(Yes, this is your dinner. Meet titoté.)
On a recent trip to Colombia, I noticed something curious. As I traveled from north to south, the color of the rice with my meals changed dramatically.
In Bogotá, situated on a plateau near the Andes, the rice served was regulation opaque white. Whereas in Cartagena, on the Caribbean, the rice was almost always a mottled cinnamon brown—and quite delicious.
The color difference has nothing to do with milled versus unmilled. The explanation is right in the name: arroz con coco, or coconut rice. This style of rice is standard fare in Cartagena, a port city whose cooking incorporates flavors and ingredients brought from Africa and the Middle East.
So how does coconut milk, which is white, make rice brown? The answer is titoté. This is the Spanish word for the leavings, or cracklins, produced by boiling down coconut milk till it renders up solid bits, as well as its own oil, that are allowed to fry till golden.
Titoté is a flavor bomb: A properly made plate of coconut rice is unforgettably good. The rich, slightly nutty, faintly sweet taste pairs great with Colombian mainstays like grilled fish and stewed beef.
Note the “made properly” above, because good technique is essential to making this dish. The key point to understand is there are “two milks”: the first—pure, undiluted coconut milk—makes the titoté; the second—diluted coconut milk—is the liquid the rice cooks in.
You can make arroz con coco with actual coconuts, but good luck. My attempts so far have not met with success. Twice, the flesh inside gave off a soapy smell and, in the finished result, an off-putting taste. Still, in the spirit of this column, I give instructions for using fresh coconuts in the Comments section.
Meanwhile, don’t hesitate to use canned coconut milk. My happy results with it make me wonder if cooks in Cartagena aren’t reaching for the same stuff.
These two videos are instructive even if you don’t understand Spanish. Watch how the first milk boils off to produce the titoté, at around 54 seconds:
In the second, the same guy unapologetically uses canned coconut milk, saying, in effect, “We’re in the States now. Here, people don’t have time!”
No time? Huh?
Arroz con coco
(Cartagena-style Coconut Rice)
Adapted from recipes by Teresita Román de Zurek, author of Cartagena de Indias en la Olla, and from My Colombian Recipes, an English-language blog written by a home cook from Medellín.
2 14-oz. cans coconut milk, like Thai Kitchen Organic’s
1 cup long-grain white rice
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
½ cup water
To make the titoté:
Empty cans of coconut milk into a blender; blend on medium for 5 seconds to homogenize (you can do this in a bowl with a whisk if you prefer).
Pour slightly more than 1 cup of the coconut milk into a heavy-bottomed saucepan; heat on medium-high. Note, the milk will sputter during cooking. Stir occasionally to make sure it isn’t scorching on the bottom. After 10 minutes lower heat to medium-low. Monitor it more closely and stir more frequently as it thickens. After about another 10 minute, watch it closely as the coconut oil begins to separate and the leavings begin to solidify. Lower heat to simmer and allow the leavings to darken nicely in the oil.
To make the rice:
Add rice to the titoté. Stir for 1 minute over medium heat. Add sugar and salt. Stir to mix. Remove from heat.
To the remaining coconut milk in the blender, add ½ cup of water. Blend on medium for 5 seconds. Measure 2 cups of milk mixture and pour into the saucepan with the rice-titoté. Cook without lid for 15 minutes over medium-low.
At this point, the rice should have absorbed nearly all the liquid (it can still be wet). If not, give it a few more minutes. When ready, cover pan with lid and turn down heat to very low. Cook 15 minutes more.
Turn off heat. Remove lid and stir rice to distribute titoté and to scrape up bits of stuck rice on the bottom (this is desirable). Cover again and let rice sit for 30 minutes. This rest period improves the fluffiness.
Stir again more before serving. Makes 4 servings.
Corey Sabourin began cooking at a young age, later worked as a pastry chef, then decided to become a writer. He line-edits his fiction between kitchen tasks in New York.