Vittles 2.9 - Instant Rice

The Limits of Uncle Ben's, by Mehrunnisa Yusuf

In yesterday’s newsletter by Mandy Yin we looked at the romantic side of rice, the minor joy of a bowl of plain rice cooked from scratch, warm and slightly sticky but with each grain articulated, ready for the whole world to be poured over it. I mentioned that unlike bread (and depending on your definition, pasta), you can’t buy the best stuff ready made, that to make rice requires certain skill, preparation and patience: a ritual of soaking, measuring through scales or through the marks on your fingers, watching the pan until it boils and splutters. Even buying the best rice requires a little bit of hardship: I’ve personally never seen anyone carrying 20kg bags of potatoes or pasta back home, yet Asian mums seem to have a very specific superpower of being able to lug 20kg bags of basmati around like they’re about to execute a bodyslam.

At the opposite end of the spectrum you have precooked rice, instant rice, maligned by rice aficionados everywhere. As Mehrunnisa Yusuf points out in today’s newsletter, you would assume that no one from a proud rice culture would think of using this rice, yet precooked rice is successful around the world - even in Korea where instant rice technology is catching up to its noodle counterpart. Still, instant rice has none of the nostalgia and adaptability of instant noodles; no one is out there reviewing thousands of precooked rices (at least, I don’t think so). And maybe they never will. But I’m a fan of appreciating things on their own terms, and it’s clear that instant rice serves an important function in cutting down the work of cooking in a world where time is limited, and that although the taste and texture is not the same as cooking rice from scratch, there are other qualities to enjoy about them.

The most famous instant rice brand, by far, is Uncle Ben’s. I reckon everyone at some point has tried Uncle Ben’s. It’s difficult to escape it, in its bright orange packets and very questionable branding that speaks of a cosmopolitanism that is, as Mehrunnisa says “at odds with its reality”. Maybe you haven’t tried it for years. Now I’m not saying you should all go out and buy it, but in the same way that there are people who want to learn to take the time to cook rice properly, there are equally those who need quick fixes, who are relying on their cornershops for daily sustenance rather than walking and queuing at bigger supermarkets. The message of Mehrunnisa’s newsletter is that while Uncle Ben’s has its limits, it can still provide a vital service - in these times and others. And with an extra few ingredients, some frozen veg, a pack of tofu, some chickpeas, it might even be possible to conjure up food memories that last a lifetime.

The Limits of Uncle Ben’s, by Mehrunnisa Yusuf

In the not so distant past, I would have used a step stool to retrieve the heavy jar of seyla basmati that sits on a high shelf in my London kitchen. The long fragrant grains would come into their own after a brief soak and being boiled or steamed in one of many ways: plain with a generous pat of salted butter; in a meaty stock; to a base of slowly caramelised onions; or, as my husband does sometimes, in a masala made from onions, tomatoes and aromatics such as ginger and garlic. He calls this bir-pulao, an almost sacrilegious hybrid of biryani and pulao, two of his favourite rice based dishes. Biryani is a complex and laborious affair where rice is cooked in layers with marinated meat, a gravy made from spices and tomatoes, potatoes and saffron. Pulao is a subtle cousin where rice absorbs flavour from caramelised onions, whole spices and yakhni (bone broth). 

But that was before COVID-19. Before I traded my fully stocked kitchen in London for one so basic it reminds me of university days. My new kitchenette is located in another country, which has also meant new grocery shops and working out how to make old dishes in new spaces. 

On the day that Switzerland announced its lockdown, I found myself wandering the aisles of the Co-op in Zurich in the hope that the ingredients, along with my cooking skills, would give me ideas on how to feed the two of us. In the dairy aisle, I found lumpy coagulated cottage cheese which had been a staple of my university days, when I would tuck it into the belly of a jacket potato. I had to strike it off the list as the kitchenette does not have an oven and a jacket potato only works with a crisp salty skin. Texture matters, even now. Canned beans and lentils hold their own in salads and cooked dishes alike. Chickpeas are reliable candidates for hummus, in a masala, pasta salad or folded into rice (all possible in the kitchenette). The aisles read my mind, because after the canned beans I came across bags of pasta and pouches of Uncle Ben’s rice.  

Uncle Ben’s rice in supermarkets today with its cheerful orange packaging and portrait of an elderly African-American gentleman dates to 1946. It was named after a legendary Texan farmer known for the quality of his rice, but the man whose face is on the packaging is Frank Brown, a maitre’ d from a restaurant in Chicago. It is difficult to ignore the racial charge of Uncle Ben’s advertising; the recipes collected under ‘food of the world’ roam the continents taking in Europe, South and East Asia and the Americas yet there is a peculiar absence of the African continent. I would have thought that at the very least they would have included the west African speciality of Jollof rice, which would have been at home under ‘food of the world’ and ‘one pot wonders’. Still, Nigeria is no stranger to Uncle Ben’s. Yemisi Aribisala describes a Christmas stew in her book Longthroat Memoirs; Soups, Sex and Nigerian Tastebuds.

"The rice is Uncle Ben’s parboiled rice. It’s imported, but the prestige given to Uncle Ben’s rice, which isn’t at all special, is peculiarly Nigerian. I think we might still find the kindly black man’s face on the orange box reassuring. The meat in the stew is the tough old laying chicken that wandered the village all year. All in all, a simple meal, yet Christmas embraces it as the best fare of the year. Christmas will never be Christmas without plain, simple rice and stew. This is a uniquely Nigerian story."

