Doesn't it get boring eating rice all the time, I asked him? "As a matter of fact it does," he admits. "I'd love to have potatoes or pasta for a change. But my wife doesn't think a meal is a proper meal without rice."
Food doesn't come much blander than rice. But what you put on it doesn't have to be bland; in fact, its very blandness has been a challenge to the world's cooks. Think of China's varied cuisine, India with its curry sauces. Thailand and Indonesia are renowned for their hot, spicy dishes. Japan, too, has its breakfast of rice and piquant vegetable pickles, and its famous sushi snacks, those sticky rice balls filled with raw fish and detonated with a dab of wasabi (a kind of horseradish).
But rice isn't only the food of Asians. In Central America and the Caribbean, for a great many people, rice and beans (often with an explosive charge of chilli) is a staple.
Most of this rice is what is known as long-grain rice, Sativa indica, originating from India (the best of which is the famed basmati). But there is also a very healthy Mediterranean tradition, too, based on a different sort of rice; large, round grains. The Moors first introduced it to Spain in the 8th century and the Italians adopted it from them centuries later. This rice (Sativa japonica, originating in Japan) has the capacity to absorb liquid (essentially fish, meat or chicken stock) hence the flavoursome dishes paella and risotto. Britons who went to boarding school will know that there is also another kind of absorbent rice, having been weaned on a diet of watery rice puddings. This is generally called pudding rice or Carolina (the original source of the grain, although it is no longer grown in the American Carolinas).
And there is still another kind of rice if you include brown rice, the banner under which the macrobiotic movement gathered a quarter of a century ago. But this is not so much a different variety, as rice which has been husked, but left unmilled and unpolished.
Many consider brown rice to be healthier on the grounds that it's high in fibre, which it certainly is. But also it contains vital B-vitamins in the skin which have been removed from white rice during the process of milling and polishing. These vitamins are also further diminished if you wash the rice before cooking.
So, if one's diet was solely based on white rice, this could pose a problem since vitamin B1 deficiency exposes man to beriberi, a fatal wasting disease affecting the nerves. The role of this vitamin was discovered by doctors during colonial wars in India when British officers were besieged in Trichinopoly. Loyal sepoys, serving soldiers, gave their officers the whole rice, themselves subsisting only on the water in which the rice had been cooked. The sepoys thrived but the officers developed beriberi. True or not, it is held that mulligatawny soup was originally just such a liquid, made palatable with seasonings.
There are other categories of rice to consider, such as the newly fashionable black rice (commonly known as wild rice even though it's neither wild nor rice) and red rice (from the Camargue region in the south of France). Botanically, they are different sorts of water-grass. Both types still have their husks on and need a cooking time three or four times longer than regular rice.
Glutinous black rice Actually garnet red, usually used in sweet dishes. Cook 20 to 30 minutes.
Japanese sushi rice Plump, short-grain rice. Starchy, sticky, ideal for sushi. Cook 15 to 20 minutes. (The Japanese use it to make gluey dish for children called congee, cooking well-soaked rice for hours in a large volume of water; if you tasted it you wouldn't be rude about rice pudding again.)
Fragrant Thai rice Staple rice of Thailand, slightly sticky. Good for curries. Cook 12 to 15 minutes.
White basmati rice Long, thin-grain. Subtle scent, fluffy texture and well-separated grains, this is favourite of connoisseurs. Grown near Himalayas. Cook 10 to 12 minutes.
White medium-grain Calasparra paella rice Round grain (redondo). Firm- textured, robust, delicious. Best is from Calasparra, Murcia. Absorbs three or four times volume of liquid. The rice for paella (but you can you use Italian rice). Cook 15 to 18 minutes, but paella takes longer (25 minutes).
Wild rice Dark brown and black. Tasty, nutty (very good with game); or can add a stylish touch if you mix it with basmati (must be cooked separately). Absorbs two-and-a-half to four times volume of water. Cook 55 to 60 minutes.
Mixed basmati and wild rice Typical supermarket mix. Cook 20 to 25 minutes.
Easy-cook white basmati rice Slightly golden colour due to processing. Some loss of aroma. Cook 18 to 20 minutes.
Brown basmati rice Dense, chewy, nutty. Whole-some. Cook 45 to 60 minutes.
Carmargue rice Reddish-brown grain, earthy, tasty, chewy. Cook 45 to 60 minutes.
Italian risotto rice Large, round rice, plump and tender when cooked, though a risotto should be al dente. Don't wash it if making risotto, as the starch makes the runny sauce. There are four grades; superfino makes the best risotto (look for Arborio, Roma, Baldo); fino (Vialone, Razza, RB 265). semifino (Ardizzone, Maratello, Ribe, Europa, Loto). The last grade, commune, is your ordinary rice. Most Italian rice cooks in 18 to 20 minutes, but add an extra 10 minutes when making risotto.
White, round-grain Italian pudding rice Used as thickener in puddings. Cook 15 minutes.
Brown long-grain rice Hulled but not milled. Chewy, nutty, bulky, filling. Absorbs three to four times its volume in liquid. Cook 45 to 50 minutes.
Easy-cook, brown long-grain rice Golden-brown, dense and chewy, high fibre. Needs 45 to 60 minutes cooking.
Long-grain white rice Standard rice in the UK, rather bland taste. Cook for about 12 to 15 minutes.
Easy-cook long-grain white rice Factory-processed by par-boiling. Chefs' favourite as it cooks to perfection, with each grain separate. In spite of processing, it requires a longer cooking time: 20 to 25 minutes.
The way rice is most often cooked in Indian restaurants is to boil it in a large, uncovered pan full of boiling water until it's almost done (a critical moment). Then, it's drained and covered with foil and put in a low oven, where its own steam slowly completes the cooking.
At home, though, the purist will probably prefer to cook rice in the precise amount of water which it will absorb. This can vary from one type of rice to another.
The easy way to cook rice is by volume, using a cup or measuring jug, allowing one part rice to two parts water. Use less water for making sushi rice (one part rice to one-and-a-half of water) and more for risotto dishes (one part rice to three of water or stock) or paella (one part rice to four of water or stock). Alternatively, use the age-old method of putting washed rice in a saucepan and covering with water up to the depth of the first joint of your forefinger.
In both volume methods, bring the water and rice to the boil, tightly cover (a layer of crinkled foil under the lid makes a tight seal), then lower the heat to a minimum and simmer for 12 minutes. Raise the heat briefly, then turn it off and stand for another 12 to 20 minutes, allowing the steam to complete cooking. Don't lift the lid to see how it's doing. (To avoid scorching the rice, it helps to use a heat diffuser.)
Most modern rices are so well cleaned that they don't need washing. But in order to remove excess starch (which would leave rice sticky) many Indian cooks do wash rice, often in up to seven changes of water till it runs clear. You can get the same effect in a sieve under a jet of water from the cold tap, of course. Sometimes they wash rice, then leave it to stand for an hour before cooking, a method which both reduces cooking time and produces a fluffier grain.
THE LAZY WAY
Just cook the rice in a large pan of boiling water, uncovered, until it's done. Strain. Then put the sieve or colander over the still hot pan, cover over with a cloth, and leave to stand for a few minutes before serving.
THE EASY WAY
Buy an electric rice cooker (pounds 40 plus). Put in rice, add water up to the level indicated. Switch on. It switches itself off.
Useful for the slow-cook brown rices. (Follow the makers' instructions.)