sake Optional toppings
    1 tablespoon soy sauce Seven-spice powder (shichimi togarashi)
    1/2 cup any quick dashi broth or 1/2 cup water plus a large pinch of bonito flakes 4 sprigs mitsuba or flatleaf parsley, coarsely torn

    Wash the rice well in several changes of water until the water runs clear. Let stand in a sieve for 20 to 30 minutes, then place the rice in a heavy medium pot with the cold water. Bring to a boil, cover tightly, and lower the heat to medium-low. Cook for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to very low and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes, still covered. Alternatively, cook the rice in a rice cooker.

    Meanwhile, before putting the rice on to cook, begin preparing the other ingredients: Wipe off the mushrooms, place in a small bowl with the warm water, top with a small lid or bowl to press them down, and soak for 30 minutes. When the mushrooms are softened, remove from the water and slice into very thin strips, discarding the hard stems. Set aside both the mushrooms and the soaking water.

    Cut the chicken lengthwise into 1-inch strips, then thinly slice across the grain. Place the marinade ingredients in a bowl, add the chicken, and turn to coat. Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes.

    If using water and bonito flakes, bring the water to a boil, toss in the bonito flakes, and remove from the heat. When the flakes have settled, strain through a cloth and discard the flakes.

    Ten minutes before you plan to serve the dish, place the dashi or bonito broth and the mushroom soaking water in a heavy nonreactive saucepan. Add the soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar and heat to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the chicken and mushroom slices and simmer until the chicken has turned white all over. Stir in the scallions. Whisk the eggs with the salt until frothy, pour into the pan, and simmer for 2 minutes, without stirring. Cover and after 20 seconds, turn the heat to very low and let steam until the eggs are cooked but still very soft, 2 to 3 minutes.

    Place the rice in four bowls, top each with a quarter of the egg and chicken mixture, and serve, with the optional topping(s) if you wish.

    Note: You can also begin with leftover cooked rice. You will need about 5 cups cooked rice.

    Spicy Puffed Rice Snack


    This easily assembled snack food has only one problem: it's so delicious that you and your guests will go through piles of it. It is traditional in Bengal, eaten in handfuls from a large bowl. It has complex flavor as well as fresh crunch from the combination of spicing and finely chopped tomato and cucumber. The puffed rice -- available at South Asian grocery stores, sold in large cellophane bags -- helps all the flavors blend.

    Murree is traditionally flavored with jannachur, a spicy store-bought mix of dried gram (urad dal), turmeric, cumin, and fried seva (vermicelli made of chickpea flour). Since the mixture isn't readily available here, we've adapted the recipe by flavoring the puffed rice with a little spiced oil before tossing it with the remaining ingredients -- grated coconut, finely chopped chiles and fresh vegetables, and lime juice. This recipe produces a medium-hot mixture. You can reduce the heat by cutting back on the chiles and cayenne.

    Makes about 3 cups rice snack

    2 cups puffed rice 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    1 teaspoon mustard oil or peanut oil 2 jalapeño chiles, seeded and finely chopped
    1/2 teaspoon mustard seed 1 large shallot, finely chopped
    1/2 teaspoon cumin seed 1 small plum tomato, finely chopped
    1/2 teaspoon nigella seed 1/2 cup finely chopped European cucumber
    Pinch of anise seed 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
    1/4 teaspoon turmeric 1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/4 cup grated unsweetened fresh, frozen, or dried coconut  

    Place the puffed rice in a large bowl.

    In a heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds, cumin, nigella, anise, and turmeric, stir briefly, and then cover until the mustard seeds have stopped popping. Pour the oil and seasonings over the puffed rice and stir and toss to coat.

    Wash out and dry the skillet, then return to medium-high heat. Add the coconut and stir constantly until the coconut turns a light golden brown. Add to the puffed rice mixture, then add the cayenne and toss to mix well. (The recipe can be made ahead to this point and kept in a covered container in a cool place for several days.)

    Shortly before serving (the rice will get soggy if the tomatoes and cucumber are added more than an hour ahead), add the remaining ingredients and toss to blend well.

    Cucumber-Sesame Salad

    This salad is so easy to prepare, and no matter how often we eat it, it is never often enough. In Taiwan it frequently comes to the table with a plate of fried peanuts as an hors d'oeuvre, even before you've had a chance to order. (But watch out -- you still get charged for it.)

