From my notebook:
During my trip to Palestine last spring, I stayed with my great aunt, Imm Tayseer, and her husband in Khalil, my family’s city of origin. I took the opportunity to ask her husband, Hajj Misbah, about what Palestine was like back when he was young. Sitting next to the window on his porch overlooking the neighborhood, hands clasped on his lap, his head wrapped in a traditional black and white hattah, 88-year old Hajj Misbah described how families used to hold weddings when he was young, inviting the entire town or village. Although serving meat to guests is considered the prime symbol of hospitality, not all families could afford to provide meat for their wedding guests. If that were the case, he explained, they would instead serve huge platters of steaming hot rice, seasoned with salt and drizzled with delicious, melted samneh baladiyyeh (clarified butter/ghee).
“The guests would come to the wedding, celebrate, eat. The women’s side of the wedding would always have many more people than the men’s, because each lady would bring all of her children with her. A lot of people were hungry back in those days, so a wedding was a chance for people to have a satisfying meal,” he recalled. “The guests would dig their fists hungrily into the hot, buttery rice. It was an excellent meal, that warmed you through, and curbed your hunger.”
(Apologies for the length of this post!)
It’s kind of silly of me to not have posted a recipe for rice yet. Rice and bread are the two staples of Palestinian cuisine, and no meal can be eaten without one of the two.
Although rice is always deemed the easiest thing one can possibly make, my experiences have proven quite the opposite. It took me many failed attempts, and eventually combining a bunch of different techniques, before I finally figured out the best way to make it.
And true to real Arab cooking style, this recipe has no quantities. Sorry!
The most common variety of rice we eat is a type that resembles American medium-grain. The second most popular variety is Egyptian rice, which is similar to a short-grain Spanish variety, like Arborio or Baldo. Egyptian rice is stickier than American medium-grain, and is absolutely delicious eaten just plain!
Basmati rice, although popular in the Gulf states, is not really commonly found in Palestinian cuisine. We use it to make Kabsa, and other Gulf-inspired dishes, but that’s about it, generally.
I have used the recipe below to make Egyptian, American short, medium, and long-grain, and Basmati rice.
You can do a lot with rice. You can make it plain, or add a variety of noodles, vegetables, meats, or spices to jazz it up, but:
The Basic Concept Behind Most Rice Recipes is:
i. Saute Ingredients
ii. Add Water
Plain White Rice:
Prep: Wash desired quantity of rice, then drain. Add fresh water to cover rice completely, and let soak for 15 minutes, then drain. (If using Egyptian rice or another short-grain rice like Arborio, you do not need to soak after washing.)
In a pot, melt several tablespoons of butter, vegetable oil, or samneh. The more fat, the better, although your arteries might beg to differ.
Saute the rice in the fat for a few minutes. Add salt to taste.
Pour in enough hot water to cover the surface of the rice by about half an inch. Bring to a boil, then cover and turn the heat down to medium-low.
Check the rice after ten minutes or so. There should be little holes all over the surface, and most of the water should be absorbed. Using a fork, pick at some grains, and test to see if they are tender. If so, leave the rice on the fire, uncovered, just enough to boil off any excess water.
If the rice is still tough, add a few more tablespoons of water, cover the pot, and let cook, checking back on it again after another 5-10 mins.
Basically you want to just keep coming back and checking the rice, adding small amounts of water and leaving to cook, until the rice is as soft as you like. Using small amounts of water and checking it constantly allows you to really control the process; much safer than putting in too much water and getting soggy mush, or using too little and getting burnt or brittle rice :(
When your rice is cooked and the moisture absorbed, fluff the rice with a fork before serving. Don’t use a spoon, otherwise it will get all mushy.
Rice with Vermicelli
Very popular and delicious, best made with Egyptian rice:
Wash and soak rice (don’t soak after washing if using Egyptian rice).
Use about 3/4 cup of vermicelli noodles for every two cups of rice.
Fry the noodles in hot oil, stirring constantly, until golden. Drain off the rice, then add to the pot, and fry with the noodles for about a minute. Add salt to taste.
Pour hot water into pot to cover rice by about half an inch. Allow to come to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium, and cover.
Let cook, checking constantly to see if it needs more water.
Fluff with a fork just before serving.