A recent trip to Indonesia, where I was surrounded by rice paddies and had rice for every single meal, has made me think about rice. This isn’t as obvious as it may sound.
When you visit a culture in which rice is the staple, you can, paradoxically, become oblivious to it. It simply shows up at the table, a vehicle for “greater,” more celebrated dishes, merely there to absorb a sauce, carry a stew or complement meat or vegetables.
But that is not the whole story. It’s not even half the story. Every cuisine with rice at its core also has a host of dishes that idolize it.
Nasi lemak, a meal I would run great distance for, is a good example: Considered the national dish of Malaysia, it is a dome of fragrant rice made with coconut milk and pandan, surrounded by sambal (hot sauce), fresh cucumber, roasted peanuts, little fried anchovies and boiled egg. For me, this is the summit of refinement and restraint. Placed slap-bang in the center of the plate, with no sauce or salsa to hide under, this dome is a celebration of the mastery of cooking rice, of the separateness of every grain.
In Indonesian variations, the rice was often shaped in a cone instead of a dome and robed at the tip with banana leaf, a crown signaling who’s at the top of this delicious bunch. In the most lavish version, a ceremonial dish called tumpeng from the island of Java, a cone-shaped rice mound of great proportion is placed at the center of a platter lined with banana leaf, a vast number of colorful side dishes surrounding it. (Look up pictures; it’s very impressive.)
That is clearly one way to celebrate rice. But more often, in other parts of the world, the way the rice is feted is by cooking it with its condiments rather than serving it alongside them. The ceremony here is in the slow and careful layering and grouping of ingredients, and the art is in making sure everything is cooked just as it should be — that nothing goes soggy, or mushy or dry.
Although such high drama helps draw attention to rice, there are less theatrical but equally delicious dishes that do a similar thing. This is the point behind my mushroom and apricot pilaf. In all of them, rice is cooked in stock and alongside all sorts of ingredients — meat, vegetables, spices, nuts or dried fruit.
If it’s done skillfully, where everything cooks just right, you get a real sense of occasion. Humble rice, elevated and celebrated, turns into the brilliant star of the show — or the holiday table.
Recipe: Sweet Spiced Mushroom and Apricot Pilaf
Yield: 4 main or 6 side servings
Total time: 2 hours
Ingredients: 1 to 2 ancho chiles, stems discarded
30 grams dried porcini mushrooms
480 milliliters chicken or vegetable stock
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
450 grams oyster mushrooms, roughly torn into separate stems
5 large portobello mushrooms, stems discarded, each cap roughly broken up into 6 chunks
1 large yellow onion, peeled, halved and cut into 1/4-inch/1/2-centimeter-thick slices
140 grams dried apricots (the plump orange kind), quartered
10 garlic cloves, peeled
3 cinnamon sticks
4 whole star anise
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons/150 milliliters olive oil
1 3/4 cups/340 grams basmati rice, washed until water runs clear, then drained well
3 scallions, trimmed, then thinly sliced at an angle
1/4 cup/5 grams loosely packed parsley leaves, picked with some of the stem attached
1. Bring a small pot of water to a boil and heat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit/230 degrees Celsius.
2. Add the ancho chile to a heatproof bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover. Let sit to rehydrate, about 20 minutes, then discard the soaking liquid and roughly chop the chile, seeds and all.
3. Transfer the dried porcini mushrooms to a medium saucepan and add the stock, 1 1/2 cups/360 milliliters water, 1 1/4 teaspoons salt and a good grind of pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then set aside.
4. Add the oyster and portobello mushrooms, onion, apricots, garlic, cinnamon, star anise, chopped ancho chile, 1/2 cup/120 milliliters oil, 1 teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper to a roasting pan (tin) that is about 10-by-13 inches/26-by-34 centimeters. Give everything a good stir, then bake until the vegetables are soft and well browned, 40 to 45 minutes, stirring halfway through. Remove from the oven, transfer half the mixture to a medium bowl, then arrange the remaining mushrooms in an even layer in the pan. Sprinkle the rice evenly on top of the mushrooms in the pan, without stirring, and set aside.
5. Bring the porcini mixture back up to a simmer over medium-high heat. Pour the porcini mixture over the rice, again without stirring, and cover the roasting pan tightly with foil. Return to the oven and bake until the rice is cooked through and has started to brown on the bottom of the pan, and the apricots begin to caramelize, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and gently stir everything together.
6. Add the scallions, parsley and the remaining 2 tablespoons/30 milliliters oil to the bowl with the reserved mushroom mixture; stir to combine. Spoon this over the rice mixture and serve.