x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A troubled relationship with rice

I love bread and noodles, even rice noodles, but can't quite fall in love with rice.

It never gets any less painful to admit that I cannot cook rice.

It's hard to pretend not to be infuriated by the fact that even the loftiest of my kitchen experiments have proven more consistently edible than my attempts at cooking an ordinary, ornery pot of rice.

 

The word "aish", which means "life" in Arabic, is the word used throughout much of the Arab world to casually reference the prevailing starch or dietary staple of the area. My desert-island staff of life will always be bread, and I won't deny having lifelong preferences for it, and pasta or noodles, over rice - even when the noodles themselves are made of rice, as is the case at Lan's, a Vietnamese café up the street from me where the proprietress offers diners a choice between rice or rice noodles with my current Achilles heel: number 19.

In Indian restaurants, while my friends blithely spoon pea-studded or saffron-scented basmati rice that comes with our meal on to their tin plates, I will eat piles of naan until I'm sick. I have no idea, which came first; my scepticism about rice, or its dubiousness toward me?

We grew up learning to eat rice with our hands, pressing the grains together with our fingers to form small "luqmas"no larger than ping pong balls, and then we'd pop them into our mouths. I never learnt to do this properly at all, and mine always fell apart, the mashed debris worming its way between my fingers as I squeezed the rice in my little fist.

It was a traditional method of eating, the memory of which seemed simultaneously vulgar and life-affirming to me as I ate sushi in Japan for the first time, without utensils, just with bare hands, as instructed. My fingers trembled with nervous energy as I tried not to appear a rube by losing half of my sushi rice into the soy sauce. Despite appearances, high-pressure food situations aren't my favourite pastime.

I was never particularly great at handling sushi neatly without chopsticks, but nobody in Japan ever batted in eye. Nowadays, I eat sushi, an art form commonly perceived as a lifelong pursuit for a chef, that is made by a woman named Shohko whose eponymous restaurant is one of the best I've visited. But the dearth of female sushi chefs in Japan is the result of the archaic Japanese belief that women's hands are too hot to handle the sushi rice. I'd argue that perhaps even more tragically archaic is the spirit behind the founding of Nadeshico Sushi, the first sushi restaurant in Japan with an all-female staff of sushi chefs. "Nadeshico" means "ideal woman", and only adorable ladies between the ages of 18 and 25 are eligible to apply for the two-month training programme in sushi, after which they can revel in slicing fish for a 90 per cent male crowd.

A Chinese restaurant I used to frequent asks customers if they prefer brown or white rice. On its own, I prefer the nuttiness of brown. But nothing is worse than brown rice in sushi. The reason for this is that brown rice retains its hull, which includes the bran, and so the sushi vinegar, which is actually a reduced mixture of two types of rice vinegar, kombu, salt and sugar, can't be absorbed flavour-wise into the rice.

Fuzzy logic is a way to programme machines to make them simulate rational human thought, with the goal of helping a person make or understand similar judgments to those of another. The rice cookers contain computer chips that control cooking time and temperature. In addition to rice cookers, all kinds of other household devices can have fuzzy logic applied to them.

After years of pathetic rice cookery, I finally caved and bought a book that, in contrast to its truly horrible name, is brilliant and illuminating on the topic of rice. Seductions of Rice by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford is the good book on all things rice. After all, there were only so many time I could try to justify burnt rice as tahdig, or Persian rice mixed with crunchy, buttery scraps from the bottom of the pan to bewildered dinner guests, or tried to rescue the leftovers by turning them into a sort of Korean bibim bop rice, minus the stone spot.

Friends rave about frozen three-minute rice that can be microwaved to "perfection", but I just can't do it. Though converted rice, or parboiled rice, made famous by Uncle Ben, cooks in a jiffy, I'd be a lot happier picking up a loaf of bread at the store.

Although I can take or leave rice itself, I love it obsessively as a base for other foods. Growing up, I finally learnt to tolerate rice cakes the way one learns to tolerate adolescence and other necessary evils. In general, little can compare to the translucent elasticity of rice. I love fresh spring rolls wrapped in rice paper; crackly, thin edible rice paper wrapped around nougat; the slightly grainy starchiness of rice will make cardamom-scented rice puddings feel silky, although I'm still convinced that nothing can save rice milk, texturally, for being a sort of culinary lost cause. Paella, risotto, and rice for dessert: think Thai-style sticky rice with mango, and take a leap of faith if you haven't already.

In the Emirates, for an everyday eating rice we mostly eat Basmati. Basmati rice is fragrant and separates fluffily from its kin in a steaming cloud. Grown in India and Pakistan and known for its subtle flavour profile, basmati, which means "the fragrant one" in Sanskrit, also just means "my smile" in Arabic.

Though I've been known to mock chocolates named after coronary disease and cheese dishes inspired by deadly sins, one of my most beloved rices for savoury dishes is the "forbidden" black rice, deep aubergine when cooked. One of several black heirloom plants produces variants such as Thai jasmine black rice, which releases a pretty jasmine scent as it cooks. Mild and nutty, forbidden rice is named because it was forbidden for anyone to eat but the Emperor. While not as prevalent as brown and white rice, jasmine black rice offers a nice change of pace - especially when paired with bold, even tropical, flavours.