The Simplest Staple

By Connie Phillipson

Steamed or boiled, added to soup or balled into sushi rolls, eaten with sugar and milk or mushrooms and wine, rice is considered a basic in cuisines, all around the globe

THE USE of rice today is widespread, not only in places where it is the principal staple, as in southeast Asian countries, but also in most of the West. It may be served as hors d'oeuvre, in a variety of soups or by itself (prepared in different ways), as the accompaniment to meat and fish dishes, occasionally as a salad, and not infrequently as a dessert or midday snack, like the renowned rizoghalo (rice-pudding) of Lamia. Rice flour made from grounding its grains may have even more uses.
No wonder rice is the most important cereal in the world.

In cooking rice there are several traditions that may be followed. Usually, for simplicity these are divided into the western way and the eastern way, but there are several variants worth discussing too. Let us start with the main methods and take up the rest as we go along.

The western method of cooking rice involves using a lot of water. First, we wash a cup of rice several times to get rid of any loose starch and impurities. Then we put two quarts of water in a pan, 3 teaspoons of salt, and bring quickly to the boil. Slowly, we release the cupful of rice into the boiling water, so that boiling does not stop. After 12 minutes we take out a few grains and test them for softness. If they cannot be crushed between our fingers, we leave it to boil a little longer, When the rice is soft enough to crush, but the grain is still firm and whole, we drain and proceed with whatever we have in mind to do with boiled rice.

The eastern way of cooking rice uses the least amount of water possible. In other words, just enough for the grains to absorb by the time they are cooked and no more. There should be no water left in the pan at the end of the cooking process. The big problem here is to know how much water is enough. Particularly so, when the amount of water will not be exactly the same for each kind of rice we use. It sounds problematic, but it is not as difficult as it sounds provided you are willing to experiment a little. The advantage of this method of cooking is that no nutrients are lost and discarded with the water. And that is a loss, unless of course you use the rice water and its starch for the time-honoured practice of starching fine linen and lace, or you mix rice water with the milk you give to an infant, for the easy digestibility of rice starch.

A third method practised mainly in the East is steaming rice. Today, with steam cookers easily available, there is no need for separate instructions. The advantage of steamed rice is that of the eastern way of cooking: no excessive loss of nutrients.

I personally think that the finest way of cooking rice is not in tap water, but in coconut milk. The problem here, of course, is to find unripe coconuts when they are still full of milk, the stage at which the coconut is known as madafu in Kiswahili, in contrast to the ripe stage when the milk has been transformed into the white pith, known in the same language as mnazi. Well, if you can't find unripe coconuts, and you don't intend to travel to East. Africa for a safari in the near future, simply buy coconut milk in a can from your local deli shop. If you take the western cooking path, grate the pith of two coconuts and boil for 20 minutes in10 cups of water. Drain through a sieve to remove all grated pith, and use the remaining water for cooking the rice as above. If you take the eastern route, one coconut is probably enough. The extra trouble will be richly rewarded by the subtle aroma of coconut that will accompany every mouthful of rice.

Dreamy rice pudding
Serves 4

125g Carolina rice
2 cups milk
3 tsp butter
3 tbs sugar
4 drops essence vanilla or
6 tbs ground almonds

Wash the rice thoroughly, and put into a double saucepan with the milk, butter and sugar, and allow it to cook slowly for two hours, stirring occasionally. Turn out, and when cold, add the vanilla or almonds. Grease a pudding dish, and steam the mixture for one hour and a half. Serve with Jam or sweet sauce.

Coconut ginger rice
Serves 4

2 tbs oil
1 tbs strips peeled fresh ginger
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice, rinsed well and drained
1 3/4 cups water
1/3 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk
1 small bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon salt
Tabasco to taste
2 scallions, minced
2 tbs minced fresh cilantro

In a medium saucepan, heat oil over moderately high heat. Saute ginger for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add rice and cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add water coconut milk, bay leaf, salt and Tabasco. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook covered, 20 minutes, or until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. Remove pan from heat and sprinkle rice with scallions and cilantro. Let rice stand 5 minutes and fluff with a fork. Discard bay leaf and serve.

HCS readers can view other excellent articles by Connie Phillipson in the Food, Recipes and Garden section of our archives at
. She is a regular writer for the English-language Athens News. Readers enjoying her articles may wish to view other fine selections or to subscribe to this publica- tion by visiting the website

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