Monday, May 19, 2008

A Forbidding Recipe

Customers were extremely happy with a vegetarian special (Forbidden Rice Baked in a Banana Leaf) we ran this weekend, so I thought I would share it with you.

We have about a dozen different rices in our pantry at the restaurant, including a Chinese purple or black rice that is often called Forbidden Rice. As the story goes, such rice was (and still is) scarce and was considered the emperor's property, thus forbidden to commoners. Believe it if you will.

As you can see in the photo, this is a medium- to long-grain rice that has many shades of black when raw. It is a non glutinous (non-sticky) rice, which is unusual for most black and purple rice. The most common kind of purple rice is probably Thai purple sticky rice, which is outstanding for making desserts. Forbidden rice has a very nutty flavor that I find especially appealing.

When cooked, the rice turns fairly uniformly eggplant purple, as you can see here.

When a box of banana leaves arrived on the produce truck, I knew I had to do some rice in them, sort of a take off on Sticky Rice in a Lotus Leaf. Without further preamble, here is a recipe, scaled down for two, but you'll need to use your judgement in how much of each ingredient to use. A small handful of each would suffice. Learn the technique here and don't worry so much about the specific ingredients. You can substitute what you will and for the most part, this will still be a terrific dish.

Forbidden Rice Baked in Banana Leaf

1 cup black rice
pinch of salt
1 cup coconut milk
1 Kaffir lime leaf, finely shredded
long beans in 2" lengths, blanched to tender
fresh tomatoes, diced
fresh pineapple, in small dice
whole roasted peanuts
cilantro leaves
Thai basil leaves
pressed tofu, finely julienned*
ground white pepper
banana leaves

Add rice, water to cover by an inch or more, and pinch of salt to a sauce pan and boil rice until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and reserve.

Meanwhile, reduce the coconut milk by half and prep the vegetables and tofu.

Mix all the ingredients except the banana leaf and season to taste with white pepper. For myself, I would also add a bit of green Thai chile and I would add a bit of fish sauce, however, as this was a vegetarian special, I couldn't add fish sauce.

Cut the banana leaves into as large squares as you can given the size of the leaves. You can overlap pieces if necessary. Place about half the rice mixture in the center of a piece of banana leaf and fold up, burrito-style, into a large square packet. Place folded side down on a pan in a hot oven for five to ten minutes just to warm everything and start the flavors melding.

*Pressed tofu is soft tofu that has been weighted and pressed. In this case, I am talking about unflavored tofu, which is generally brushed with red dye to mimic the red dye that is traditional on roasted pork. There is another kind of tofu, also excellent, that is rubbed with five-spice powder before being pressed. It is a golden tan color. While really tasty, not the flavor profile that I am going for in this recipe.

We get all of these ingredients from our wholesalers. As for where you can get these ingredients in retail sizes, my favorite Chinese store is Kam Sam Food Products, 4316 Markham Street, Annandale, VA 22003, 703-658-2550. For Thai ingredients, I like Duangrat's Market on route 7 near Duangrat's Restaurant, between Seven Corners and Bailey's Crossroads. You can also hit the big H Mart in Fairfax City if you can tolerate Wal-Mart-sized emporia. And for Thai on the internet, has been very good to us. I think you can find dried banana leaves (soak before using) in a couple of the more Central American-oriented bodegas on Loudoun St/Papermill Ave here in Funchester.

A funny anecdote about a trip to Kam Sam, where I always seem to be the only non-Asian person there. I was pushing my cart through the pickle aisle, looking for something that I no longer recall, a jar of dried or pickled plums perhaps. When I put the jar into my already bulging cart, an ancient Chinese woman shopping in the same aisle stopped me and asked in very broken English what I was planning to do with the jar I had just selected. I told her and then I asked her how she used it, hoping for some pearl of wisdom. She replied, "I no use ever, that's why I ask you."

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