By Gloria Lauris, Ontario, Canada.
Allow me to take you on a quick rice journey through several culinary dishes and countries.
I grew up in British Columbia, Canada, to second-generation Ukrainian parents who were raised on farms in the prairies, so our dinner was typically bread, meat, and potatoes. We rarely had rice, and it was usually parboiled or instant. It was cooked occasionally as part of something like stuffing in cabbage rolls or in a casserole or pudding. Little did my younger self realize that my travels, especially to Africa and Southeast Asia, would drastically change how I viewed food, especially rice. Just as wheat is a staple in a grain-growing country like Canada, so is rice a cultural way of life in rice-growing countries and is the main cereal crop for over half of humanity.
Fast-forward several years to when I visited Egypt with my Canadian Egyptian husband, I remember seeing large pots of warm, freshly cooked white rice in their kitchens. Sitting on the floor with Egyptian women relatives, we would laugh, smile, and chat speaking broken English or Arabic, taking turns picking up limp pieces of steamed cabbage to fill with a mixture of short grain rice and seasoning to make mashe karumb (cabbage leaves filled with rice). This is a mini-version of the more common Western-style cabbage roll, halupki, which my mother made as a throwback to our Ukrainian heritage. Eastern Europeans make cabbage rolls large and smother them with tomato sauce. But in Egypt they are finely rolled, and just a little sauce is used, as they are mainly steamed in chicken stock and are delicious finger snacks. Egyptians also fill other tasty vegetables with rice, such as peppers, grape leaves, eggplants, and zucchini.
Another exotic rice dish was chicken baked on a bed of Egyptian rice, with nuts and vermicelli. Sometimes yellow or red saffron was added, although that was popular mainly in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, where people could more readily afford this expensive spice. Sometimes pine nuts and caraway seeds were added for flavour.
Koshary, believed to be the national dish of Egypt, uses rice. A flavorful mix of lentils, rice and macaroni is topped with a tomato-chili sauce, garbanzo beans and fried onions. It is served in just about every Egyptian restaurant, in most homes, and on many street corner stalls. It makes a hearty, delicious, and affordable meal.
Later, I visited my son who was living in Japan for a while. I found almost all foods included rice; snacks, bento boxes, and sushi and sashimi all came with rice. There was the right way to cook and eat rice: white, steaming, and fresh to be scooped up with chopsticks. To put soy sauce on this essential but bland food was blasphemous to rice purists! When we ate sushi, we were always amazed how perfectly the rice was cooked. Yet it was sticky enough to be held together with Nori (a seaweed) and veggies to make rolled shapes. We were so impressed with the art of making excellent rice that we bought a Japanese rice cooker in Canada to create perfect rice, every time. The pot somehow senses the right temperature and humidity to produce a quality product consistently.
Now, let’s go to the Southeast Asian country of the Philippines. Rice is grown in many of these islands with their tropical climate, and they export a lot of rice. Some Filipino agricultural institutes even offer a PhD in rice cultivation!
While living in the Philippines, I remember my Dad, who had re-married a Filipina, remarking how the Filipinos love their rice. They have it not only with every meal, but even the desserts were usually made with rice. It was perplexing to a man raised in the prairies to be served a daily diet of rice and fish! He lost a lot of weight during his time there, whereas many Filipinos gained weight due to the regular intake of this starchy food.
In the Philippines, my personal favourite became Dona Maria Jasponica white rice, a type of hybrid Filipino and Japanese jasmine scented rice, famous for its fragrance, soft texture, and pleasant taste. However, jasmine rice is not good for a risotto as the starch count is not high enough. The Philippines Miponica brand is fluffier and stickier, making it good for risottos, paellas, and congees. Indian basmati rice is a long grain rice which is soft and fluffy when cooked, and it is served with Indian dishes such as biryani, or spicy dishes like butter chicken, chicken tikka and various curries. Filipino Harvester Dirorado rice is naturally fragrant and fluffy in texture and is used in Asian cuisines and in most Filipino dishes such as with chicken inasal, kare-kare and sinigang. At a cat café in Manila, Philippines, I remember being served decorative rice cat cut-outs, their eyes and whiskers being decorated with bits of sauce. Perhaps a sticky rice was used for this?
Affordable and filling, rice is a staple food for many. It is used in Asian (e.g., Chinese, Indian, Filipino, etc.), Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cuisine. But different types of rice are used for different dishes. Did you know that brown rice is unpolished so it contains selenium and has fibre and B vitamins? It is mineral rich, thus keeping a person full longer than with white rice. However, it takes much longer to cook, and so it is less commonly used, and it is more expensive to buy.
My favourite rice recipe? Although I am a converted fan of Egyptian rice and the delicious Mediterranean style food produced in and around the Nile Valley, my favourite is probably a coconut-flavoured rice, made from jasmine fragrant rice like Jasponica and adding a Thai twist to it. As taught by my kitchen helper in the Philippines, you rinse the rice thoroughly to get rid of any dust and foreign objects in the rice before cooking. Then you add some young coconut milk (buko) to water (liquid to rice ratio is 1:1) to make this delicious rice dish. I have had coconut-flavoured rice in Thai restaurants, and it is a delightful accompaniment to chicken dishes, like peanut chicken satay sticks. Another satisfying dish for me is Egyptian mashe (filled) vegetables, as it brings back happy memories of hearty, flavourful Egyptian meals made by friendly extended relatives, a world away.
International travel and overseas living have opened my culinary taste buds to elevate what I once considered lowly rice. I have come a long way, and not just figuratively, from cooking instant rice once a month in my meat-and-potato youth!
Do you have a favourite rice recipe too?
By Gloria Lauris, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Gloria is an emerging Canadian writer. She has visited over 50 countries, and lived in three of them (in the Middle East and SE Asia). She is a long-time animal welfare promoter. She loves to cook.