The Grown-Up Table
Our Flavorful World: Rice
Kalamata author Sarah Thomas grew up eating rice at almost every meal. See why she thinks it can broaden palates and expand minds.
I grew up eating rice with pretty much every meal. To this day, I am rarely more content with a simple meal than when I have a bowl of rice with dal, or mango pickle, or kimchi, or butter, or soy sauce and scallions, or any number of other pantry basics I usually have on hand. When I was little, I can remember trying rice dishes from non-Indian cultures and feeling that the nearly ubiquitous presence of rice in food around the world made trying a “new” version easier and more exciting—I was already part of the “I love rice” club, I was just getting to experience it in a different, delicious way. I thought I’d share just a few of the rice dishes I loved as a kid—maybe you’ve had some of them, or maybe you’ll get some ideas on new things to try with your family! And please tell me—what are your favorite rice dishes not listed here? I’d love to hear about them and hopefully get to try something new myself!
Kanji is my #1 comfort food, despite its dire sounding translation as “rice gruel.” Kanji payar is basically a rice soup with green moong beans, called cherupayar in Malayalam. My mom made this for us during religious fasting seasons like Lent (though it never felt like a penitent meal to me!), and also whenever we weren’t feeling well. She also made excellent green mango pickle with it, and usually served something crunchy like papad for textural variation. It’s insanely simple to make, but nutritious and nourishing in so many ways. I found out later that congee, eaten in multiple Eastern Asian countries, has similar comfort-food vibes for those who grew up eating it because it’s essentially the same thing (rice soup/porridge/gruel) with different add-ins. Similarly, the first time I had juk, the Korean version, it felt like sinking into a warm bowl of nostalgia.
Onigiri never fails to make me happy. They’re rice balls (though they can be shaped into triangles or cylinders as well), usually wrapped in nori. They can be stuffed or not stuffed with various delicious things—I could happily eat plain onigiri any day, but I also hold a special place for umeboshi onigiri, stuffed with a type of pickled, salty-sweet plum. When I learned that these are a common addition to Japanese lunch/bento boxes at school, I was more than a little jealous! There’s something so satisfying about holding them and eating these little self-contained bundles of joy. I had always enjoyed eating them but never tried making them before I watched a chef in Pittsburgh make them with the Food Revolution Cooking club at a local high school. Not only are they super simple to make, it’s just a very fun activity to do with kids. We all had a blast stuffing them with our favorite fillings, shaping and wrapping them, and then devouring them.
Speaking of hand-held treats—Arancini are delightful fried balls of rice typically filled with something savory and delicious. Sicily lays claim to the origin of the name and dish, thought to have been invented during the Arab rule of Sicily in the 10th century. The name comes from the word for an orange, though I believe that is strictly based on appearances and not similar nutritional content … at any rate, they are endlessly satisfying, and such a fun way to learn about the incredibly rich history of Sicily. While arancini are now a beloved symbol of Sicilian and Italian cuisine, they are a true representation of the breadth of influence on the island, and the way ingredients and spices and recipes from around the world can blend with local tradition and ingenuity to make something that is uniquely of that place.
I grew up eating chaler payesh, a Bengali rice pudding made by one of my beloved aunties, but have had similar comforting desserts all over the world. It’s easy to see why multiple cultures have adopted it—it’s cheap to make, filling even in small amounts, and feels like a hug when you eat it, even at its simplest preparation. My aunt’s version was more of a special occasion dish, though luckily she’d never turn down a request to make it between holidays! I remember it primarily smelling of cardamom, though it also had a sweet, buttery, nuttiness to it from the rice and the addition of cashews, pistachios, and almonds. I’ve had other versions with raisins, versions with cinnamon, and versions made with coconut or egg. I’ve always asked for seconds.
Craving more? Check out these delicious rice dishes and the people who make them!
- Jambalaya from Louisiana!
- Tahdig from Iran!
- Fried rice from China!
- Paella from Spain!