From basmati to jasmine: how to choose the right rice for your meal
When it comes to rice, it can be hard to know which type will hit the spot – some are perfect with curry, while others go great with salads. Burmese food writer MiMi Aye gives us the lowdown.
Last night, I sat down with a dish of piping hot rice topped with a little Burmese chilli oil and a crispy fried egg. Although this might sound simple, I was in absolute heaven. For me, nothing hits the spot like a bowl of rice – physically or emotionally – and, especially at this time of year when the autumnal chill sets in, my cravings for comfort meant that rice is always a winner.
My roots lie in Myanmar, where rice is life. Instead of saying hello, we ask each other: “Have you had your rice yet?” Us Burmese will often feel like something’s amiss if we haven’t had rice that day, and we can sometimes be content with a bowl of the stuff simply drizzled with a little oil and sprinkled with some salt (known as see nit sar), so we can appreciate the purity. But a day-to-day meal in Myanmar more often resembles the Indonesian rijsttafel or Thai khantoke, where an array of stir-fried, steamed and curried dishes act as the chorus to the starchy star of the show.
My forever favourite: basmati
Choose as the perfect partner to saucy dishes such as a curry, and for some bite in a cold salad.
My favourite rice for these daily meals is basmati rice. During the lockdowns, I was extremely thankful that I could order 10kg bags of Tilda’s pure basmati rice online to be delivered straight to my door, as trips to the shops became impractical.
Tilda’s basmati is grown in the most fertile parts of the Indo-Gangetic Plain in the foothills of the Himalayas and is only harvested once a year. Like a fine wine, basmati develops a richer taste and aroma when aged, and so Tilda stores its basmati for up to 18 months, before carefully milling the grains.
So why do I love basmati rice?
Basmati has a pleasant aroma, delicate flavour, light, fluffy texture and clearly-defined grains, which retain their bite, so it acts as a perfect foil to sauces and gravies in particular. This may make you think of curries – and basmati rice can indeed be fantastic with curries, but remember that they come in all shapes and sizes. Curries may have their roots in south Asian cuisine but they have spread far and wide across the planet, with nations and regions having their own diverse and distinct variety of curry traditions. As a catch-all term, “curry” now covers everything from Thai green curry and the Indian madras, to Jamaican curry goat and many more – I recommend reading The Philosophy of Curry by Sejal Sukhadwala if you want to find out more about different types of curry. So, while you can’t go wrong with choosing basmati for a south Asian dish – where big bold flavours benefit from a robust grain that can soak it up – you may find that other curries work best with jasmine rice, or something else.
For Burmese curries, though, basmati is a reliable friend. Our curries range from savoury and pungent (khayan-thi oh-gat – aubergine pan-sticker), rich and fiery (ganan hin – spiced crab curry), to sweet and mild (kyet-thar hin hmwe – cinnamon chicken), but Tilda’s basmati handles it all with style.
Basmati rice is also my weapon of choice when making htamin thoke (Burmese rice salad) and the next level let thoke sone (Burmese rainbow salad) – the cooked rice absorbs all the vibrant flavours, and stays separate without turning to mush, even when tossed with a multitude of other ingredients.
The nutritional knockout: brown basmati rice
Choose for salads or for a wholegrain upgrade to your favourite meals.
Basmati rice tends to be a favourite in rice salads from other cuisines too. Or you can use brown basmati if you want a more nutritious option – wholegrain basmati still has the bran layer intact, which means it provides more fibre. Original basmati is my first love, but I switched to brown basmati when I had gestational diabetes.
Increasingly popular is pairing basmati with the nuttier and firmer wild rice to create a visually appealing, colourful plate set upon the black and white grains. And, although Burmese rice-based salads tend to be eaten while the rice is still warm, Tilda’s basmati is delicious even when chilled, so it’s great for taking on a picnic, to a barbecue or even for an office potluck.
The showstopper: extra-long basmati
Most recently, I discovered Tilda grand extra long basmati rice. Basmati rice triples in size as it elongates when cooked, and the extra long goes even further, providing a truly elegant dish. Despite its length, it’s a sturdy rice and retains its shape and texture even in a one-pot meal where rice is moved around a lot.
I use it to make Burmese-style buttered lentil rice (pe htawbat htamin) as a weekly treat, and it’s also a definite must when I make the Burmese-style biryani or pilaf, known as danbauk, a delicately-spiced, moreish dish that features in Myanmar at festivals and other special occasions – we even served danbauk at my wedding.
The floral one: jasmine
Choose for Thai cooking, egg fried rice, rice balls.
Most people will be familiar with jasmine rice from Thai cooking, where it is the rice of choice for most dishes. Served as a base for stir-fries or as a side dish with grilled meat skewers like moo ping – and always a perfect partner for the famous red and green curries – jasmine rice is eaten fresh as a new crop, rather than aged like basmati. It is known for its stunning fragrance and slight stickiness and lends itself to a variety of dishes and cuisines.
Being Burmese often means you’re a mix of one of the 130+ ethnic groups and part of my heritage is from the Shan State in Myanmar. Probably the most iconic Shan rice dish is htamin chin, where warm rice is kneaded with potatoes, white fish or both and mixed with various condiments before being rolled into balls and scattered with all manner of crispy garnishes. The rice for this dish should be soft and fluffy enough to bind into balls, but without being too sticky, so this is when I turn to Tilda’s fragrant jasmine rice, sourced from only the best grains including Thai hom mali and which ticks all of those boxes, and has a beautiful fragrance as a bonus.
I also like to use Tilda’s jasmine whenever I make egg fried rice from scratch, but this only happens when I have cold, leftover rice, as freshly cooked rice will clump or go soggy. Leftover rice isn’t always an option, though (especially in my household), so it’s absolutely fine to cheat by grabbing a packet of Tilda’s microwavable jasmine rice to chuck in your frying pan: I promise, it will turn out just as well, thanks to Tilda’s high standards, despite coming from a pouch!
My ancestors (even, in fact, my extant family) would probably be horrified to hear me giving you this advice, as rice is so revered by the Burmese that the first portion of freshly cooked rice will always be served to the most “senior” diners at the table, in terms of age or prestige. Even if no elders are present at a meal, a spoonful of rice will still be scooped out from the pot before we tuck in and put aside until the end as an act of respect, a custom known as u cha (first serve). The religious in Myanmar will even leave rice as offerings to the Buddha, other gods, or to spirits known as nats. There is no finer food than rice, after all.
MiMi Aye is the author of Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen, and host of The MSG Pod podcast.
Tilda has been the go-to choice for rice aficionados, from great-grandmothers to great chefs, sitting at the heart of dinner tables for more than 50 years. The rice you choose can really elevate your dish, so Tilda ensures that only the best quality grains and ingredients go into its products. For more information about Tilda’s full range and for tasty recipe inspiration, visit tilda.com
This article was originally published on theguardian.com as part of the Tilda and Guardian Labs ‘Its the rice that makes it’ campaign.