Rainbow Rice

The actual practice of colouring rice with natural ingredients already exists in both traditional Yunnan and Malaysian culture. Combining my gastronomical adventures in China with my native Malaysian culinary knowledge, I was inspired to come up with my own version of rainbow rice. Simple and healthy rice cooker versions that you can easily make at home.

Inspiration

When I was living in Beijing, I used to frequent this cozy Yunnan restaurant that serves up a King’s Feast or Wa Wang Yan 佤王宴. This feast originates from the Wa ethnic minority group in Yunnan province where all the food is laid out on a huge table covered with banana leaves. A very impressive layout that fills up the entire table with colourful rice, vegetables, meat and ethnic delicacies. You can see the Southeast Asian influence here as they offer you a pot or basin to wash your hands at the table. Eating is to be conducted with your hands. 

I noticed that they had three different types of rice laid out on the table. The restaurant owner told me that one of them is rice cooked in Pu’er tea. That really fascinated me as I have never thought of cooking rice in tea before. Pu’er tea gives the rice a light tea fragrance that doesn’t overwhelm the natural aroma of rice. So I kept that idea in a little corner of my brain, telling myself that I will try it out one day. 

When I finally went to Yunnan a couple of years ago, I got to try the feast of the Dai ethnic minority group, known as shou zhua fan 手抓饭 meaning rice grabbed with hands. Again, I noticed the different coloured rice arranged in a radial pattern on a bamboo platter. Dying glutinous rice with the natural colours from flowers and herbs is a tradition in Yunnan culture. They have something called 5 coloured rice – red, purple, yellow, black and white rice soaked in dye extracted from local plants and flowers. Platters of colourful glutinous rice are served during festivities and for ancestral prayers. 

Back in Malaysia, our traditional Malay rice dishes comes in a variety of colours too. Besides the plain white nasi lemak (coconut rice), there is also the nasi pandan (usually paired with grilled chicken) which is cooked with the juice from pandan leaves, nasi kerabu (Malay herb salad rice) which is cooked with the blue water from blue pea flowers and nasi kunyit (usually paired with curry chicken) which is cooked with turmeric powder or fresh turmeric. These rice dishes do not only look attractive, they smell absolutely wonderful. 

With inspiration from both places, I have listed a variety of natural colour options to be used for dying rice:

White – coconut milk or just plain water

Green – pandan leaf

Yellow – turmeric powder/fresh turmeric or saffron

Blue – blue pea flower

Brown – Pu’er tea

See the different combinations of rice you can make with natural herbs and spices

Tips

  • For a stronger blue colour, blend the blue pea flower with some water
  • You can add these herbs and spices to your rice according preference: onion, garlic, ginger, galangal, kaffir lime leaf, torch ginger flower, pandan leaf, lemongrass, star anise, cloves, salt and pepper 
  • For a healthier option, I add organic coconut oil instead of coconut milk for the wonderful coconut fragrance
  • Pu’er tea needs to be diluted with water so that you won’t taste the bitterness of strong concentrated tea. You can also add cloves and star anise to the rice for a stronger flavour
  • These aromatic rice goes well with meat curry, fried fish, grilled chicken, herb salad
  • You can use white rice, glutinous rice or mixed grain rice. Some people like to mix plain rice with glutinous rice to get a slightly firmer and stickier texture. Turmeric rice is traditionally made with glutinous rice. 
  • Coating knife with a layer of oil can minimize stain from the turmeric roots. The coat of oil protects the knife and makes the yellow stain easier to rub off

Goat cheese tofu with ham

Yunnan is a huge province on the south-western fringe of China and it’s cuisine is as colourful as the vast array of ethnic groups that live there. One of the Yunnan dishes that my fiancé keeps talking about till now is the goat cheese tofu with ham. 

Goat cheese tofu or ru bing 乳饼 is a Yunnan specialty, made with milk from mountain goats. The process is just the same as making paneer cheese, pressing the milk curds into blocks of solid cheese/tofu. As for the ham, the ancient town of Nuodeng in Yunnan is famous for their salt cured hams 诺邓火腿. These hams are cured with salt derived from the salt well inside the ancient village. The food documentary A Bite of China documents this amazing process in detail. Just like pepperoni and mozzarella, the rich flavours of Nuodeng ham pairs perfectly with the muted flavours of goat cheese tofu. 

Since I’ve already tried my hand at making paneer cheese (check out my previous post on paneer cheese experiment), making Yunnan cheese shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing is to find some goat’s milk. My local dairy co-op shop nearby sells fresh goat’s milk from Malaysian farms. It won’t be as rich as the milk of mountain goats in Yunnan but that will do. Local goat’s milk come in tiny bottles of 250ml and is more than double the price of cow’s milk. So I proceeded with this kitchen project with 500ml of goat’s milk at a cost of approximately RM12 (equivalent of US$3).

