South African Geel Rys (Yellow Rice) with Tomato Salad
Have you ever thought to yourself, “It’s what’s inside that counts”? Because I beg you to reposition that as, “It’s what’s on the side that counts”. A President is only as successful as his or her group of close, trusted advisers. A painter needs a muse, a church needs a steeple, and traditional South African casseroles need yellow rice and chopped salad. True story.
If the thought of a rich curried beef casserole, studded through with plump, juicy raisins and apricots will makes you drool like you conked your head on a stump as a child, you obviously have impeccable taste. Therefore, you should be rewarded with more of the same.
Geel Rys (also known as “yellow rice”) is a South African specialty that is similar to Malaysian or Javanese yellow rice. The gorgeous daffodil color comes from turmeric, and the rice is cooked in a spiced, aromatic broth. The buttery flavor is gently sweet, subtle but intriguing. It reminds me of the ever popular curried salads from the 1970’s, such as the nefarious “Bombay Pasta Salad” which was pretty much pasta in a curried mayonnaise dressing with raisins. Sounds vile, true, but it was the kind of thing that you would bring into the kitchen and quickly scoop straight out of the bowl when there were no witnesses to your shame. It in no way did justice to the traditional dishes it was (very loosely) based on, but there is still something utterly compelling about creamy curry with raisins. Geel Rys goes sans mayo, and gets richness from a pat or two of butter and some of the starch from the rice. It is utterly delicious.
When we have fruity rich beef casseroles, served with a side of sweetly studded rice, it can be a bit overwhelming. Enter the culinary foil: a spicy and assertive tomato salad with pungent onion, bright vinegar, and a little how-dya-do from finely minced fresh chili. The acid is exactly what you need to cut through the rich sweetness of the other dishes, and the fiery chili acts as a palate cleanser to refresh you in between your lusty mouthfuls.
Geel Rys (Yellow Rice)
Serves 4-6 as a side dish
- 2 cups long grain white rice
- 4 cups water
- 2 tbsp butter *
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 2 tsp kosher salt or to taste
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- 1 cinnamon stick **
- 1 Bay leaf
- 1 cup sultana raisins
* Salted butter, which is what I usually have on hand, is just fine. If you’re using unsalted butter, increase the amount of salt by 1/2 tsp.
** Cassia, which is pictured here, can substitute for cinnamon. In fact, much of the “cinnamon bark” that we buy in the stores from vendors of ill repute is actually the cheaper cassia masquerading as it’s heady and aromatic cousin. If you use cassia bark, you want to have about 25-3o% more than the equivalent in cinnamon. Approximately two tablespoons of bark should suffice.
- 3 large ripe tomatoes
- 1 green chili pepper
- 1/2 medium white onion
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 2 tbsp salad oil *
- 1/4 tsp sugar
- 1/2 salt or to taste
* If you don’t have a generic salad oil, try mild grape-seed oil.
Start with the tomato salad so that it has time to marinate as the rice cooks.
Thinly slice the half onion into crescents no more than 1/8″ thick.
Cut the chili pepper in half and discard the ribs and seeds. Mince the pepper as finely as you possibly can, because that wee little hint o’ green can pack quite a wallop when it’s raw.
Whisk together the oil, vinegar, sugar and salt. Truly, this could not be easier.
Core just the stem end out of the tomato and slice it horizontally into 1/4″ rounds. Arrange the tomato slices prettily on your platter with just a slight overlap.
Layer the sliced onion on top of the tomato, sprinkle with the minced chili and drizzle the dressing over top.
Let the tomatoes sit at room temperature for approximately 30 minutes before serving to allow the flavors to soften and meld.
Is this not a delightfully easy, fresh way to enjoy the abundance of summer ripe tomatoes? Those South Africans are on to something. If you want a slightly heartier side salad, slice a hard boiled egg or two and lay the slices around the plate right before serving.
Now then, onto the second insanely easy side dish: Geel Rys.
Pour four cups of water into a medium to large pot. Stir in the turmeric, sugar and salt. Add in a teaspoon of fresh lemon zest and a Bay leaf. If you’re using a cinnamon stick, drop it in. If you went the route of cassia bark, tie the shards up in a small piece of cheese cloth before adding to the pot.
Bring this to a boil over high heat, stirring just until the sugar dissolves. As soon as the water is at a rolling boil, add the butter and raisins.
It will take just a minute for the pot to return to a boil, then pour in the rice which you haven’t even bothered to rinse or soak…..a fact which in no way impedes the results. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and turn the meat down to a bare simmer. Let the rice steam, covered, for 20-22 minutes so that it can absorb all the water but not overcook and turn to mush.
I love the sunny color of this rice. Each bite is studded with plump raisins, along with the exotic and slightly sweet flavors of turmeric and cinnamon. The butter also provides a nice richness which keeps the rice from drying out, and it is just as flavorful reheated for lunch the next day. And yes, I know that from experience.
The piquant and acidic tomato salad is a perfect foil for sweet, rich yellow rice.
You’re looking at a nice fat plate of traditional South African comfort food. A classic casserole, Bobotie, nestled among two perfectly balanced sides. I figured that as our hosts in the FIFA World Cup (and Saucer), it was only right that South Africa got a second post this week…..
Now then, who to support tomorrow? I don’t know about you, but after our South African culinary largesse, I might just be craving some sweet and simple beans on toast. England it is!