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A blushing grain
This April, the Bengali New Year brought with it the largesse of the mist-shrouded mountainsides of Bhutan: a sack brimful of the kingdom's renowned red rice sent from the granaries of a family friend's home in Thimpu.
Unlike brown rice which can be any variety of rice which has been hulled but not stripped of its bran layer (and hence the brown coat), varieties of red rice are types of rice. The Bhutanese variety is recognisable by small, rounded grains tinged the deep reddish-pink of garnets. When cooked, the rice tastes strong and nutty and has a satisfying bite. For Bhutan this rice is a staple and it also exports the product to the US and Japan. In India, Bhutanese red rice makes a limited appearance in gourmet outlets and health food shops. Far more common is the Kerala red rice, a darker, earthier cousin of the Himalayan grain, which is similar in taste when cooked but softer in texture.
Red rice falls into that category of foods that I dub store-cupboard stars as it packs the three Vs of verve, virtue and variety. It is rice but sufficiently different in taste and appearance from the standard white kind to introduce an adventurous note into meals. The grain has all the comfort of white rice but it scores far higher on the fibre and nutrient index. So it's a guilt-free pleasure. And finally, the rice lends itself to being served up in myriad ways.
This is why I'm always a bit flummoxed when people don't share my enthusiasm for red rice. Generally speaking, they are either downright dismissive or speak of the grain as if it were some unpleasant health supplement (" I should eat it, it's so good for you, but.... "). Gradually, I've come to realise that the reason why this cereal gets such a bad rap is because too often it just isn't treated right.
For starters, red rice is not white rice. That is, unlike white rice this has a robust character that demands recognition. Chances are that if you simply substitute the white rice of a basic rice-and-yellowdaal meal with red rice, the results will put you off red rice permanently. A rule I apply in my approach to red rice is to draw lessons from its treatment in the cuisines of its origin.
In Bhutan, for instance, the classic accompaniment to red rice is ema datshi (cheese and red chilli curry) or kewa datshi (cheese and potato curry). These vegetarian dishes are built on generous amounts of local cheese that give the fullbodied gravies a deep gold colour and a wonderful aroma. Whole red chilies infuse fragrant heat and perfectly counterpoint the buttery richness of cheese. Red rice provides the dish the bite and body that it needs;and the strong nutty flavor of the grain is pleasantly mellowed but not overpowered by the cheesy gravy.
With these Bhutanese curries in mind I've experimented successfully with serving red rice (Bhutan and Kerala) with both Rajasthani kadhi and rezala-type mutton and chicken preparations (the yoghurt base and red-chilli accents of these two preparations work beautifully with the rice, but I've found that the rezala's gravy needs to be slightly thicker than normal). Not so successful was pairing this rice with rajma and kaali daal (though generous dollops of cucumber raita improved matters considerably).
Red rice is an ideal partner for the spicy, coconut milk-based curries of South India - a Kerala-style fish curry with this rice is quite divine. But for me, the most satisfying results come from using red rice in Western-style creations. A fricassee of thinly sliced pork or chicken with mushrooms or just mushrooms. A combination of shitake, button and oyster seasoned with parsley, cooked in white wine and finished off with some sour cream can taste good with buttered fettuccini on the side. But served spooned over red rice, this standard dish is elevated to a truly gourmet entrêe.
A rustic stew - corn and vegetables, chicken and bacon or ham and mushroom with gravy redolent of sharp mustard and strong cheese - can find no better accompaniment than a bowl of steaming red rice. Or combine left-over roast chicken with bacon, mushrooms and vegetables like peas and baby onions. Prepare a highly-seasoned buttery white sauce flecked with chilli flakes and parsley. Fold in cooked red rice and, giving it the occasional stir, let it all meld together for ten minutes on the stove top for a delicious, one-pot meal.
Red rice expands a lot and one cup is enough for 3-4 persons. But I usually cook some extra and store in the fridge to use for my favorite red rice dish - salad. The pink-veined grains of rice make the ensemble pretty and their robust personality gives the salad wonderful character. With summer upon us, and delicate salad greens all withered away, red rice steps up to prove its worth as cooling salad. It's an ideal base for cucumber, capsicum, steamed banana stem, roasted egg-plant and poached shrimp. Be sure you perk up the seasoning a notch or two more than normal in deference to the rice's personality (be generous with citrus, salt, chilli and olive oil), remember to dress the rice while still just warm (if using left over rice from the fridge give it a few seconds in the microwave) and always serve at room temperature.
RED RICE SUMMER SALAD
1 cup red rice 3 medium cucumbers, chopped 1 large green pepper, thinly sliced A small log of banana stem, cubed and steamed 1 large eggplant, cubed A bunch of mint leaves
? cup olive oil, juice of 1 lemon, crushed garlic, honey, chilli flakes, salt, pepper
Prepare the rice by cooking it in 3 cups of water (it should be al dente). Drain and keep aside. While the rice is cooking, place eggplant on baking tray, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and roast in hot oven till cooked. Shake up the dressing ingredients. When rice has cooled till it's slightly warm, combine with other ingredients, pour in dressing and toss. Strew with mint leaves and leave covered till it's time to serve.
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