It turns out that Uncle Ben’s cosmopolitanism is somewhat at odds with its reality.

It took me a while to come round to Uncle Ben’s. I am not one to shy from using shortcuts but rice has always been an exception. I think this is cultural. In Pakistan, food is predominantly cooked from scratch. The second shift is gendered, with women doing the bulk of domestic labour particularly cooking. Richer households employ cooks who are typically male, an anomaly that I have never quite understood since many women work as household help. The availability of labour and the fact that canned and convenience goods are actually more expensive than their counterparts means that food is mostly freshly prepared. Tarunima Sinha, who runs the baking business My Little Cake Tin, says that she finds rice the easiest and quickest thing to cook and coming from an Indian household that buys big bags of rice she has never needed to use a ready cooked version. 

It was only when I moved to London that I discovered that ready cooked rice, canned pulses and frozen vegetables can be kitchen allies. The first time I had Uncle Ben’s rice was at university. It was frugal and a welcome antidote to the awful food at my catered dormitory. I would add cooked chicken and frozen vegetables to give it a semblance of healthiness. Frozen vegetables and canned beans and lentils remained a kitchen staple even after I graduated but Uncle Ben’s disappeared. I returned to cooking rice from scratch, experimenting with seyla basmati, brown, risotto, wild and red rice. Seyla basmati has my heart because it is what makes whole the halves of my heritage. Something as simple as steamed basmati with tarka dhal connects me to both Pakistan and Poland. I have never had ready cooked basmati because the ritual of cooking and its aroma are inextricably bound together.      

In Zurich, Uncle Ben’s was the only rice left on the shelf on eve of lockdown. I must admit that in these novel times, it was a reassuring find. It reminded me of times past where I had managed to cook something tasty in a tiny kitchenette, of making something delicious from humble ingredients. It is true that Uncle Ben’s rice has its limitations. Mandy Yin, Malaysian chef and founder of Sambal Shiok says that it is ‘hard and pellet like, even when cooked, not fluffy and soft as I like my rice to be. It doesn’t absorb sauces which seem to just slide off the grains’. I do agree with her, especially when I think about Pakistani rice dishes where the grains are steeped in flavour. But even so, I have found these pouches to be a lifeline. The stubby little grains are particularly suited to variations of fried rice, rice bowls and hearty salads. They are also good as a side to stews and curries.   

I mentioned this to Valeria Necchio, the food writer and author who is currently in lockdown in Italy. She shared with me a memory from a trip to New Zealand in 2016 on a student budget. She and her husband found themselves in a place called Candriona. The Airbnb they had rented was beautiful but its approach, pictured as a “short deviation” on the map, was actually a twisty, steep dirt road that climbed the side of a mountain for quite a while. It would not have been wise driving back after dinner and wine and so they decided to go to the local minimarket to get food. She recalls the situation was pretty grim and there was not much on the shelves. But just when they had lost hope they spotted bags of good old Uncle Ben's. Dinner was a dish of spiced tomato chickpeas with Uncle Ben’s rice and it just hit the spot. She says that the silence and the starry sky that night were unreal, as was the dawn the following day.

Two recipes from my kitchenette:

Stir-fried Brown Rice with Smoked Tofu

Vegetable or Peanut Oil 

2 cloves of garlic

1 inch piece of ginger

250g frozen vegetables (in Zurich I get Co-op’s Frozen Chinese Vegetable Mix)

A pack of Smoked Tofu

2 tbsp soy sauce

Sriracha 

Crushed peanuts 

1 pack of Uncle Ben’s Wholegrain Brown Rice 

Microwave the rice according to the instructions on the pouch and set aside. Make a paste out of the ginger and garlic. Saute in wok until it loses its raw edge. Add the vegetables along with the soy sauce and fry until just cooked but still crisp. Add the rice and give it a brief stir. Dice the tofu and fold through. Garnish with sriracha and crushed peanuts. 

Mejdara à la Uncle Ben’s

Vegetable oil

2 medium onions

A pouch or can of ready cooked brown lentils 

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 cinnamon stick

1 tsp turmeric

1 pack Uncle Ben’s Wholegrain brown or long grained white rice

Chopped flat leaf parsley 

Yoghurt

Finely chop the onions into half moons. Heat a generous pour of oil in a large pan and slide in a third of the sliced onion. Caramelise on low to medium heat until the onions are crisp and brown. Take however much time you need to get this done as crispy onions are a real delight. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a kitchen towel.

Saute the remaining onion and spices in the oil left over from caramelising the onions above. When they are soft and translucent, add the lentils and let them meld over low heat. 

Cook the rice according to the instructions on the packet. Fold into the lentils. Garnish with chopped parsley and crisp caramelised onions. Eat with yoghurt on the side. 

Mehrunnisa Yusuf is an occasional writer of food stories, travel dispatches, and personal essays. She likes taking visual notes (instagram.com/comeconella) and often accompanies them with stories. She was paid for this newsletter.

The illustration was done by Lucie Knights, a designer & illustrator based in London - more of her work can be seen at @luciemknights or www.lucieknights.com . She was also paid for her work.