Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How to make middle eastern steamed rice : Always Ask Never Assume

Saffron Rice (last)
At the heart of Kuwaiti and Iranian cooking is rice. Long grain basmati steamed and fluffy rice. We eat it almost everyday at lunch with a protein dish [ lunch is the main meal in the middle east, often eaten at around 2 P.M]. It is usually prepared with cardamom, bay leaf and saffron to make for the most fragrant and delicious side dish.

rice 1.jpg

I still remember when I first got married, I was discussing my non-existing cooking skills with my sister-in-law and she told me that the most important dish to master is rice. "If you can master making rice then you'll be fine." She told me. And I remember thinking to myself; What??! I can make rice!  It should be easy, right? Nine years of cooking later proved me wrong. I didn't master making "nath'ri" rice until a few weeks ago.


"Nath'ri" is a kuwaiti word that describes a rice in which each grain  is beautiflly cooked , steamed and have its own identity. It is literally translated as dispersed or sprinkled rice.

My aha moment came when I was looking online for the perfect way to make rice. I was doing everything right, yet my rice was still saggy and sticky. I came upon one article that explained how to make perfect persian rice. One of the the steps was to wrap the pot's cover with a kitchen towel to absorb the steam that is coming from the rice. I was stunned! I have always watched my grandma doing this when making rice. But I thought  this was just a way to protect her hands because the handle was hot ( silly me ha ). The next time I visited I asked her for the reason that she wraps the pot's cover with a towel and she told me in  a matter of fact tone : to absorb the steam from the rice. Da ! Why I never asked! She's a genius ! So the next day I made the perfect rice in my entire life !

saffron rice.jpg

To make "nath'ri" rice you have to start with the right type. There are two kinds of rice: short grain which we call here in Kuwait "Egyptian rice" because it comes from Egypt, I guess. And long grain basmati rice which comes from India ,Iran and other far east countries. The one you want is the long grain basmati.

kinds of rice


There are three steps to making nath'ri rice: soaking, cooking and steaming. Soaking is important because it lengthens and firms the grains which makes for a long fluffy and separated rice. It is preferred that you soak the rice overnight with one teaspoon of salt. But that is not always practical, so it is o.k if you soak it for 30 minutes while you're preparing dinner. But try to soak the rice no less than thirty minutes.

washing rice.jpg

Draining rice.jpg
Then comes the cooking part. You want at least five to one water to rice ratio to give room for every grain to cook by its own and not to collide with its colleagues. My true and tried time for cooking rice is 7 minutes over medium-high heat. But you should experiment with your rice . Start checking the rice after 5 minutes. You want the grain to be cooke but still has a bite to it. Take it off the heat and drain at this point.
preparing rice.jpg

The last part is steaming. After you drain the rice you should add it back to the saucepan and reheat it over medium-high heat until it steams. This will also create a bottom thick layer called "Hakook" in Kuwaiti or "tah'cheen" in Iranian which is also an icon  of Iranian cooking. After the steam comes out, you should wrap the pot's cover with a kitchen towel to prevent the steam from transferring back to the rice and making it saggy.

pot of rice .jpg

I am not a big fan of "hakook" or "tah'cheen". I prefer to put a loaf of pita bread at the bottom which will be nicely browned and crunchy, perfect to dip with thick tangy yogurt.

It is worh mentioning that not all middle eastern cook their rice this way. For example in Egypt and Syria they cook their rice in a way that is similar to Americans'. Also, in Kuwait we have another way of cooking rice, which we don't drain and steam. It  is called " mach'boos" and is also very popular. But still the majority of rice cooking is done this way in Khaleeji countries and Iran.

Saffron Rice


Steamed Basmati Rice

Makes about 3 cups cooked. Serves 2-4.

1 Cup long grain rice
1 tbs salt, plus 1 Tbs
3 whole cardamom
1 bay leaf
1 Tbs oil
1 loaf pita bread
1/4 tbs saffron (optional)
1 Tbs room temperature butter

- In a bowl wash and drain the rice seven times, until you get rid of most of the starch and the water runs clear, moving the rice with your hands in the water.

- Cover the rice with water. Add 1 tbs salt and let it soak for at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight.

- Dissolve saffron with 2 Tbs hot water. Set aside.

- In a medium saucepan bring 5 cups of water to boil. Once boiled, add 1 Tbs salt, cardamom and bay leaf. Drain the rice and add to the boiling water. Over medium-high heat cook rice for 7 minutes then drain in a colander. Give it a quick rinse of cold water.

- Wipe clean the same saucepan you cook the rice with. Add oil and pita at the bottom. Carefully transfer rice back to the pot.

- With a spoon bring the rice from the sides towards the center to make a little dome. This will help the heat to distribute evenly to all the rice.

- Add the saffron water to the centre of the dome.

- With the lid on, and over medium- low heat reheat the rice until it steams. About 3 minutes.

- Wrap the lid with a kitchen towel and put it back over the rice. Turn the heat to low and continue to cook the rice for a few more minutes.

- Serve hot with butter on top.


  1. Hhmm, I will try this recipe asap. Looks wonderful, and so fluffy!


    1. Please do. I assure you , you won't be disappointed. Thanks for stopping by Christine.

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  3. Fatimah the photos are getting better and better :) I guess when I get back I rather ask you to cook this for me instead of meeting over coffee!

    1. :) :) Thank you Kulsum for the encouragement...this really means a lot to me. And I actually wouldn't mind making rice for you.You're welcome anytime.

  4. You have very beautiful and inviting photos.

    I haven't tried cooking Basmati rice.We only use Jasmine rice from Thailand.And for that I usually use a 1 cup of rice : 2 cups of water ratio.And then leave it in the rice cooker.hehe.So I am imagining I'd be failing big time in cooking Basmati rice.hehe

    Have a good day and see you around the blogsphere.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you give this kind of rice a try :) See you too

  5. Your post was so informative! It's always the grandparents who have the knowledge and you don't realize until you hear from a different source.

  6. I was taught to make rice like this.. and I have passed it on to our children, they do also.. beautiful pic and explanation.. Thank-you for sharing

  7. Is 1/4 tsp of saffron enough to give it all the yellow color?

    1. Hi Tiffany...
      Yes, a 1/4 tsp of good quality saffron is well enough to to give the rice all the aroma and the nice yellow color it needs.

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