Rice Going with the Grain

Yamuna Mataji

Yamuna Mataji

UNTIL RECENTLY, nearly all the rice sold on Western grocery shelves was bland. Fortunately, India's premier long-grain rice, regarded as the finest in the world, is now available. It's basmati rice (literally "the queen of fragrance"), grown in the Himalayan foothills. The raw rice, delicately perfumed, cooks with the appetizing aroma of popcorn and has a subtle, nutty taste. Indian basmati is sold in Indian and Middle Eastern grocery stores.

It's been more than twenty-five years since I cooked my first pot of basmati rice for Srila Prabhupada's lunch. Though he's no longer physically present in the kitchen, I'm ever mindful of his many instructions on cooking rice.

In the fall of 1969, Srila Prabhupada spent a couple of months at John Lennon's estate near London. When we ran out of basmati one day for Prabhupada's lunch, my sister Janaki served him a mound of hot Uncle Ben's. The moment he glanced at the plate he asked, "What's this? Where is the rice?" Though she plaintively countered that it was indeed rice, he said, "No, this is not rice. Rice means basmati."

Srila Prabhupada once wandered into his kitchen in Vrndavana and saw two rice grains on the floor. In a soft voice, his grey eyes watery with emotion, he said, "Never waste one grain. It is Krsna's gift."

India's dependence on rice has weathered millennia of change. It's known as anna laksmi (anna means rice grain, and Laksmi is the goddess of fortune), for it provides sustenance for mind, body, and soul. More than two thirds of the Indian people live on it, and it's an integral element in temple worship and ceremonies. It's sprinkled on a sacrificial fire at birth, marriage, and spiritual initiation. On holy occasions, Indian women artfully paint their hearths and doorways with tinted ground-rice pastes. The throwing of rice grains on wedding couples started in India.

The thousands of rice strains cultivated in the world are generally grouped as long grain, medium grain, and short grain. Different strains cook differently. For example, some rices stick together when cooked. Others stay separate.

Rice is a versatile grain. It can be heated and puffed, pressed and flattened, or ground into grits or flour. In India rice is transformed into an endless variety of savories, snacks, confections, and ambrosial puddings. In this lesson we'll focus on dishes made from rice in its natural, whole form.

American-grown alternatives to Indian basmati are Texmati and Calmati brands, developed by crossbreeding Indian basmati with American long-grain. The flavor is similar to basmati, though a little less distinct. Another strain, jasmati, is a crossbreed of fragrant jasmine Thai and U. S. long-grain. Texmati will soon come out with a pure basmati strain, and organic basmati is already grown in Arkansas. These rices are available at natural food stores and supermarkets across the country.

Whether you're cooking for a family or an institution, it's good to note that rice is a nutrition plus in the diet. Rice is a lowfat, complex carbohydrate that contains all eight essential amino acids, which means the body can use its protein effectively. Brown basmati, brown Calmati, and brown Texmati have most of the bran layers left intact, giving them higher nutritional value. A plus for children and the aged: Rice is ninety-eight percent digestible and digests in one hour rather than the two to four hours of many other grains, legumes, and vegetables.

If you've purchased the course textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine or The Best of Lord Krishna's Cuisine, as recommended in my previous column, study the introduction to the section on rice. It gives you an overview of everything you need to know about rice cookery. In addition to preparing the dishes below, try making four other rice dishes this month. Take notes on the results and your preferences.

The following dishes are Srila Prabhupada's recipes.

REMEMBER: Before using basmati rice, sort through it to remove any foreign matter. Wash the rice in several changes of water. Soak it in fresh water for 10-15 minutes; then drain and use as directed.

If you use brown rice, cook it for 35-45 minutes.

Plain Basmati Rice

(Serves 5)

Srila Prabhupada preferred double-steamed rice from the top tier of his three-tiered brass cooker. The steam from the vegetables and dal cooking in the two lower sections cooked the rice at the top. If I cooked the rice separately, I prepared it the following way, served the moment it was cooked.

2 cups basmati rice 
3 ½ cups water

Wash and drain the rice. Place the rice and 3 ½ cups water in a heavy-bottomed, medium-size saucepan for 10 minutes. Bring to a boil, stirring to prevent sticking. Reduce the heat to very low, cover with a tight lid, and cook for 15-20 minutes. Let the cooked rice rest for 5 minutes, undisturbed and covered. Uncover, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve piping hot.

Rice-And-Pineapple Ambrosia

(Serves 6-8)

In 1967, Srila Prabhupada sampled whipped cream for the first time. On the spot he came up with this rice dessert, which became a favorite for the Sunday Feast.

2 cups cooked basmati rice, fluffed
4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds
1 cup currants
3 cups fresh pineapple, drained and cut into 1" x ½" x ¼" pieces
2 cups chilled whipping cream or 3 cups stirred nonfat yogurt
1 cup sugar
pineapple rings
1 cup toasted almonds

Place the rice, spices, currants, and pineapple on a tray and mix with your fingers until well blended. Whip the cream into firm peaks. Fold the sugar into the cream or yogurt and add it to the rice. Blend well, transfer to a serving dish, and chill 1 hour. Garnish with pineapple rings and toasted almonds.

Rice-And-Coconut Pilaf

(Serves 4-5)

Srila Prabhupada requested this dish for evening guests. He gave me the list of ingredients, and here's what I came up with.

1 cup basmati or long-grain rice
1 2/3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup shredded coconut
2 tablespoons ghee or peanut oil
3 tablespoons chopped peanuts
½ teaspoon crushed red chilies
lemon wedges

If you use basmati rice, wash and soak it as directed. Place the rice, water, salt, and coconut in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook and fluff as directed in the first recipe.

Heat the ghee or oil in a small pan over moderate heat. Add the peanuts and fry until golden, adding the crushed chilies in the last minute of browning. Pour the mixture into the rice and fluff. Serve with lemon wedges.

Yamuna Devi is the author of Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and is a regular contributor to the Washington Post.