The Ritual of Cooking Rice
Chef Palak Patel shares her lifelong quest to cook the fluffiest rice.
Rice is the king ingredient at the center of all meals in Asia and the most consumed ingredient across the continent.
When I started researching where rice originated it led me to two popular beliefs from archaeologists and historians. Some say that rice was first domesticated in China almost 15,000 years ago in the region of the Yangtze River valley, and others claiming it originated in Ganger River Valley in India. Regardless of the history and the origins, rice has always been a humble and essential ingredient that was a staple of my childhood in India.
There are countless varieties of rice, and I’ve never cooked many of them, but the long-grain variety known as basmati, native to India, is quintessential to Indian cuisine and was my kryptonite for many years. Basmati rice is unique because it’s twice as long as other varieties and thinner with an intense aromatic smell.
Growing up in India, my relationship with rice was a beloved one. My mother and grandmother were meticulous in selecting the right aged basmati sold in large burlap sacks, properly stored in steel containers and cooked the same way for decades. As a kid, I learned these rituals as a rite of passage. Rice was center stage at every meal at our house, served with daal and curry.
My mom taught me how to make rice and it is my ritual. I start with thoroughly washing the rice under the tap until the water runs clear. This is the secret behind fluffy rice because it removes the extra starch and lightens the grain, preventing it from clumping together. Next, I soak the rice in cold water for up to an hour — this step helps the grains soften and speeds up the cooking. I was told salting rice is a personal choice, but I’ve never skipped it!
Every household had its own “measuring” system whether using a bowl or adding fist fulls of rice into a pot, and it rarely deviated. My ratio of water in the pressure cooker: one part rice to two parts water. Gently add rice with salted water making sure not to break the delicate rice grains with high heat. I still recall my mother’s voice every time I cook rice: “Only one whistle, lower the heat for 15 minutes and gas off.” Viola! Even today, hearing the whistle of an old-school metal (analog) pressure cooker takes me back to those childhood cooking lessons.
Once in college, I ventured away from ritualistic rice cooking and adopted a stovetop method without a pressure cooker, and I recall the results were precarious. Too much water, not enough water, sticky rice, mushy rice, undercooked, I experienced it all. One evening I was picking up my favorite takeout dish from a local Indian restaurant that made biryani to perfection. Biryani, the crown jewel of rice dishes in India with roots dating back to the Mughal Empire, is a versatile dish that can be served at a roadside dhaba with basic vegetables or prepared with an entire lamb for an elaborate wedding. Regardless of where and when you eat this rice dish, the regalness and popularity have not faded. I hesitatingly asked the owner the secret behind how he cooks his rice and discovered a new technique. He taught me the secret to cooking rice on the stovetop is to treat it like pasta with a rolling boil of water in a large pot. To my surprise, this is now the only way I feel comfortable making rice!
Part of the ritual still remains: washing the rice thoroughly, soaking it for an hour and salting the water, but ratios and pressure cookers are obsolete. In a large pot of water, I add aromatics like bay leaves, a cinnamon stick, cardamom pods and mace, salt it heavily, and bring to a boil, adding the rice and stirring occasionally until the rice floats up. It’s important to check the doneness by trying a few grains during the cooking process and then promptly drain and spread on a cookie sheet to cool. The last step is to drizzle with fat (butter, ghee, coconut oil or olive oil) to make sure the grains don’t stick together. This is the key to the fluffiest rice! Perfecting the timing on when to take the rice out requires a little practice.
While India has many varieties of biryani and there are heated debates about which region has the best, this general method of cooking rice is pretty ubiquitous across the country. Rice is the one humble ingredient in common with varying rituals for cooking it.
Yields 4-6 servings
- 2 cups aged basmati rice
- 1 tablespoon ghee or coconut oil, melted
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 pods green cardamom
- 4 black peppercorns
- 1 star anise
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 cloves
- Slice shallots on a mandolin thinly and coat with corn starch.
- Add warm water and saffron threads to a bowl and set aside.
- Heat large Dutch oven over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon of ghee, saute raw spices until fragrant (about 3-5 minutes).
- Add 4 quarts water with a good amount of salt (the water should be seasoned) and bring it to a rolling boil.
- 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 3 cups of any mixed vegetables, chopped (potatoes, green beans, carrots, peas)
- 3 tablespoon ghee or coconut oil
- 1 inch ginger, grated
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon coriander powder
- 1 tablespoon cumin powder
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon powder
- 1/8 teaspoon cardamom powder
- 1/8 teaspoon clove powder
- 3 tablespoons warm water
- 1 teaspoon saffron threads
- 1/4 cup water
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1/2 cup fried shallots (recipe follows)
- 2 tablespoons mint, chopped
- 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
- 1/2 wedge lemon
- 3 large shallots
- Corn starch
- 1 cup grapeseed or high-heat oil
- Add shallots to a heavy bottom pan or saucepan over medium-high heat, cooking gently and stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until golden brown. Be careful not to brown too quickly.
- Remove shallots from oil with a strainer and place on paper towel.
- Season with salt immediately.
- In a large bowl, wash the rice gently in several changes of cold water until the water runs completely clear. Drain it and soak it in cold water for 20 to 30 minutes. (The longer the rice has soaked, the less time it will take to cook.)
- Gently add the rice to boiling water and stir a few times, cooking it for 6-8 minutes or until it is two-thirds cooked. The rice will float to the top of the pot. The grains should be tender but not mushy and hold their shape. Drain the rice in a sieve, run cold water through it for a minute, and set aside. Remove aromatics and set aside for presentation.
- In the same Dutch oven you cooked the rice in, add the remaining 3 tablespoons of ghee, add cumin seeds and let them sputter for 10 seconds, add onions, garlic, and ginger with a pinch of salt, cook until onions are translucent.
- Add chopped vegetables, seasons with more salt, and add remaining spices (except saffron) and 1/4 cup water. Cook for 10-12 minutes or until they are almost cooked.
- Gently sprinkle cooked rice over mixture and fold veggie mixture into rice. Pour saffron water over rice. Cover with foil and close the lid to cook for a further 20-25 minutes on low heat, the veggies should be cooked through and rice is tender.
- Garnish with cilantro, mint, fried shallots and aromatics.
Study global cuisines, including Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Thai, in ICE's Culinary Arts program.