When my husband and I owned J&L Catering there was always a core group of Vietnamese employees in the kitchen. Besides being exceptional cooks and always dedicated to the success of the company, these women were my introduction to the Vietnamese community. Through my friendship with Dich, Thi, Ngoc, Lee… the invitations to their homes, parties, weddings, and funerals, I learned about the markets, the food, the traditions and seasons. That’s how I heard about the important arrival of new crop jasmine rice. Every year, it comes into Chicago markets from Thailand via Long Beach California sometime between the end of November and the first weeks of December. There is great anticipation about the appearance of the new harvest and competition between the stores on Argyle Street over who will be the first to carry it. Owners are pestered for weeks to find out exactly which day it will be in the shops. Restaurants and home cooks alike want to be first to serve the precious rice.
November 28, 2014
Dich retired and moved to Joliet, Illinois a number of years ago. Thi has passed away. Ngoc is in North Carolina now. My intimate connection to the Vietnamese community is broken. I feel blue about this, so two weeks ago I started calling the shops on Argyle to find out when the rice would arrive. The situation this year was complicated by strikes on the waterfront in California. However, one of the brothers who own Viet Hoa rather mysteriously told me he had a friend on the docks in Long Beach. By late Friday, his market was the first, actually the only store to have new crop rice. There’s one brand that’s in; “Three Girlfriends.” By Saturday the first shipment was almost gone.
Is it really so special? Yes! For the Vietnamese, it is a luxury. The rice absorbs less water so the cooked yield is smaller. There’s the extraordinary aroma, which casts a long shadow in the kitchen as it steams in a closely covered pot. There’s the shiny opalescence of the cooked grains and the almost creamy texture.
Use whatever method you generally like for cooking jasmine rice. There are two adjustments to make. First, only briefly, if at all, rinse the rice. Second, reduce the amount of cooking water.
I love to prepare jasmine rice in the pressure cooker. I do not rinse the rice and use 2 ¾ cup of water to 2 cups of rice. If you are steaming the rice in a traditional manner, rinse only briefly and use 2 cups of water to 2 cups of rice. You can also sauté the grains in butter or oil, add the water and let it simmer until air pockets appear on the top of the rice. Cover the pot and let the rice steam undisturbed for ten minutes on the heat and ten minutes off the burner.
By mid-December you will see signs in all the markets advertising the new crop. Its arrival is a harbinger of the winter season in Chicago. The new rice reminds us of the importance of the harvest and reassures us about the cyclical rhythm of life. But there’s also something very special about that first taste that nourishes the spirit as well as the body in a way that no other food can.