Our correspondent attends a culinary contest dedicated to rice - one of the world's main staples but equally at home in haute cuisine.
The great leveller
For such a tiny grain, rice doesn't half cause some big problems. Too much water and you're left with a sticky mulch. Too little and the bottom burns. Lid on? Lid off? To season or not to season? The idiot-proof rice cooker might have lessened the margin for error, but short-cuts are nowhere to be seen when I visit the kitchens of the Radisson SAS Blu in Dubai to watch seven of the city's chefs battle it out at the third US Rice Cooking competition.
Four hot and four cold rice dishes have been picked from 60 submitted recipes by a panel of judges drawn from the Emirates Culinary Guild. The selection includes influences from Thailand, France, Italy and India. Rice pilaf, rice pudding, risotto, rice salad, rice cakes - one dish after another is being boiled, stirred and whisked before its final, intricate assembly on small presentation plates. So diverse are the results that anyone wandering in would be hard pressed to spot the common denominator.
If there is ever going to be a chance to learn how to cook rice properly, it is now. Edwin Ocampo, a Filipino chef at the Radisson Blu hotel, who has turned out a mango and rice bavarois with jellified blueberry coulis and caramelised nuts, looks bemused at my remark that some people struggle to get it right. In the Philippines, he says, they eat rice virtually from birth. Cooking it is almost instinctive.
"The key is the amount of water," he says. "Two hundred grams of rice needs at least one litre." Covering it is also important, he explains, because it allows the heat to circulate, preventing it from burning." If all else fails, though, he is not shy of a rice cooker. "You can't go wrong," he says. "The measurements are there, it pops up when it's cooked, and it keeps it warm." Haiko Schafer, a chef for Emirates Flight Catering who has produced three exquisite-looking rice puddings, has a more lyrical approach: "You need love. If you cook with love, it will work out."
Surely, I suggest, you also need to put the right things in it? "And some salt," he concedes. To make pudding rice, he tends not to cover it. "I keep stirring it, like a risotto. It gives you more control." It took Sachin Muzhapravan, the chef at Courtyard by Marriott, a week to come up with his recipe of redcurrant and cardamon pilaf, rice crusted chicken lollipops and spinach-battered calamari served with a yellow bell pepper coulis. "The cooking method depends on the rice," he says, "but in general the water should come up [above the rice] to the first joint in your finger." Being a purist, he tends not to add seasoning unless it's a pilaf or flavoured rice.
Not so for Tuan Irfan Hamidon, the Sri Lankan chef at the Coral International Dubai Hotel, who always sautées his rice with butter and herbs before cooking it in stock. For rice novices, he suggests using American long grain rice. "It's more forgiving than basmati. If you add too much water, it won't matter." Armed with so much advice, I leave it to the judges to decide. While the participants wait with a tension reminiscent of the BBC's Masterchef scenario, the senior chefs Patrick Lannes, Jamal Zuabi and Girish Babu retire to deliberate on matters of hygiene (10 points), preparation (15), usage of rice (20), presentation (15), and taste (40). In one dish, they think the rice is over-cooked, and in another, under-cooked.
I am heartened to learn that not even chefs get it right every time. Even so, there are two clear winners: taking the US$2,000 (Dh7,400) cheque in the cold category is Ocampo for his rice bavarois, while Hamidon wins the hot for his stuffed small tomatoes with American mushroom risotto, seared tuna and tapenade sauce. The chefs are exultant. But what have I learnt, other than that the right method depends on where you're from and the type of rice you're using - not exactly the precise set of instructions I was hoping for. I do, however, own a rice cooker.
And as the champion himself said: "The measurements are there, it pops up when it's cooked, and it keeps it warm." My thoughts exactly.