A Grain of Rice
growing, cooking, memories
Rice is the second staple in Indian food, along with roti or a form of it. Simple, easy to cook and versatile, to me, rice is like a Lego block—you can make practically anything with it.
You may not know this but my parents’ farm was originally a collection of seven paddy fields with about 30 grafted Alphonso trees planted on the ‘upland’ side of a small seasonal rain fed creek that went through the property. We employed the previous owner and his staff to work the land and for the first 5-6 years after we had purchased it we grew paddy / rice each monsoon, after the summer fruits and mango harvests were wrapped up. We even owned two bulls and a plough during that time!
Rice cultivation: Rice requires a particular balance of soil fertility, clay content, nutrition, rainfall and climatic conditions to flourish. In most rural areas, local agricultural stations will often develop and encourage farmers to plant a particular strain of rice suited for highest yield in specific microclimates. At the end of summer, dry fields are ploughed to break down the clayey soil. Old hay and dried grass is laid on top of the dry fields and a controlled burn is performed to allow essential nutrients to return to the soil, a process also called 'raab' in Marathi. Fertilizers are applied and then one waits for the rains. After the first heavy downpour, water is allowed to stagnate in the fields, up to 6” and rice seeds are sown in small clumps. Fields most often will have low mud banks to help contain the water.
In our first few years, we grew RP14, a coarse grain, a farmers’ rice, fluffy and heavy and did not have much value outside the local market. Then we switched into growing Surti Kolam and Ambe Mohor rice, both fine, small grain rice. They are fragrant when dry and delicately perfumed when cooked. These varieties of rice are very desirable in the local markets and we could barely keep a kilo or two before our friends purchased our complete harvest away.
As a kid, I was quite intrigued by this complex process of growing rice. I tried my hand at harvesting the rice by hand (but was told not to, on account of the grass snakes), and then I tried threshing and pounding the rice to separate the grain from the chaff. It is hard work and my body was quickly covered in itchy husk and my arms were tired quickly. The women who worked at the farm chuckled and had me move on to simpler tasks, like winnowing the grains.
My grandfather even tried growing wheat one year, successfully, and then decided that we should switch into fruit cultivation instead. The next year, the fields were planted with coconuts. Although I vividly remember taking my first steps onto the farm across the narrow mud banks that separated the paddy fields, on a rainy, stormy night and walking to the old farmers hut on high ground, I think the rice harvests were the first time I truly worked on the farm. After that, it was like I never wanted to leave.
With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow - I have still joy in the midst of these things. Confucius. The Confucian Analects, (551 BC - 479 BC)
Here is a recipe for a simple and quick rice pulao. Make it with your favorite rice, mine happens to be Basmati.
Makes: Eight ½-cup servings; 95 cal. ea. Prep Time: 10 minutes Cook Time, Ease: less than 30 minutes, Easy
1 tsp ghee 1 tsp cumin seeds 2 green cardamom pods 2” cinnamon stick 1 Indian bay leaf 2 cups raw basmati rice 4 cups water, boiling hot Salt, to taste
Rinse out the rice in a large bowl and remove all water. Boil the 4 cups of water and keep it on a low simmer until ready to use.
Heat the ghee in a large, heavy-bottom saucepan. Add cumin seeds and stir in using a flat spatula. Quickly add cardamom pods, cinnamon stick and bay leaf. Carefully add the rinsed rice and stir it in to coat all the grains with the ghee. Take care to do this step carefully as to not break the rice grain. If there is any water in the rice, let it cook through. Using extreme care, pour the hot water into the rice. Stir it in so that the rice does not stick to the bottom of the pan. Add salt to taste. Allow this to boil and cook uncovered for 10-12 minutes. When the water has reduced to half or when it is just above the level of the rice, turn the heat down to low and cover the saucepan. Allow the rice to finish cooking for another 10-12 minutes on low heat. Check for doneness—the grains should be fully cooked. If the water has evaporated but the grains are uncooked, pour 1/8 cup of water all through the mixture (do not stir in) and continue to cook for another 2 minutes on low. Serve warm, with appropriate side of daal, a meaty dish with gravy or enjoy plain.
Rice Cooker Method
Start the rice in the rice cooker as per instructions.
On the side, in a small saucepan, heat the ghee. Add cumin seeds and stir in using a flat spatula. Quickly add in cardamom pods, cinnamon stick and bay leaf. When the water in the cooker is boiling, pour in this mixture and lightly stir in with a spatula. Cover and allow the rice to cook.