It is always interesting, and sometimes enlightening, to see another nation (or one’s own) through a visitor’s eyes. Today we can do this in the comfort of our own home in front of the television, in what almost amounts to a watered-down reality-TV experience - with only the absence of security checks and the unique foreign smells of real down-and-dirty travel. How much more fascinating must it have been in the past, when a fifty-mile trip from home was a rare and often hazardous trip, to hear or read of the adventures of those who travelled far away to strange foreign places. Some of the adventures of course, were of the food-kind, and it goes without saying that these are the sort that particularly interest me.
John Chardin was a seventeenth century Protestant Frenchman - a jeweller and merchant by trade - who left his homeland to escape the persecution perpetrated at the time, on those of his faith in predominantly Catholic France. For many years he lived and travelled extensively in ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Indies’ before making his home in England, where he received a knighthood and completed a ten-volume account of his experiences. Today I want to give you an extract from his writings on rice in Asia and ‘the Indies.’ Rice was not unknown in Europe in the seventeenth century – far from it, in fact. It was an expensive import in the early medieval era, and Italy had been growing rice since perhaps as early as the thirteenth century, in the north of the country, and it is found in British and European recipes from that time. It was not, however, a staple food for the masses.
There are two particularly intriguing things about Chardin’s description of the use of rice in Asia. He discusses at some length the difference in the cooked article between the Asian and the Italian versions, which he attributes to the different water, and he also mentions rice being cooked in bamboo canes.
“Rice is the most common and best Esteem’d food of all Asia, and it is to be met with everywhere throughout the East. As it is light and cooling, they prefer it to Bread, and it even serves for Bread, in the most Southern Countries, where a good many People use it as their only Food. Rice is likewise very good in Illnesses. Mathiole, and other learned European Naturalists, have acknowledg’d all that I have said of this excellent Grain. They dress it in a great may Ways, which I shall reduce to three. The First, is to boil the Rice in water, without any other Seasoning, and then they dissolve it in boiling to make Broth for sick People, or they bake it dry, in using it for Bread. The Second way, is to make Soops with it, with Roots, Milk, or Meat. The Third, is to make Pilo*, or Kichery, those exquisite Foods, so cry’d up by Eastern People. I shall speak by and by, concerning the Manner of their dressing, this Pilo, and these rich Soops: I shall only speak here of the first way of dressing, and how it is done in the several parts of the Indies, where it is most us’d.
But you must observe beforehand, that the rice of Asia is tenderer and more easie to boil, in Proportion as the Country where it grows is more or less Southerly. In the Indies, one Boil is sufficient for the Rice, and even there where it is the hardest; they wash it well, rubbing it with their Hands, they shake it, and put it in the Pot, where it is presently done; and even in a great many Places in the Indies, they have no Occasion of Water to dress it; they do nothing but put a wet Cloath upon the Pot, under the Cover. I have seen it drest in a Bamboo, this is a thick sweet Cane, hollow and hard, that grows in the Indies, and of which there are some as thick as one’s Leg; they have a little thin Skin, or Rind in the inside, which is more solid and hard than the Wood. When the Fire has Penetrated to that, they take the Bamboo half burnt from off the Fire, and they take out the Rice well done. I relate these little particulars, because our Italian Rice is so hard, and that one has much trouble in boiling it. When I came to enquire into the Reason of this difference in the dressing of the Rice, which being the same, could not however be drest as soon everywhere: I found out, that the Water was the main Article in dressing; the one penetrating and dissolving sooner than the other; as ell as that the one softens this Grain in the boiling, whereas the other Waters sensibly harden it: I don’t well comprehend the Reason, but for all that, don’t disallow the Thing, being convinc’d by Experience of the difference there is, in the Staining of the Calicoes, and China-Ware, in those Countries, which are more or less Beautiful, according to the Water which they use.”
[*pillau and kedgeree]
One of the first English cookery books to have a dedicated section for recipes from the Orient was Domestic economy, and cookery, for rich and poor(1827). The author gave several recipes for ‘pillau,’ named as Persian, Indian and Turkish versions. Today I give you the ‘Syrian’ version (although there seems to be some confusion with ‘Turkish’), which is really just buttered rice.
To boil Rice, and make Syrian Pillau.
After having cleaned the rice properly, have three times the quantity of salted water boiling: some rice takes more or less water, which must be attended to; wash and strain it. The moment of putting it into boiling water, after it has boiled a few minutes, set it on the side of the grate, and let it remain until the water is absorbed, during which time the rice is upon no account to be disturbed by stirring or otherwise. Take off the cover, and pour over it as much previously pure melted butter as will butter it throughout, and giving it three stirs round with a spoon, replace the cover; serve it a few minutes after shaking it out on the dish; on no account stirring it, as it is that which makes pillau in this country so like pudding, and so unlike the real Turkish dish. The water is sometimes coloured with saffron. Hard white or saffroned eggs may be stuck into it.
Quotation for the Day.
I like rice. Rice is great if you're hungry and want 2000 of something.