According to the ru bing recipe that I found on a Chinese cooking website, 5 pounds of milk should yield about 1 pound of cheese. With my 500ml of milk, I am prepared to accept a small yield for my first goat cheese experiment. 

METHOD

  1. In a saucepan, bring goat’s milk to a boil.
  2. Turn off the heat and stir to let it cool for about a minute, the temperature should now be about 80 degrees Celsius. Stir in some rice vinegar. Look out for any curdling as you pour the vinegar. As soon as you see curds appear, stop adding any more vinegar. The pH should now be around 3.4 to 3.8. Let the milk rest for 3-5 minutes so the proteins can fully form into curds and settle.
  3. Clip a cheesecloth over a pot. Pour the curds onto the cheesecloth and and rinse the curds with some water. Let the liquid drain.
  4. When the liquid comes to a slow drip, gather the cheesecloth and wrap the curds into a square block. Put a flat heavy object over it to press the remaining liquid out. Let compress for 24 hours (keep it in the fridge if the weather is warm).
  5. Cut the block of cheese into thin pieces.
  6. Thinly slice some Nuodeng ham and soak them in hot water for a few minutes to get rid of some of it’s saltiness.
  7. Slit the cheese in the middle just enough to insert the ham, but not cut through all the way to the end. You want to sandwich the thin slice of ham into the pocket of the cheese.
  8. Pan fry the cheese till golden on each side. Serve with a mixture of salt and pepper (or sichuan pepper powder).    

TIPS

  • At Yunnan restaurants, a dipping powder is provided on the side. It is usually made up of sichuan pepper powder and salt. Since I don’t have sichuan pepper, I substituted with black pepper. Both works well to enhance the taste of the cheese.
  • Traditionally, an acidic solution made from a local Yunnan herb is used for making cheese. But for convenience of the modern household, vinegar is sufficient.  If you are making small batches like me, pour the vinegar by the spoonful to avoid over-pouring. If you are making a big batch of a few litres of milk, then you can pour directly from the bottle until reaction occurs.  

RESULTS

Indeed, the goat cheese has a much better texture than cow milk cheese. It has a fine, silky and creamy texture that is different from paneer made from cow’s milk. When pan fried, some of the cheese melts slightly to meld with the ham inside. The smell of goat cheese here is mild, and is negligible when paired with salt and pepper powder. It’s almost like pan fried tofu but with a more robust flavour.

As you can see from the pictures, my yield is a thin piece of cheese about 12×12 cm. The cost of this tiny piece of cheese is a little over RM12 (US$3), not including my ham costs. Conclusion: goat cheese doesn’t come cheap unless you have a mountain full of them. So enjoy the little luxury that is this goat cheese tofu with ham. Bon apetit!


DIY Paneer Cheese

Palak Paneer or spinach curry with Indian cottage cheese is a default dish that I always order when I go to an Indian restaurant. I like it that the spinach gravy is not spicy and of course, I love it for the cheese. An Indian friend once mentioned that you can make your own cheese with just milk and vinegar, and I have always wanted to try it out since. So while researching paneer recipes online, I came across a very detailed explanation on how to make your own paneer here: https://www.indianhealthyrecipes.com/how-to-make-paneer-cubes-at-home/

I gathered my ingredients and made 2 attempts at this experiment. I followed the method in the recipe using Chinese rice vinegar as my preferred form of acid. Rice vinegar does not have that sharp acidic smell so I did not have to rinse my curds off with water after. Here is what I learnt from my 2 experiments in the video below.

METHOD

Batch 1Batch 2
After turning off the heat, the milk was stirred for a couple of minutes to cool down before adding vinegarVinegar was added immediately after turning off the heat
Stirred the milk over long intervals in between spoons of vinegar
Intervals between each spoon of vinegar was short
Curdling process took about 15 minutesCurdling process took 5 minutes
Differences in methodology between Batch 1 and Batch 2

RESULTS

Batch 1Batch 2
Curds were small and of sandy texture. Final block of cheese was crumbly and breaks easily.Curds were in big lumps and smoother. Final block of cheese was firm and solid.
Differences observed in final product

CONCLUSION

The milk reacts quickly with vinegar while it is still hot. Vinegar needs to be added while the milk is hot because chemical reaction is retarded when milk cools down. The longer the curdling process is dragged out, the more dehydrated the curds become as it sits in the acidic liquid longer. Therefore, we can see the curds from Batch 1 is dry and crumbly compared to Batch 2.

My tips and recommendations from this experiment is:

  • use a pot with a narrow opening to prevent it from cooling too fast
  • use double layer of the disposable kitchen cloths. Disposable cloth is better because you don’t need to wash it after. The smell from the cheese is pretty strong and hard to wash off.
  • gather all curds into a ball and make sure they are not wrapped into the folds. This will give you a nicely shaped cheese.