    Use the small, thin-skinned varieties of cucumber native to parts of Asia or the Middle East if you can -- they have the best flavor.

    Serves 4

    1 European cucumber or 1 pound pickling cucumbers (6 to 8) 2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
    1 tablespoon kosher salt or sea salt 1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried chile pepper flakes
    1 heaping teaspoon grated ginger 2 to 3 thin strips red bell pepper, for garnish (optional)
    2 tablespoons rice vinegar or red wine vinegar 1/2 teaspoon sugar

    Wash the cucumber well. This dish is traditionally made with unpeeled cucumbers, because the contrasting greens are very pretty, but peel the cucumber if you wish. Trim off the ends and cut lengthwise into quarters. Remove the seeds. Cut each quarter lengthwise into 3 or 4 slices, then cut into approximately 2-inch lengths. Place in a colander, sprinkle on the salt, and mix gently with your hands to ensure all the pieces are salted. Let drain over a bowl or in the sink for 20 minutes.

    Rinse the cucumber pieces thoroughly with cold water, wrap in a cotton towel, and gently squeeze dry. Place in a shallow serving dish.

    In a small bowl, blend together the ginger, vinegar, sesame oil, and sugar. Pour over the cucumbers and toss gently to coat. Sprinkle the chile flakes over. Add the optional bell pepper garnish. Serve immediately, or within 2 hours, or cover with plastic wrap until ready to serve.

    Spicy Yogurt Sauce with Ginger

    Inji Pachadi

    Pachadis from South India are not to be confused with raitas from North India. While both dishes have yogurt as a base, in a pachadi the yogurt is either warmed slightly at the end, or it is beaten into the cooked ingredients right as they come off the flame. Pachadis are a kind of cross between a sauce and a salad.

    We like this
    pachadi, with its strong flavors of ginger and coconut, almost more the second day, as the coconut recedes just a bit and the ginger comes forward. There is some chile warmth, but it is not at all hot.

    Serves 6 or more as a condiment for plain rice or flavored rice dishes

    1 cup plain yogurt (whole-milk or 2%) About 1 tablespoon water
    1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
    1/4 teaspoon mustard seed plus a pinch 1 dried red chile
    Pinch of cumin seed 1 to 2 dried curry leaves
    2 tablespoons fresh, frozen, or dried grated unsweetened coconut 3 tablespoons finely minced ginger

    Place the yogurt in a medium bowl, stir in the salt, and set aside.

    In a spice grinder or mortar, grind the 1/4 teaspoon mustard seed to a powder. Add the cumin seed and grind well. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the coconut. Add enough water to make a paste, and set aside.

    Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Toss in the pinch of mustard seed, the dried red chile, and curry leaves and stir briefly. Cover for 15 seconds, or until the mustard seeds stop popping. Add the spice paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Lower the heat, add the ginger, and cook and stir for 15 seconds. Stir in the yogurt and cook over lowest heat for about 1 minute; do not boil. Remove from the heat. Serve at room temperature in a bowl, or store in the refrigerator in a covered glass jar for up to 5 days.

    Sesame Sea Salt


    The classic Japanese flavoring gomasio is a very useful condiment. It's a blend of lightly toasted sesame seeds and sea salt, ground together in a Japanese mortar called a suribachi, or just mixed in a bowl. This all-around great condiment can be made with black or white sesame seeds (the white seeds have a slightly milder flavor). Proportions vary, from two parts sesame seeds to one part salt to as much as five parts sesame seeds to one part salt. Experiment to find what pleases you.

    Make sure your seeds are fresh. Because they are high in oil, sesame seeds should be stored in the refrigerator to prevent them from turning rancid. If you're not sure about their freshness, put them out for the birds and buy a new batch.

    Gomasio is wonderful for sprinkling over grilled or fresh vegetables, plain rice, or anything you please. It is best when made fresh (the sesame seeds have such a wonderful freshly roasted taste), but it can be kept stored in a well-sealed glass jar for several weeks.

    Makes about 1/3 cup seasoned salt (enough for several meals)

    1/2 cup black or white sesame seeds 2 tablespoons coarse or fine sea salt

    Dry-roast the sesame seeds in a heavy medium skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until they begin to jump and pop in the heat and to give off a toasted aroma, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the salt and cook and stir for another 30 seconds, then remove from the heat. Transfer to a bowl and let cool completely. Store in a tightly sealed glass jar.

