A recent trip to Indonesia, where I was surrounded by rice paddies and had rice for every single meal, has made me think about rice. This isn’t as obvious as it may sound.
When you visit a culture in which rice is the staple, you can, paradoxically, become oblivious to it. It simply shows up at the table, a vehicle for “greater,” more celebrated dishes, merely there to absorb a sauce, carry a stew or complement meat or vegetables.
But that is not the whole story. It’s not even half the story. Every cuisine with rice at its core also has a host of dishes that idolize it.
Nasi lemak, a meal I would run a great distance for, is a good example: Considered the national dish of Malaysia, it is a dome of fragrant rice made with coconut milk and pandan, surrounded by spicy sambal, fresh cucumber, roasted peanuts, little fried anchovies and boiled egg.
For me, this is the summit of refinement and restraint. Placed in the center of the plate, with no sauce or salsa to hide under, this dome is a celebration of the mastery of cooking rice, of the separateness of every grain.
In Indonesian variations, the rice was often shaped in a cone and robed at the tip with banana leaf, a crown signaling who’s at the top of this delicious bunch. In the most lavish version, a ceremonial dish called tumpeng from the island of Java, a cone-shaped rice mound of great proportion is placed at the center of a platter lined with banana leaf, a vast number of colorful side dishes surrounding it. (Look up pictures; it’s very impressive.)
In other parts of the world, rice is cooked with its condiments rather than serving them alongside. The ceremony here is in the slow and careful layering and grouping of ingredients, and the art is in making sure everything is cooked just as it should be — that nothing goes soggy, or mushy or dry.
Maqluba, a popular Arabic dish and one that, just like nasi lemak, I cannot imagine my life without, is the best example I can think of. Served like a perfectly formed layer cake, each component — vegetables, meat, rice — is on display.
Less theatrical but equally delicious dishes do a similar thing. This is the point behind my mushroom and apricot pilaf, and behind a host of dishes from across the globe bearing similar names, such as pilav, pilau, plov and palaw. In all of them, rice is cooked in stock and alongside all sorts of ingredients — fruit to nuts.
If it’s done skillfully, you get a real sense of occasion. Humble rice, elevated and celebrated, turns into the brilliant star of the show.
SWEET SPICED MUSHROOM AND APRICOT PILAF
- 1 to 2 ancho chilies, stems discarded
- 1 pound oyster mushrooms, roughly torn into separate stems
- 5 large portobello mushrooms, stems discarded, each cap roughly broken into 6 chunks
- 1 large yellow onion, peeled, halved and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
- 5 ounces dried apricots (the plump orange kind), quartered
- 10 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- 4 whole star anise
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1-3/4 cups (340 grams) basmati rice, washed until water runs clear, then drained well
- 3 scallions, trimmed, then thinly sliced at an angle
- 1/4 cup (5 grams) loosely packed parsley leaves, with some stem attached
- >> Porcini liquid:
- 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
- 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 1-1/2 cups water
- 1-1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Bring small pot of water to a boil and heat the oven to 450 degrees.
Add ancho chili to a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Let rehydrate, about 20 minutes, then discard soaking liquid and roughly chop chili, seeds and all.
Make porcini liquid: In a medium saucepan, combine dried porcini mushrooms, chicken or vegetable stock, water, salt and a good grind of pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then remove from heat and set aside.
Add oyster and portobello mushrooms, onion, apricots, garlic, cinnamon, star anise, chopped ancho chili, 1/2 cup oil, salt and pepper in a 10-by-13-inch roasting pan. Give everything a good stir, then bake until vegetables are soft and well browned, 40 to 45 minutes, stirring halfway through.
Remove from oven, transfer half the mixture to a medium bowl, then arrange remaining mushroom mixture in an even layer in the pan. Sprinkle rice evenly on top of mushrooms in pan, without stirring; set aside.
Bring porcini liquid back to a simmer over medium-high heat. Pour over the rice, again without stirring, and cover roasting pan tightly with foil. Return to oven and bake until rice is cooked through and has started to brown on the bottom, and apricots begin to caramelize, about 25 minutes.
Remove from heat and let sit, covered, 10 minutes. Remove foil and gently stir everything together.
Add scallions, parsley and remaining 2 tablespoons oil to reserved mushroom mixture; stir to combine. Spoon over rice mixture. Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a side.
Nutritional information unavailable.
AND TO DRINK
In this dish, the sweetness of the fruits and cinnamon and the earthiness of the mushrooms pull in different directions as far as a wine pairing is concerned, so you need something versatile.
A dry rosé would be delicious, as it often is with similar sweet-and-savory dishes. But wine has its seasonal connotations as well, and I imagine many people would prefer a red. Regional or village Burgundies would be lovely, as would restrained pinot noirs from elsewhere.
Other options? Nebbiolo is often a great match with mushroom dishes. Or maybe a Gigondas or similar blend from the Southern Rhone. If you prefer a white, try a good albarino.
— Eric Asimov, New York Times