x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

1,001 Arabian Bites: Rice can be the ultimate comfort food

When I’m under the weather, nothing nurses the stomach and soul like rice and yogurt.

For reasons I can’t fathom, I got a flu shot. It was my first and it was offered to me in Abu Dhabi last month with the best of intentions. Two sore and wobbly days later, a bad reaction to the vaccination was turning my short visit into a blur, but I figured my immune system was just groaning its way to immaculacy. Two weeks later, despite the jab, I got to experience another personal first: the real-deal flu.

By the time I got sick, I was back in subzero Santa Fe. I got a flurry of e-cards that made me laugh: “Thank you for getting a flu shot and contributing to the evolution of a stronger, more resilient flu virus” and my favourite, “I wish there was a vaccine that prevented me from hearing your opinion about flu shots”. But what I really wanted to have sent to me was some fresh, warm rice.

Most of the time, I can take or leave rice, which says less about rice than it does about the cakey dullness of cold rice from the fridge, or my admitted preference for bread and noodles most of the time anyway, or the ways rice frequently underwhelms as the starchy platform for the main event. But when I’m under the weather, nothing nurses the stomach and soul like rice and yogurt. The rice must be hot and steaming, the yogurt rich and cold.

Illness tends to reveal all kinds of arbitrary emotional biases and one of mine is that yogurt is the only acceptable form of dairy for a weak and challenged system. Arabs and Iranians eat rice with yogurt; in India, where it’s known as “curd rice”, the combination can be topped with dozens of elaborate garnishes, used to make spiritual offerings in Hindu temples, or enjoyed in its basic form to aid digestion. Rice and yogurt – “ruz oo laban” in Arabic – is like mother’s milk for the body while the war wages inside.

With so many interesting varieties of rice to choose from, the popularity of bland basmati rice, with its long, fluffy, lightweight grain, is a little mystifying. I prefer the squatter short- and medium-grained kinds, such as sushi rice, with its pearly heft, and Egyptian calrose rice, which is nutty and fun to chew.

In my family, when chicken soup is what the doctor orders, we take it as a metaphor for rice, preferably poached in a tightly lidded pot of barely simmering chicken stock after a roll in a hot pan foaming with butter; Emiratican Kitchen (emiraticankitchen.wordpress.com) features a quick tutorial.

Many Arabs cook a version of rice pilaf, also known as Armenian or Lebanese rice depending who you ask. What’s consistent, though, is the incorporation of toasted vermicelli noodles into the rice, which is always highly savoury and seasoned with stock and butter. But nothing matches the richness of Egyptian rice cooked in a clay bram – biram ruz – where the rice is mixed with butter, milk and sometimes cream and egg yolks, then baked in a clay pot with high sides and no lid so that the top forms a golden crust.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico