by Vikram Doctor
Brown rice doesn’t have the best of reputations.
I am not talking, of course, of the Parsi version, dyed a rich dark brown with caramel and served as an accompaniment to dhansak.
But real brown rice, cooked with the husk on. Its known to be nutritious, but also a bore. All too often it becomes edible chewing gum, coarse and heavy to eat with endless chewing and leaden in the stomach.
Yet brown rice can be delicious the way I make it for my boyfriend and me. Like many Indian men he’s finicky about food and has just turned vegetarian. A New Year’s resolution which is still going strong in February so it might be lasting.
Start with the rice. Never brown basmati. Overused as it is, basmati still has its place at the table, but I’m not sure that brown basmati does. It neither works as brown rice or basmati.
I use Indrani, an excellent variety grown in the Konkan close to Mumbai. It is rounded and cooks soft, but doesn’t collapse into mush too easily and has a great ability to absorb aromas. You can get good brown Indrani at organic food stores or the Farmer’s Market that takes place in winters in Bandra. But I’ve also found it being sold on the road to Goa, on the interior route which we take when we drive down with Sheroo, our black Lab. After the national highway, when we turn off at Nippani to cut across the fields of the Deccan plateau and then the ghats down to the Konkan, on the side you will find local traders selling rice, papads, pickles all locally grown and made. It’s a good place to stop and buy brown Indrani.
The key with brown rice is soaking it. A few hours at least and perhaps even all night. This is the one thing you need to remember in advance, but soon it becomes routine. Soak and then wash away the cloudy water and wash again and again and once more.
Next make the base. It can just be onions, but is much better with other vegetables as well. Carrots are very good, adding sweetness and vivid colour. Zucchini gives a green edge and releases so much water you should add less.
Chop the onions and other vegetables finely. A food processor helps a lot here. I’m not giving quantities. You should guess what works in your pressure cooker. Because of course you have a pressure cooker.
Put it on the fire and heat some oil or ghee. If its oil I prefer sesame, the original, ancient oil of India though surprisingly hard to find. I buy mine in a bookshop, the Gandhi Book Centre near Grant Road station, where it comes cold pressed from the Yusuf Mehrally Centre in Panvel outside Mumbai.
Or use ghee, which can’t be beaten for taste. Coimbatore’s ghee is famous in Tamil Nadu where I grew up and you can find it in Mumbai in P.Ramalingam’s shop in Matunga, just as you climb down from the Z-bridge walkway.
I also use buffalo ghee which is excellent and stupidly looked down on by people who fetishize cows. Buffalos are far more suited to India, produce excellent milk replete with butterfat from which really excellent ghee can be made. I buy it from the Punjab & Sind stall in Khar, at least partly because it’s also an excuse to buy some of their wonderful, lightly salted and soft paneer.
We’re almost ready to start, but of course there has to be a secret ingredient. Not my secret as much as that of professional caterers who use it to add flavour to their rice dishes. Sometimes they are unscrupulous about it since what it adds is the nutty, almost popcorn aroma that is close to basmati, and that’s what they will claim they used.
Samar Gupta of Trikaya Agro grows it at his farm in Talegaon near Mumbai, but ever since he shut his stall at Crawford Market it’s become harder to find. Luckily Sunil, the smartest vegetable seller in Mumbai sells it from his stall at Pali Market.
You can trust Sunil to get produce no one else in Mumbai has – and to sell it to you for a price that reflects this. Luckily you can get a large quantity of pandan leaves for Rs100 and they will last you a while in your fridge. They actually seem to become more aromatic as they wither and dry.
Now it’s quick. Sauté the chopped onions in the hot oil or ghee. When they’re getting brown add the chopped up veggies. When these are well cooked – you want to braise them rather than fry them, so add dashes of water if it’s getting too dry – add the drained rice, a few pandan leaves, plenty of water and then just enough salt. You want all the flavours to come through, so too much salt is a mistake.
When the water has just started boiling close the pressure cooker lid – but don’t put on the weight. Kavita Mukhi who runs the Farmer’s Market gave me this tip for brown rice. She said the steamy heat of the almost closed cooker will work on the rice, but the slight escape for the steam prevents the rice overheating and destroying the nutrients.
Cooking it this way also prevents the rice become mush. You want it soft and slightly sticky, but not mush. And when you cook it this way with pandan leaves the steam that escapes is replete with that wonderful warm aroma, making everything in your kitchen and house smell better.
The only problem is that the aroma will make you insanely hungry. And you shouldn’t hurry this, since you want the rice to cook well, till most of the water is absorbed or evaporated. As it cooks you will see a plume of steam coming off the cooker, and when it looks like it’s slowing down, that’s roughly when you know it’s done.
And here is the other advantage of the unweighted cooking method. Since it doesn’t allow the steam to build up to scary levels, you can open the cooker almost at once. Release the lid and let it drop on its own and then savour the intense burst of warm rice aroma that surges up with the steam. Fluff up the rice with a big spoon, remove the pandan leaves.
Vikram Doctor’s On My Plate column has the best of reputations and his Real Food Podcasts make for a most charming Valentine’s date.
Our mascot Manuel is ready in red courtesy Cyrus Daruwala.