Assyrians are defined by the method they use to cook basmati rice. They are also defined by the ‘war machine’ culture they created. It is glorified in the stone relief sculptures that have survived their 5000-year-old culture.
Their method for making ‘ruza’, baked basmati rice, is long and involved. The fragrant long grain rice is rinsed, soaked, parboiled, coated with butter, baked, fluffed, and steamed. It takes practice and skill to produce a tender pilaf. Each grain must be separate, the rice tender but not mushy.
‘Ruza’ appears at every family gathering, holiday, and Sunday dinner. My father, the last king of Assyria, would eat it every day if his queen would make it.
The rice is so important than anyone who dares tamper with the method or ingredients will have to suffer the consequences. I once substituted the butter with olive oil; the crime has not been forgiven or forgotten.
One aunt dared to use Uncle Ben’s converted rice; another replaced the butter with margarine. The shame followed them to their grave.
Today, I turn my back on the tribe and embrace the ‘Ruza’ of my ancestors. My family believes their history only goes as far back as their memories. They have only known white rice therefore ‘white’ is the standard.
‘White’ rice, with the outer layer of bran removed, also lost its minerals and vitamins. It was created to allow easier faster cooking and guaranteed a long shelf life. In the process, brown rice gave up the fiber, flavor, and nutrients that nature intended.
The difficulty in making ‘Ruza’ is that the long, detailed cooking process was created for natural rice. Trying to follow the ancient method of preparing the ‘ruza’ using modern white processed rice is like trying to tailor a suit out of tissue paper. It is the reason why many Assyrians turn out rice that is either overcooked and soggy or dry and crunchy.
‘Modern’ Assyrians also use commercial salted butter in the ‘ruza’. The high water content of the butter contributes to soggy rice. ‘Ghee’, clarified butter oil, makes more sense. It has been used by ancient cultures for centuries. Because the milk solids and moisture has been removed the ghee does not require refrigeration. It gives the rice a silky texture and imparts a slightly sweet toasted flavor.
Today’s Brown Basmati Rice Pilaf with Ghee, Orzo, and Almonds is a medley of flavors and textures. The brown rice is fragrant and tender. The slivered almonds are slightly crunchy. The browned orzo is soft with added flavor from the toasted wheat. Everything is flavored with a light coating of the buttery oil.
This is Assyrian ‘Ruza’ of today that honors the history and methods of the past.
‘Ruza’ is always accompanied by a stew, ‘Khoreshe’. Most often it contains green beans and tomatoes. Actually these stews followed the seasons and included not only vegetables but also beans and sometimes fruit.
I will not be making this new/old ‘Ruza’ for my tribal family or any other Assyrian. My ‘chosen family’, on the other hand, has raved about it and clamors for more.
Brown Basmati Rice Pilaf with Ghee, Orzo, and Almonds
Cook’s notes: Assyrians have a unique method of cooking rice. It involves several steps; rinsing, parboiling, coating the grains with butter or oil, baking, fluffing, and letting the excess steam escape. Putting white rice through this rigorous ritual is tricky but matching up this ancient technique with the ancient grains of my ancestors produces a delicious whole grain pilaf with more flavor, better texture, and tender individual grains. This rice is always served with a seasonal stew.
Ghee can be found in Indian and Middle Eastern markets. Organic ghee is available at Whole Foods Market.
2 cups Brown Basmati Rice, preferably organically grown, brined.
2 quarts (8 cups) Water
2 tablespoons Kosher Salt
Rinse the rice in a strainer under running cold water until the water runs clear. Drain. Add the rice to the brine and set aside for at least 30 minutes or as long as overnight. Drain and rinse well.
½ cup Orzo
2-4 tablespoons Ghee, Unsalted Butter, or Olive Oil, or to taste
½ cup Slivered Almonds
¼ cup Hot Water
Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the brined rice. Cook until the rice is almost tender, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally. Check the rice several times to make sure it doesn’t overcook; it still needs to be firm when bitten. Drain the rice, rinse well, and let drain again.
Preheat the oven to 350-degrees.
Heat a small frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the dry orzo. Toss the orzo in the hot pan until it begins to brown. Watch it carefully. When it is a light golden brown transfer the orzo to a small bowl.
Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a saucepan. Add some salt and the browned orzo. Cook the orzo until almost tender (about 8-9 minutes). Rinse and drain.
Heat the ghee, butter, or oil over medium heat in an ovenproof pan with a tight fitting lid. Add the almonds and cook until they are a light golden brown.
Add the rice, orzo, and hot water. Gently toss the mixture with a fork. Salt to taste.
Cover the pan and place it in the preheated oven. Bake until the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender, about 20-25 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven. Remove the cover, lightly fluff the rice with a large fork, lay a cotton towel over the pan, replace the cover, and allow the rice to steam for at least 15 minutes or until it reaches serving temperature.