Did you know that in terms of human food, nutrition and the amount of calories consumed, rice is the most important grain in the world. Sure corn trumps it in terms of global production but quite a lot of corn production is not for human consumption. Don't get me started on a corn rant, though, or this post won't be as delicious as I had planned. Rice is pretty much the staple food for quite a big chunk of the world's population, especially in Asia where it all originated. Thanks to European colonisation, though, it migrated west to Italy where the Aborio variety was born.
Asia and Italy collide once more in this dish with Italian rice and Asian flavours and a blend of East and West cooking styles. I start this dish like a curry, sizzling up a punchy flavour base, before adding in the rice and switching to the risotto method. Now, I'm a sucker for cheese, and especially the slow cheesy ooze of a good Italian risotto, don't get me wrong, but sometimes I just want less stodge and a more complex flavour but don't want to get stuck in a stir-fry rut. That's where this recipe delivers.
The flavour base:
1. In a deep fry-pan (or a heavy-based wok, if you're prepared to keep a very close eye), heat up a tablespoon or two of coconut oil or another oil with a high smoke point and add in chopped garlic, ginger, onion, lemongrass, coriander root (saving the leaves for later), and chilli (if you don't have kids eating). Chop, bash, grate or cut these as you please. I've whizzed the lot in a food processor and kept them relatively chunky - either works. Add in thinly sliced capsicum and cook over a medium heat for a few minutes.
2. Add in a cup or two of Aborio rice (or another risotto rice; pearly barley is also good although takes longer to cook), reduce the heat and cook for another minute or two, making sure all the grains are coated. They'll start to look a little transluscent around the edges.
3. Stir in around a cup of white wine or Chinese rice wine (although be warned that has a stronger flavour) and simmer until there's no liquid left. Welcome to risotto cooking. There's a Lombardy saying that "rice is born in water and dies in wine" mostly because the best quality rice in Italy ended up in risottos.
4. From here, you start a long meditative process of adding stock (vegetable or chicken) one cup or ladel full at a time, stirring continuously (or frquently if you're a risk-taker like me) as the rice absorbs the liquid. It's not as laborious as it sounds. Around a litre of stock will absorb into two cups of rice in around twenty minutes. It gives you enough time to shell some edamame, chop a bunch of asian greens or broccolini or prep whatever vegetables you fancy.
5. When the rice is on the far side of al dente, with only the slightest hint of chewy crunch, add in your chosen vegetables and cook for just a minute or two more. Turn off the heat.
The ooze (or sauce):
6. Mix together the juice of a lime, a tablespoon or two of sweet soy sauce (ketjap manis) and the same of soy sauce or fish sauce (we are not a fish-loving people in our house so use a dark mushroomy soy sauce instead). Stir this through your risotto.
7. Add in a selection of Asian herbs. Definitely throw in the remaining coriander leaves but Vietnamese mint or Thai basil also work.
8. I normally pan-fry firm tofu and lay that over the top after serving but somehow it was the regular, softer tofu that made its way into the basket this time, so I loosely scrambled it and stirred it through like an egg.
9. If your significant other or dinner guests are mushroom fans (mine aren't - sigh), then fresh shitake mushrooms would be fantastic mixed in or served on top as well.
Because I chose a meat-free chicken-flavoured stock powder over homemade chicken stock, chose tofu over an egg, and nixed the fish sauce, the dish is vegan-friendly. It's also considerably lower in fat than the traditional Italian version but definitely high in flavour. The mash-up of European and Asian styles and flavours really works, I promise.