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.
I have been waiting for a looong time to post a recipe for kabsa, because I absolutely LOVE it. Kabsa combines fragrant, spiced hot rice with tender meat/chicken, and a very exciting (and spicy!) tomato chili sauce on the side. I can’t get enough kabsa! It’s also incredibly easy to make, and is a great dish to serve if you have a lot of people to feed. Serve it piled high on a huge platter, decorated with raisins and toasted almonds, and you’ve got a serious feast for your guests. We serve fresh yogurt, a simple salad, and a hot tomato-chili sauce on the side to complete the meal.
Kabsa is known as being a traditional Saudi Arabian dish, although some say it originated in Yemen. Other Gulf countries, like Kuwait and the UAE, make a variation of kabsa but they call it machboos. In Jordan, Palestinian families have started making it, and it has become very popular, especially for people who like their food with some heat in it! It is most commonly made with meat (usually lamb), but I like it a lot with chicken. My aunt Hanan makes absolutely amazing chicken kabsa, and I’m very happy to share her recipe with you now :) I know a lot – most? – Saudi recipes don’t add tomato to the stock that the rice is cooked in, but my aunt does, and it tastes very flavorful this way. I’ve made this recipe many times and it’s perfect! Make. This. Dish.
A couple notes:
Kabsa is usually made with basmati rice. I have found that for my aunt’s recipe, American long grain seems to work better. Basmati just ends up being a bit dry for my taste, but you can use basmati if you prefer it.
Kabsa requires a special mix of spices. If you live in an Arab country, just ask for “kabsa spice mix” at the spice market/spice section of store. In the US, most Arabic/Middle Eastern grocery stores sell prepared kabsa spices, but I think making your own mix is just as easy and is definitely more fresh.
Here is how to make a kabsa spice mix (the spices will differ from household to household):
Process equal parts of the following spices in a spice grinder/food processor:
ground red pepper or red pepper flakes
also, 2-3 small dried black lemons
also, a lesser amount of ground cinnamon
Alternatively, you can just combine all of the above ingredients if you buy them each ground and ready to go. Also, lessen the amount of peppers used if you like it less hot.
And now, for Unbelievable Chicken Kabsa:
1 chicken, washed properly and cut up into 4-6 pieces (or you can use a package of thighs or whatever cut you like best)
1 large onion, finely chopped
4-5 tablespoons of vegetable oil for browning the onions in
5-6 large tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons of tomato paste
Kabsa spice mix
extra teaspoon of turmeric
extra cardamom pods for extra flavor (crack each pod open slightly with your teeth so the flavorful seeds can get into the food)
4 bay leaves
salt to taste
approx 2 pounds of American long grain rice (wash it, soak for about 15 mins, then drain off the water)
Sautee the onions in the vegetable oil until soft and transparent.
Add the pieces of chicken, and let them brown. Add the chopped tomatoes, the spices, the tomato paste, the cardamom pods, the extra teaspoon of turmeric, the bay leaves and salt to taste to the pot.
Pour in warm water until the chicken is just covered, and give it a stir. Turn the flame up to high. Let the contents of the pot come to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and cover the pot.
Let the chicken cook – about half an hour.
When thoroughly cooked, scoop the pieces of chicken out of the pot and put off to the side. Pour the rice into the pot of spiced tomato-chicken stock. Turn up the flame, let it come to a boil, then cover the pot and turn the heat way down to very low. Add some more salt here if you want. Let the rice cook for about 15 minutes, then check it, picking at it with a fork. If it’s dry but is still not cooked, add some more water and re-cover. If it’s cooked, you’re done!
To serve: (reheat the chicken pieces in the oven upon serving)
We pile the rice high on a large serving platter, then arrange the pieces of chicken on top. Sprinkle fat yellow raisins and golden toasted almonds on top for garnish (I don’t like raisins so I always leave them out).
Sides you must serve with kabsa:
Simple green salad: diced tomato and cucumber mixed with chopped lettuce and parsley, dressed with lemon juice, salt, and a bit of olive oil.
Our version of Daqous: a spicy tomato chili sauce. To make our version of Daqous: in a blender, puree 2 large tomatoes, 4 large cloves of garlic, one hot green chili pepper, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Serve immediately.
Yeah. Chicken Kabsa. Must eat now.