Friday, September 23, 2011

A basmati pilaf and scents of home

It is always different writing my column in Cairo. The smells and tastes are changed and bring back many memories; and so when I write on my mother's bed, I live in the past. Writing from Malaysia allows me to reflect on my present and on what I am regularly learning. It reinforces the relationship my bum has with my sofa and how I huddle in a particular corner to type up a new piece for The Daily News Egypt. This week, I write about rice, being of much bigger importance in my life than I realized. 

Below is my column featuring this recipe in The Daily News Egypt dated Saturday, October 15th, 2011.

No longer can I put a number on the times or ways I've eaten rice. Minimally integrated into a meal or making up the bulk of a dish, rice has repeatedly required me to come to terms with its sticky staying power in my life and the world's obsessive need to consume this starchy staple.

Before the creamy Italian risotto rose to a place of power and prominence in the culinary world, I grew up on Egypt's simple and salty ghee-laden rice as well as multiple servings of steaming Indian basmati rice.

To me, white rice was characterless and only got slightly exciting when Ramadan came – the Muslim holy month that propelled cooks into the kitchen, doing their best to gussy up the simple, almost invisible humble grain.

My 10-year-old self would tell you there were only two kinds of rice: short-grained white rice, usually eaten with a saucy tomato-drenched vegetable; or long-grained white rice, buried beneath an spicy Indian curry – both equally fluffy, flavorful and often forgotten; or, being the finicky eater I was, used as a filler when I turned my nose at the accompanying dishes laid out before me.

As I grew, my changing palate began to grow fonder of this flavor magnet and found ways to utilize it to bring stardom and cultural diversity to the table; but it would take many a trial and error before I succeeded.

After a few months of living in Kuala Lumpur, I came to the realization that Egyptians eat minimal quantities of rice next to South-east Asians. These people are rice connoisseurs, eating rice for breakfast and buying it at a whopping 3 to 5 kilos at a time. Everyone has a rice cooker. The rice aisle is host to brands and types of rice I have never before seen. This, at first, is overwhelming and confusing and I've often been asked by fellow Egyptian expatriates what brand I'm buying and if I've found a suitable substitute for our beloved Egyptian rice.

In the three years I've resided here, I've switched brands 3 times. As I previously said: a confusing issue and one that is taking up far more of my time than I ever expected.

After finding comfort in cooking rice, I began actively seeking new recipes that took advantage of this world favorite. At dinner parties, I would use rice, the highly valued inexpensive grain, to bring Lebanese cinnamon rice with ground beef and pine nuts, Indian turmeric rice, Golden Egyptian seafood rice and rice puddings to the warmed plates of guests – these recipes serving as welcomed highlights that allowed my newly acquired friends from Kuala Lumpur a glimpse of where I came from, away from their steamed and salt-less fragrant rice, chicken rice and banana leaf rice, not to mention a dear favorite of mine, pineapple fried rice. It is now hard to recall how many moments I've spent in Southeast Asia discussing rice and the many techniques used to achieve the perfect bite.

Whether you've found appreciation for it later in life or have been raised on rice, its ability to create a magical sense of home has won over the hearts of humanity over the centuries.

This recipe, adapted from Gordon Ramsay, combines the bold flavors of eastern spices with a few popular western alterations. Baked in the oven, a wholesome basmati pilaf can be transformed into a rustic and rich deviation from the norm.

Spiced Basmati Pilaf
(Adapted from Gordon Ramsay's Chef's Secret)

You'll need:
a round casserole dish
250 grams of basmati rice
3 tablespoons of ghee
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
2 cinnamon sticks
5 cardamom pods
Finely pared lemon zest, in pieces
1 sprig of thyme
2 star anise
2 cloves
500 ml of chicken stock or water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Rinse the rice until the water runs clear to remove excess starch. Make a cartouche by cutting a circle, slightly larger than your casserole dish, out of greaseproof paper. Cut a small hole in the center to create a vent for steam.
Melt your ghee on medium heat in a flameproof casserole dish and sauté the onions for approximately five minutes until softened. Add the rice and stir to combine. Add the herbs, spices and lemon and cook for a minute until aromatic.
Boil your stock or water then pour into the rice along with the salt and pepper. Cover with the cartouche, pressing down to turn the edges up and create a neat fit. Make sure the vent is visible. There is no need for a lid.
Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to stand for 5 minutes before removing the cartouche. Fork through the remaining tablespoon of ghee until the rice grains are fluffy and separate. Serve. 


  1. Beautiful. I love the visual of all those fragrant spices amidst the grains of rice!

  2. Awesome. I love basmati rice and this looks so yummy.....
    Thanks for sharing.
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