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.
My Palestinian Taita (grandmother) grew up in Egypt, so most of the food she makes is Egyptian food. It’s a nice change when she makes things we’re not used to having, like Egyptian stuffed potatoes, zucchini with bechamel sauce, or apricot pudding.
A few years back, Taita introduced me to the Egyptian drink “Moghat,” which is a popular drink for women after they give birth as a general refresher and lactagogue. I always wondered what exactly Moghat is, because when we buy it in Egypt from the spice seller, it comes in the form of a bright yellow powder. All they could tell me was that it was a plant, and that the roots are dried and ground then mixed with a variety of spices such as turmeric, ground rose seeds, sesame seeds, coconut, and raisins. Apparently, the scientific name for the Moghat plant is Glossostemon bruguieri, family (Sterculiaceae).
When cooked with sugar and water, Moghat becomes a thick, sweet drink that warms you wonderfully in the winter (it’s also bright yellow and looks really intense :P). Taita brought some Moghat powder back with her when she visited Egypt in November, so I decided to make some tonight. Here is her recipe!
Tip: The fat used to brown the Moghat powder in is called samneh baladiyyeh. You make it by melting down a quantity of butter, then letting it boil for a while until all the little impurities sink to the bottom. When cooled, what you get is clarified butter or “samneh.” Egyptians cook with samneh all the time; it is what makes Taita’s food so flavorful – and unhealthy :S The fresher and purer the butter you melt down, the better flavored samneh (and food!) you get. If you don’t have samneh, you can use butter.
Note: I apologize for how blurry some of these photos are. It was tough taking them with one hand, bad lighting, and hot Moghat on the fire that needed constant stirring!
For 3 cups of Moghat:
3 tablespoons of clarified butter (“samneh”) or butter
3 heaping tablespoons of Moghat powder (add more if you like it even thicker)
3 cups of hot water
1/4 cup of sugar (you can add more if you like it sweeter)
In a saucepan, melt the samneh or butter on medium heat. Add the Moghat powder.
Brown the powder in the samneh slightly, stirring constantly. The powder will clump a bit, and should look like this:
After browning the powder for a couple minutes, add the hot water. Watch out, it’s loud! Stirring constantly, add the sugar.
The Moghat will thicken after the sugar is added. Cook it for about two to three minutes – keep stirring! Check and make sure it’s as sweet as you’d like; if needed, you can add more sugar and stir for a bit longer.
Pour/ladle into your serving cups w sa77ah w hana :)
So next time you go to Egypt or know someone who is going, have them bring you back some Moghat! It’s pretty tasty.