Spending our time untethering the mind, getting the fidgets out, exploring the in-between ideas, and learning kintsugi.

Alford and Duguid and parboiled rice

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Husband and wife, Alford and Duguid met on a hotel rooftop in Tibet in 1985. They have been traveling together and writing James Beard Award winning cookbooks since. While leafing through an old copy of New Yorker, I re-discovered them recently. Most of their travels are through South Asia and consequently the cookbooks reflect the tastes and stories of Asia. I present here an excerpt from their introduction to “Seductions of Rice“.

In the course of working on this book, we were walking early one morning along a narrow path past fields of rice just outside Calcutta in Bengal, in India. It was early November, dry season in Bengal, and the sun was already bright and warm. The rice was golden, it was harvest time, and in every field out across a large flat plain as far as we could see, there were groups of villagers working hard cutting and threshing rice. Their voices, together with the songs of birds and the occasional bump of a bicycle riding along a dirt path, were the only sounds to be heard… We were there taking pictures, asking the odd question, but mainly just being there. We were happy to be outside the city at harvest time, to see the water buffaloes chomping on the stubble in the fields already harvested, to see farmers slapping long bundles of cut rice against a threshing table so that the grain would dislodge from the straw.

At one point someone invited us into a compound of small mud houses set just on the edge of the rice fields. In the middle of the compound there was a dung fire burning with a large pot full of water boiling vigorously on top. In the pot was freshly harvested rice, rice that was being parboiled. Each batch of rice was left in the water for a few minutes, then it was taken out and another batch of rice was thrown in. The parboiled rice was then spread on a sheet and left out in the sun to dry. We’d never actually seen rice being parboiled. We’d read about parboiling, and how it has been done for centuries (if not for much longer) in India, and we’d read theories about why and how people might have first thought to parboil grain. But it is another thing to actually see it, to smell it. We were thrilled.

You can find more about Alford and Duguid on Cookstr, a website started by Will Schwalbe, ex-editor in chief of Hyperion Books, to showcase the recipes of star chefs.

Reading about them and their travels reminded me of  Bengal villages and a particularly simple rice dish, called “Panta Bhat”, a favorite of mine from childhood – something we ate on hot summer nights.

Panta Bhat recipe (4 servings):

  1. One  cup of  rice, preferably parboiled medium grain rice
  2. Two cups of still water at room temperature
  3. Two keffir lime leaves (or 1/2 tsp finely chopped lime zest if you can’t find Keffir lime leaves)
  4. Salt
  5. Lime
  6. 1 thai cilli
  7. 1/2 tsp hot and sour mango pickle per serving (optional)

In another time and place, I would ask you to pick your rice clean of husks. I remember summer evenings when mother would stand singing on the porch winnowing rice –  the breeze would play through ma’s long hair and saree making her look like a compassionate goddess.

Boil rice. My grandma cooks rice like pasta i.e. in lots of water and then excess water is poured out. Most cook rice in a rice cooker. If you like you rice grains separate and perfectly cooked, follow grandma’s version. For this recipe we will mush the rice, so you can do whatever you wish as long as you don’t burn them.

Mix the boiled rice with two cups of still water. Let the mixture ferment. In Indian summer, this concoction ferments in four hours. In California like climate it may take as long as a day. You can nudge the fermentation along by adding 1/2 tsp of sauerkraut juice.

After desired fermentation is reached, store in refrigerator for upto a day. When ready to eat, mash the rice and keffir limes leaves together in water with fingers. The mixture starts to look milky as the rice starts to release its starch. Don’t go overboard with mashing. Shouldn’t turn rice into paste – rice pudding like texture is OK. To this, add salt and lime to taste and transfer to serving bowl. Chop the thai chillis in and a touch of pickle if you wish. Serve cold or cool. May induce a good night’s sleep.

This recipe should serve four people unless you are a Bengali. Bengalis eat huge amounts of rice. I remember Durga pujo festivities where people would be served mounds of rice so high that young children could play hide and seek behind them. When times are really tough for poor families, the serving size is increased significantly by increasing the water content and over-fermenting the mixture. I won’t suggest this modification on your first try.

Written by locomotoring

April 2, 2009 at 3:58 pm

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