But why all that water? An Italian writer calls it la coperta termica, a kind of thermal blanket which insulates the crop against excessive heat and cold. Other people say that the water is there merely to drown the weeds. These may be coincidental advantages, but they don’t explain why rice evolved as a water-loving species of a non-water dwelling genus. From transplanting to harvest, a typical field needs between 1 and 2 metres of depth of it – not all at once, of course; on any one day, the water is likely to be between 5 and 50 centimetres deep. Each kilogram of rice has been irrigated by anything from 3,000 to 10,000 litres of water.
Water brings nutrients to rice plants, but rice doesn’t depend on these. A healthy old-fashioned rice field has been compared to an aquarium, in which a complex ecological system maintains a natural balance. But this can really only be true at the level of bacteria and suchlike micro-organisms, because the field is never flooded for more than a few weeks, or months at most. You will find ducks, frogs, fish, shellfish and other creatures in it, but they are just passing through, not permanent residents.
The best water is fresh from the river, as long as it is not too cold, and it should be carrying particles of clay and organic matter, frog spawn and tadpoles, a fish from time to time to provide the farmer’s family with some extra protein. Stagnant water is better than none, but water that stands in the field for too long may heat up and damage young plants if their leaves are too small to shade the surface, and it may allow malarial mosquitoes to breed. Rice fields were for many years forbidden near Spanish and Italian cities, and the tidal swamps of South Carolina were notorious.
This is a very popular way of cooking rice throughout tropical Asia, not quite a celebration dish but certainly a little bit special; it deserves to be made with the best rice you can get.
Preparation: 1 hour soaking
Cooking: about 30 minutes
For 4-6 people
450 g/1 lb/2cups long grain rice, preferably Basmati or Thai Fragrant or similar, soaked for 1 hour, washed and drained
2 tbsp olive oil or clarified butter
680 ml/24 fl oz/3 cups coconut milk
1 pandanus leaf or bay leaf
In a saucepan, stir-fry the rice in the butter or oil for 3 minutes. Add the coconut milk, salt, and the pandanus or bay leaf. Bring to a boil and cook until the rice has absorbed all the liquid.
Then lower the heat; cover the pan tightly, and cook for a further 10-12 minutes undisturbed, or you can finish off the cooking in the oven or microwave (see below). Discard the leaf and serve hot.
Yellow Savoury Rice
Yellow, perhaps because it is the colour of gold, is associated all over South-East Asia with gods, royalty and feasts. Any thanksgiving or celebration party, even if the event celebrated is a very mundane one, is likely to have a large dish of yellow rice at the centre of the table.
Preparation: 1 hour soaking
Cooking: 30 minutes
For 4-6 people
450g/1 lb/2 cups long grain rice: Basmati, Texmati, Thai Fragrant, Sunlong, etc., soaked for 1 hour, washed and drained
2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 shallots or 1 small onion, sliced finely
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cumin
680 ml/24 fl oz/3 cups coconut milk or stock
1 stick of cinnamon
½ tsp salt
1 kaffir lime or bay leaf
Heat the oil in a saucepan. Stir-fry the sliced shallots or onion for 2 minutes. Add the rice, turmeric, coriander and cumin. Stir-fry for another 2 minutes, then add the coconut milk or stock, then all the other ingredients. Boil the mixture uncovered, stirring it once or twice with a wooden spoon, until the rice has absorbed all the liquid. Then steam for 10 minutes.
Instead of steaming, you can cover the saucepan tightly, and cook undisturbed on a low heat for 10 minutes, or you can finish off the cooking in the oven or microwave (see below).
Transfer the rice to a serving dish, discard the cinnamon, cloves and kaffir lime or bay leaf. Serve hot to accompany meat, fish and vegetables.
Alternative Methods for 'Finishing' Rice
Transfer the rice from the pan to an ovenproof dish. Cover the dish with buttered greaseproof paper, then with aluminum foil. Cook in a preheated oven at 180 degrees C/350 degrees F/Gasmark 4 for 15-16 minutes (brown rice 16-20 minutes).
Transfer the rice from the pan to a container which can be microwaved. Cover it with clingfilm/plastic wrap, set the microwave to full power, and cook for 4-5 minutes (brown rice 6-7 minutes). (This assume 650 watt microwave; you may need to experiment a little.)