    Serve whole or slightly ground. To grind, place in a suribachi (a Japanese mortar), and grind until broken but not completely pulverized. Alternatively, place in a clean spice mill or coffee grinder and grind very briefly (you don't want a paste). Serve in a small condiment bowl.

    Mama's Restaurant

    Mama's restaurant looks much like any other small neighborhood restaurant in Bangkok. About the size of a two-car garage, it opens to the front and is floored in concrete. When morning comes and the tin doors roll open, the restaurant spills out onto the street: little boxes of laundry detergent, bags of peanuts, packages of mosquito coils, candles, Mekong whiskey, and whatever else daily life in Bangkok may require. A faded old Marlboro poster and a neon Coca-Cola sign that no longer works help advertise -- in case there is any doubt -- that food is served inside.

    Inside the restaurant there are a couple of tables and five or six chairs. There are two separate cooking areas, one to your right as you enter and one to your left. There are condiments on each table: fish sauce with chopped fiery bird chiles in it, vinegar with sweet green chiles, and bottles of fish sauce. And there is -- from morning until night -- a wonderful, warm smell of cooking rice, fragrant Thai jasmine rice, my favorite rice in the world.

    Twenty years ago, the first time I set foot in Mama's, two large old trees grew up through the middle of the building. The restaurant had been built around the trees, as if space weren't already in short supply. The trees extended up through a second floor, the living quarters, a room the same size as the restaurant. At that time, anywhere from twelve to sixteen people called it home. In 1978, Bangkok was still a city living out the end of the Vietnam War. Many of the people Mama looked after were orphans or children who'd been abandoned during the war.

    I was in Bangkok to learn how to cook, to travel, to be in Asia for the first time in my life. In Laramie, Wyoming, where I'm from, I'd worked in a restaurant kitchen with Supote, Mama's son. Supote was in Laramie to attend graduate school, but to help pay his way through school he got a job dish washing at a local steakhouse. One night, when a cook didn't show up for work, Supote was asked to fill in, and soon thereafter he was head of the kitchen. He had grown up in a kitchen; he could do the work of five of men and still not look busy. We got to be friends, and one night at work when I said that I would be quitting and heading off to Asia, Supote looked as if he already knew.

    "You'll stay with my mother," he said. "She will teach you how to cook."

    Mama was not a day over fifty, but she looked sixty-five. She worked harder than any person I had ever met, not in a hurried frantic tired sort of way, just steadily. "Call me Mama," she said in a gravelly, seen-it-all kind of GI English the first time we met. She sat me down beside one of the trees. A cold drink appeared, then a plate of fried rice. "Do you like chiles?" she asked, passing a small bowl of nam pla prik. But before I could answer she was off, back to work.

    My first few nights I slept on a wooden platform in the back of the kitchen, but on the third evening Mama told me that I would be moving to another house. Kang, a twelve-year-old boy who lived with Mama, would accompany me by local bus so that I wouldn't get lost. I gathered my belongings, and off we went into the night.

    For the first hour or so we stood in the jam-packed bus, but as we started to get outside the city we at last got seats. It felt strange to be entirely dependent on a twelve-year-old late at night in a huge city, even stranger to think that he would retrace our path back to Mama's still later that night, but he thought nothing of it.

    When we were well outside the city, Kang at last asked the bus driver to stop at the next dirt road, and off we got in the darkness. We walked up a lane to a small compound of dimly lit wooden houses and knocked at a door. An older woman came to greet us, then she and Kang showed me to a room where I would sleep. They showed me where I should bathe and where there was boiled water to drink, and then we all said goodnight and Kang left to catch another bus home.

    The house was an old wooden one built high up on stilts set out over a canal. Flat-bottomed motor boats traveled up and down the canal at all hours, night and day, and with each passing boat the house would rock and the wood would creak. There was also a train track nearby, and the trains, too, would send the house aflutter. But the house was peaceful and quiet, and it had a wonderful feel and smell of age, of age in a tropical country.

    And so I settled in, finding my way to Mama's restaurant each day and then coming back each night. I stayed five months, and have been going back ever since.

    Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The Joy of Coffee.
    More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

    Copyright © 1999 by Corby Kummer.
    Recipes from Seductions of Rice by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Artisan: New York, New York, 1998. Hardcover, 454 pages. ISBN: 157965-113-5. $35.00. Copyright © by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.
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