How to turn chicken and rice into something spectacular

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The staple I grew up with wasn’t rice, but potatoes. There was a big jar of basmati, but it was used as a percussion instrument when my siblings and I put on concerts (it accompanied our rendition of Little Donkey every Christmas).

We didn’t eat rice until my mum got into what was then thought of as glamorous foreign food – goulash and chilli and Madhur Jaffrey’s Mughlai chicken – and we cooked it badly. 

I don’t know where this approach came from, but we drained the cooked rice in a sieve, then ran cold water through it, followed by boiling water. This was done very carefully so we actually ended up with a bowl of rice that had separate little grains. But we were better at potatoes.

Now there are eight bags of different types of rice in my cupboard: jasmine rice, basmati, several kinds of risotto rice (carnaroli, vialone nano and arborio all produce different results) and a couple of kinds of paella rice. 

The rice used for paella, and other Spanish rice dishes, is a marvel. It must not be stirred. You just leave it to drink in the stock and other flavours around it, until you have grains swollen with umami.

There are 40,000 varieties of rice, categorised in different ways: by fragrance, where it’s grown – under water or on hillsides, for example – texture (sticky or not), grain size and shape.

‘Chicken and rice’, like ‘tea and toast’, rolls off the tongue, as if the two were meant to be together. All over the globe, they’re joined – it’s an elemental combination. 

Neither chicken nor rice is strongly flavoured, so the cook can take these basics and dress them up. If you google ‘chicken and rice’, your head will spin. 

You could make a different dish every day of the year: Turkish chicken and rice pilaf with dill, chicken and sausage jambalaya, chicken biryani, arroz con pollo (I must have cooked this a thousand times). 

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