The story of rice. And how to cook it the Indonesian way

Rice is one of the defining elements of Indonesian cuisine—and of course most Asian cuisines. If you’d like to know a bit more about it, please do read the background section after the cooking tips.

I cook a lot of rice! Because of my catering business I calculate I’ve cooked over a tonne just in the last ten years. You probably have your own method. This is mine. It certainly seems to be reliable. It needs to be!

It’s a very simple method.
There are just a few important tips.

  • For my catering I use basmati rice. I think it’s the tastiest and has the best mouth feel.
  • Rinse the rice thoroughly to remove excess starch.
  • Don’t use too much water. Unless you’re cooking sticky rice for a special reason, you want to end up with separate grains.
  • Don’t add salt. I use plenty of salt in my cooking—but not for rice.
  • Don’t stir while the rice is cooking.

Here’s my way

  1. Allow 80–100g per person. When you prepare a rice dish more often than not the rice is the heart of the meal. A bit like pasta. This is a good quantity for a filling dish.
  2. Using a pan that has a tight-fitting lid, rinse the rice. The excess starch has been removed when the water is clear. I generally rinse three times.
  3. Add cold water until it comes up to the first knuckle of your index finger when the tip of the finger is just touching the top surface of the rice. This was the method my mother taught me, and it seems pretty infallible. You might have to adjust the level slightly with experience—I guess everyone has different length fingers! Note: this works for basmati rice. Other varieties, including jasmine rice, need less water.
  4. Put the pan, still without a lid, over a medium heat, until the bubbles on the surface just disappear—so when all the water has been absorbed. This is the first stage of cooking — boiling.
  5. Now for the steaming stage. Put the lid on the pan, reduce the heat to low, and cook without disturbing the rice for five minutes.
  6. Turn the heat off and let the pan stand, still with the lid on, for another eight to ten minutes. With the heat is off it’s not too critical.
  7. Remove the lid and gently separate the rice grains with a fork.
Don’t waste the crust!

You may find that there is a thin crust of rice stuck to the bottom of the pan. To minimise this use a pan with a thick base. In Indonesia this crust does not go to waste. It can be dried and broken into small pieces which are then fried and salted to make a delicious snack. I might just make it one day for a supper club. We were in a Korean restaurant last year and they had burnt rice tea on the menu. This is also made from the crust—and we found it quite delicious.

There is an easier way:
use a rice cooker!

No messing around with timers and pan lids and changing heat levels. Just add the rice and water (using the same finger guide), put the lid on, and turn it on. It handles everything else automatically. You can even leave it on after it has finished cooking and it will keep the rice warm until you’re ready to serve it.

Royal basmati rice

For most my catering jobs I steam the basmati rice, then add my own secret blend of spices in a little vegetable oil which I mix through the rice, giving it a distinctive—and delicious!— fragrance and colour.

Keeping and reheating rice

Back home in Indonesia rice doesn’t stay around for long before it’s eaten—no matter how much you have! But nevertheless we keep cooked rice refrigerated, for up to 24 hours. And we do reheat cooked rice—just once. When it is reheated we make sure it’s piping hot right the way through. Following these rules we’ve never had any ill effects from eating rice.

A bit of background

Rice, together with all the other cereals, is a grass. People began to cultivate cereals from wild grasses around 12,000 years ago. Rice was then, as it is now, the grain that dominated tropical and sub-tropical Asia, with its special ability to grow in wet, hot conditions.

Today rice farming is the largest single use of land for producing food in the world, and the single most important source of employment and income for rural people. It is grown on some 144 million farms, mostly smaller than 1 hectare.

Rice is the staple food for the largest number of people on Earth—nearly half the world’s population. It is the source of one quarter of global per capita energy. In Indonesia this rises to nearly one half.

Around 90% of global rice production is grown and consumed in Asia. The biggest producers are China (28%) and India (21%); Indonesia is a distant third (9%). Most countries are self-sufficient in rice: only 7% of all production is exported from its country of origin. The biggest exporter is Thailand (27%), followed by Pakistan (13%) and the US (12%).

Source: Global Rice Science Partnership

Common types of rice

long-grain basmati

short-grain japonica

arborio risotto

sticky rice

wild rice

All common varieties of rice are of the same species Oryza sativa. They fall into one of two sub-species: long-grained indica, and shorter, stickier japonica.

The type of starch (amylose) in long-grain rice means it needs more water and a longer time to cook, and results in separate, springy grains. Most Chinese and South Asian types are long-grain, including India and Pakistan’s fragrant basmati (Urdu for ‘fragrant’), which contains an unusual amount of aromatic compounds. Another fragrant variety is Thai jasmine rice—but this is unusual for a long-grain rice in having a low amylose content.

Short-grain japonica rices are common in Korea and Japan—think sushi, for which the stickier grains are ideal. They contain a lower proportion of amylose starch, and more of the other starch type, amylopectin.

In between the two in shape and amylose content are the medium-grain japonicas used for Italian risotto and Spanish paella. Arborio and carnaroli, from Italy’s Po valley, are the most popular types for risotto; for paella it’s bomba—though in the UK it’s generally sold as ‘paella rice’.

Then there is the speciality sticky rice, used for making sweet dishes throughout Asia. Its starch is virtually all amylopectin.

Finally there is wild rice—which is a completely different species of grass, from North America, and really not a rice at all.

Rice & Japanese car brands

Toyota is named after its founder, Kiichiro Toyoda. Toyoda means ‘bountiful rice field’.

Honda is also named for its founder, Soichiro Honda. Honda means ‘original rice field’.

And a last word about words. Indonesian words

‘Paddy’—as in paddy field—is not the name of the field, but of the rice growing in it. In Indonesian padi means the growing rice plants; the field is called sawah. Uncooked rice is called beras. Only when it is cooked and ready to eat is it called nasi—as in nasi goreng.

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