KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 21 – The pale garnet yellow of the oil rice you get from your chicken rice stall. The ruby red of pomegranate seeds that dot a plate of rice pilaf. The darkest amethyst – a shade between purple and black, a midnight hue – of chewy Thai riceberry grains.
Our most revered carbohydrates – the staple food of all staple foods – don’t have to be plain and devoid of colour. From the warm tones of a mutton biryani to the auspicious colours of a claypot filled with lap mei fan, rice ought to excite our taste buds and our imagination.
This is a challenge I turned to recently when faced with another problem: a surfeit of fresh cilantro that I needed using before they wilted.
(Quick tip: One way of reviving your tired cilantro is to soak it in cold water and ice cubes.)
There is only that much of cilantro I can use as a garnish for my bowls of noodle soup or Mexican chilli. But how about featuring it as a main ingredient rather than an accent?
Paired with a bowl of steamed white rice, cilantro offers more than a pop of verdant colour; it adds both flavour and fragrance.
The result is something minimalist but vibrant at the same time. Bind everything together with the juice and zest of fresh limes, and what we have is an “emerald rice” that will titillate even the most jaded of taste buds.
Considered a classic Mexican side dish, this cilantro lime rice pairs well with mains such as slowly simmered carnitas and grilled fajitas. Known as arroz con cilantro y lima in Mexico, it also works well with Asian dishes.
For those of us who are fan tong (“rice bins” in Cantonese), this “emerald rice” is good enough on its own! Who knew something so basic could fill one with such vim and vigour?
CILANTRO LIME RICE
Another, more complex, version of cilantro lime rice is the Mexican classic arroz verde or green rice. Here the white rice is not only cooked in broth, but also a purée of green herbs and chillies.
An absolutely flavourful rice dish but perhaps more challenging to pair with Asian delicacies such as curries and five-spice braised meats; for those you would want a base that is more subtle in its flavour profile to avoid overpowering the mains.
Which is why this cilantro lime rice is my “emerald rice” of choice. Cilantro and lime are staples in a South-east Asian ingredient list, perhaps already part of your culinary repertoire.
If you’re using them in your tom yam or your sup kambing or as a garnish for your heady pot of bak kut teh, then it’s not too much of a stretch to serve with a bowl or two of cilantro lime rice.
Of course, you may want to enjoy this as it’s originally served: as part of a Mexican meal. Besides the aforementioned carnitas, those tender morsels of slow-braised pork, an accompaniment of pico de gallo would work wonders.
This refreshing Mexican salsa made from chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers (such as serrano or jalapeño) pairs well with the rice as both dishes contain a judicious amount of cilantro and lime juice.
Do not second guess the amount of citrus deployed. Yes, it seems far too much acid, enough to even make a Stoic’s mouth pucker, but trust me, it’s more tang than torture. More bark than bite.
Rather than cook the rice on the stovetop (as it is typically done in Mexico), we can use a rice cooker thereby freeing up our time for other pursuits. The resultant rice is lighter, as we don’t toast the uncooked grains in oil first, but no less flavourful.
Also, I’ve used parboiled rice so less water is required for cooking. If using normal long-grain rice, follow the rice cooker instructions in terms of the amount of water to use.
To make the rice more luxurious, we finish it off with some butter (which isn’t traditional). The garlic is optional; manna for those of us who love raw garlic, but perhaps less enticing for those who don’t appreciate its sweet pungency quite as fervently.
5 cups* parboiled long-grain rice (e.g. basmati)
5½ cups* water or chicken/vegetable broth
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of salt
1 large bunch of cilantro, chopped (both leaves and stems)
2 limes, juice and zest
A generous pat of unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
Ground white pepper and more salt to taste
* Cups here refer to the measuring cup that comes with your rice cooker.
Rinse the parboiled rice until the water runs nearly clear. Add to the rice cooker pot along with water (or broth), extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt. Switch on the rice cooker and select the appropriate setting to cook the rice.
When the rice has finished cooking, allow it to rest for about 10 minutes before fluffing it gently but thoroughly with the rice ladle.
Add the chopped cilantro, lime juice, lime zest, butter and garlic (if using) to the rice. Mix well with the rice ladle until well combined.
Check the taste and season with ground white pepper and more salt accordingly. Serve hot with your cooked protein of choice, and perhaps a salsa too.
For more Weekend Kitchen and other slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.