This recipe is inspired by Muhammar, a rice dish from Bahrain, where it’s also known as “Pearl Diver’s Rice.” Early Bahraini pearl divers discovered eating this aromatic rice fortified with date syrup and butter enabled them to better withstand the physiological demands of free diving at great depths for extended periods of time.1 Although it’s considered “sweet” rice, Muhammar is traditionally served as a savory accompaniment to fish or lamb. (Jump to recipe).
Because I have an aversion to the smell of roses, I use orange blossom water in this recipe instead of the traditional rose water. A natural complement to the flavors of cardamom and saffron, the aroma of orange blossom water enhances fragrant basmati rice in much the same way rose water does. I do love dates however, and consider date syrup to be essential here for its unique flavor and color. Believe me, I tried substituting honey, but it’s just not the same. Clarified butter is also traditional, but I found whole butter works just as well. And if you want to keep it vegan, coconut oil is also a good substitute.
This is a simple and versatile side to add to your daily repertoire, and can be served with a variety of seafood and meat dishes. Start by parboiling basmati rice in salted water. This cooks off some of the surface starch, opening up each grain of rice to absorb additional flavors. In the meantime, steep saffron and cardamom in orange blossom water. When the rice is par cooked, drain it and mix it with date syrup. In the empty pot, melt the butter, then return the rice and the remaining ingredients to the pot.
Poking a few large holes in the rice helps it cook evenly. Since there’s just enough water clinging to the rice to steam it, the pot needs to be tightly sealed to trap the steam. The old school method is to place a ring of wet paper towels between the rim of the pot and the lid, but if you use a rice cooker, its already seals tightly so you won’t need the paper towel trick. When the rice is cooked, a light crust should form on the bottom of the pot. In some recipes I’ve seen for Muhammar, the rice is inverted onto a platter to serve it so the crust is displayed on top. This makes a nice presentation, but as an everyday side, I just scoop the rice into a serving dish, toasty bits and all.
1Tess Mallos, The Complete Middle Eastern Cookbook (Hardie Grant Books, 2012) p. 348
Sweet Basmati Rice with Date Syrup and Orange Blossom Water
Adapted from Tess Mallos
Don’t let the name fool you. This recipe is more savory than you would expect. Date syrup does add a mellow sweetness, but combined with orange blossom water and saffron its flavor is more fruit forward. I found it similar to the way wine is used to flavor European dishes, as in risotto and boeuf bourguignon. In addition to fish and lamb, this rice is excellent served alongside roast duck (or possibly stuffed in…I’ll have to try that and get back to you guys). I suggest serving it with similar game meats like quail, squab, and venison as well.
Yield: 5 cups
Active Time: 15 minutes
Total: 45 minutes
2 cups basmati rice (400 g)
1 Tbsp. kosher salt (10 g)
6 cups water (1440 ml)
2 Tbsp. orange blossom water (30 ml)
3 cardamom pods, crushed
1/4 tsp. saffron
1/4 cup date syrup (60 ml)
3 Tbsp. butter (42 g)
- Rinse and drain rice. In a medium saucepan, bring 6 cups of water to a boil, then add the salt and rice. Simmer for 8 minutes on medium-high heat.
- Meanwhile steep the cardamom pods and saffron in the orange blossom water.
- When the rice is ready, drain it and mix it with the date syrup.
- In the empty saucepan or bowl of a rice cooker, melt the butter, then add the rice-date mixture.
- Poke 3 or 4 holes in the rice and sprinkle the orange blossom water, cardamom pods, and saffron over the rice.
- If cooking on the stovetop, make a ring of wet paper towels to cover the rim of the pot, then cover with the lid to trap the steam inside. If using a rice cooker, you can skip this step.
- Cook the rice tightly covered, on low heat for 20 to 25 minutes until tender.
- If desired, invert the rice onto a plate to serve.