On a scale of nought to 10, our contribution to rice cookery barely registers above the first decimal point. I can think of only two dishes that could be considered British: rice pudding and kedgeree. There is no good reason why we should be inventive rice cooks; we do not - cannot - grow rice here (sadly, even Asia has had problems this year, the cool, wet summer devastating the crop), nor have we had to depend on it as a staple.

There are hundreds of different varieties of rice, far more than the simplistic classifications we are used to (long grain, medium grain or short grain, brown or white) would suggest. The culinary differences are often marginal but sometimes dramatic. Most interesting rice dishes come from rice-growing areas and take advantage of the qualities of the local variety. But do not abandon all attempts to make a foreign rice dish if you cannot lay your hands on exactly the right strain: you should simply try to buy something that approximates in character. The one exception is risotto, which absolutely must be made with proper Italian risotto rice. Nothing else will do.

Risotto rice apart, my two personal favourites are Thai fragrant (or Jasmine) rice and Basmati. The former has the most scented, ricey smell and flavour, is always slightly sticky and is very good for most South-east Asian cookery. Basmati has a distinctive smell and long slender grains, which make it ideal for both Indian and Middle Eastern cooking. Rinse it well before cooking and do not over-boil it.

One of the highlights of this autumn's crop of new cookery books is the Rice Book by Sri Owen (Doubleday, pounds 20), the result of a lifelong love of rice (Sri was born in Western Sumatra and lived in Indonesia until 1964) and two years' research.

Sri Owen's Chicken Biryani

Sri Owen admits that her method for making biryani is not authentically Indian, but the result is superb, none the less. She suggests sprinkling the finished biryani with ground almonds, but I think toasted flaked almonds are far nicer.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 8-10oz (220-280g) Basmati or long-grain rice

2tbs olive oil

2 shallots, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1tsp finely chopped fresh ginger

4 boneless, skinned chicken breasts, sliced very thinly

1/2 tsp each chilli powder, ground cumin

1tsp ground coriander

pinch ground nutmeg

1/4 tsp each ground cinnamon, turmeric

6fl oz (170ml) natural yoghurt

1tsp sugar

3tbs raisins or sultanas

salt and pepper

For garnish: 1tbs fried shallots

2tbs ground or flaked toasted almonds

Preparation: Boil rice in 3 pints (1.7 litres) of water with 1/2 tsp salt for 8 minutes, stirring once and making sure water stays at a rolling boil. Drain and reserve. In a large saucepan or casserole with a tight-fitting lid, heat oil and fry shallots, garlic and ginger root for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add chicken, raise heat and stir-fry for 3 minutes. Add all ground spices, stir again, add yoghurt and continue stirring for 1 minute. Stir in sugar, raisins or sultanas. Taste and adjust seasoning. Pile rice on top. Cover saucepan with foil or a tea-towel and clamp lid on tightly. Leave to cook on low heat for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and rest, undisturbed and tightly covered, for a further 5 minutes. Uncover, garnish, serve.

Chilau Rice

This Persian method of cooking rice is one of the best. The bulk of the grains turn out light and fluffy, but the real joy is the crisp, golden-brown crust that lurks at the bottom of the pan. You must use a heavy, thick pan. I always use a cast-iron one, set over a low heat, but not quite the lowest my gas hob can offer. However, exact timing and temperature will vary from hob to hob, and pan to pan. It makes a wonderful accompaniment to spicy dishes, but with yoghurt, almonds and fried onions it is good enough to eat on its own.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 12oz (340g) Basmati or long-grain rice

salt

2oz (55g) melted butter, or 4tbs olive oil

Optional extras: thick Greek yoghurt

1oz (30g) flaked almonds, fried in butter or oil

1 large onion, chopped and browned in butter or oil

Preparation: Soak the rice in a generous amount of water with 1tbs of salt, for 1-8 hours (the longer the better). Drain and rinse. Bring a large pan of salted water to a rolling boil and add the rice. Simmer for between 3 and 8 minutes until the rice is almost, but not quite, cooked. Drain and rinse with hot water.

Melt half the butter in the base of a heavy pan, add the rice, smoothing down loosely, and dot remaining butter over the surface. Fold a clean tea-towel in half and lay it over the pan. Settle the lid snugly over the tea-towel, and lift trailing ends on top of the lid to prevent them burning. Place pan over a low heat and cook for 20-25 minutes without disturbing. Spoon rice into the serving dish and scrape the brown crusty bits from the base of the pan. Scatter over the rice. Top, if you wish, with a dollop of yoghurt, and sprinkle with fried almonds or onions.

Dirty rice

From Louisiana comes this mess of a dish with its delightfully apt name. This version, adapted from Craig Claibourne's Southern Cooking, includes aubergine, which adds to the murky appearance as well as to the flavour.

Serves 5-6

Ingredients: 2 medium aubergines, cut into 1in (2.5cm) cubes

8oz (220g) chicken livers, finely chopped

8oz (220g) pig liver, finely chopped

5tbs groundnut or sunflower oil

12oz (340g) minced pork

1 large green pepper, finely chopped

2 stalks celery, finely chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 1/4 pints (720ml) chicken stock

3oz (85g) long-grain rice

6 spring onions, chopped

Preparation: Place aubergine cubes in a colander, sprinkle lightly with salt and leave for half an hour to drain. Rinse and dry. In a heavy, wide casserole or deep frying-pan, heat oil until almost smoking. Add aubergine and fry for about 5 minutes. Add minced pork and stir, until well mixed with the aubergine. Cover tightly and cook for about 10 minutes. Uncover, mash down aubergine pieces with the back of the spoon, then add green pepper, celery and onion. Stir, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the bottom, then cover and continue cooking over a high heat for 10 minutes. Stir, again scraping bottom well. Add cayenne, pepper and salt, and continue cooking and stirring for a further 5 minutes, uncovered. Add stock, stir and simmer gently, covered, for 10 minutes. Uncover and stir in rice and livers. Simmer, covered, for a further 15-20 minutes until rice is tender. Stir in spring onions and serve.

Arroz Doce

Practically every restaurant and cafe in Portugal can provide you with a bowl of rich arroz doce, sweet rice, to round off your meal. It is always served cold and varies from good to sensational, depending on the generosity of the cook. This recipe was given to me by Maria-Jose, a generous cook who runs a back-street cafe in the port of Sesimbra, just south of Lisbon.

Serves 8

Ingredients: 7oz (200g) medium- or long-grain rice

generous pint (600ml) creamy milk

zest 1 lemon, cut in strips

3 1/2 oz (100g) butter

7oz (200g) sugar

8 egg yolks

ground cinnamon

Preparation: Boil rice in plenty of water, with a pinch of salt, until barely tender. Drain and place in a large pan with the milk, butter and lemon zest, bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes until thick and creamy. Draw off the heat and stir in sugar and then egg yolks. Divide between 8 bowls, dust generously with ground cinnamon and leave to cool.

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