Rice: How is it cooked all around the world?

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Graphic by Kayla Roberts

Rice has found its way to being a fundamental staple in different cultures around the world, with every culture cooking its own way. Rice was first cultivated in Asia, by the Chinese, approximately 10,000 years ago, according to the University of California, Davis. After nearly a millennium has passed since its cultivation, this tiny grain has become an indispensable element of many cultures and, of course, dining tables. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, rice is one of the most consumed grains in the world, serving as a dietary cornerstone for numerous cultures and cuisines, stretching from Asia to Europe and from the east to the west.

While rice is consumed in various forms across the world, countries in Asia such as India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam and its place of origin, China, are among the top consumers of this grain according to Statista.

In South Korea, rice is not only a dietary staple, but it also plays an important role in the country’s drinking culture and beauty secrets. Seoyoon Bae, a transfer student majoring in Engineering, emphasizes the importance of rice in Korean cuisine and traditional eating habits: “Rice has been our main food. It is usually a main dish of a meal. Even after having Korean BBQ, rice is served as another dish. Especially older people think if rice is not included in their meal, they don’t think they are full enough.”

Seoyoon illustrates the significance of rice in South Korean culture by mentioning that one of the popular greeting phrases in Korean, “밥 먹었어요?” which is formed by the combination of the words rice and eating. Bae points out that in Korean, the word “밥” means both “rice” and “meal,” underscoring the country’s deep appreciation for the importance of rice. She says the word has broader meaning in this context, saying, “In this context, 밥 means meal rather than rice.” She also adds, “I would say the expression is kind of ‘How are you?’ Personally, I don’t use the phrase. But sometimes this greeting actually leads people to eat together if both didn’t have a meal yet.”

Seoyoon highlights that rice is a key ingredient in various South Korean dishes, from sweets to street foods and even beverages. She mentions that Tteok, one of the most famous dishes in Asian cuisine, and the key ingredient of Tteokbokki, one of the most popular street foods in South Korea, is also made from rice. “Tteok (some people call it rice cake) is made of rice, which has a chewy texture. With this, you can make Tteokbokki.” She added, “Also, I’d like to introduce Makgeolli. This is a kind of alcohol. We usually drink this with Buchimgae.” Buchimgae is a type of Korean pancake.

When asked about her favorite dish, Bae says, “Stir-fried Kimchi rice!”

While rice may not be a daily fundamental in Middle Eastern cuisine as it is in eastern Asian cuisine, it still holds importance. Turkey, situated in between the regions of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, is one of the countries with a cuisine where rice is utilized in various dishes, ranging from savory to sweet.

Zeynep Akgedik, a Turkish student at Boyd Law School, explains the importance of rice in her country and highlights the unique qualities of Turkish rice. She says, “Rice holds a special place in Turkish cuisine, harmoniously accompanying various meat and vegetable dishes. This Turkish rice is known for its buttery, airy texture with a delicate nutty essence. Made primarily from Baldo rice, it is prepared using water, butter and salt. Its distinctiveness lies in its non-stick quality, setting it apart from conventional rice recipes.”

  Akgedik says that one of her favorite desserts is Sütlaç, for which the main ingredient is rice. “My favorite rice dish is Sütlaç, also known as rice pudding. It is made by simmering rice with milk, sugar and sometimes a touch of vanilla, creating a creamy, comforting and slightly sweet dessert. Sütlaç is usually garnished with a sprinkling of cinnamon on top. It is enjoyed both warm and cold. I personally like it cold and crave it during hot summer days.”

To the east of Turkey lies Armenia, a country where rice has made its way into their culture as well. Mary Giandjian, President of the Armenian Student Association, shares her favorite Armenian recipe with rice, Ghapama (ղափամա). Ghapama is prepared when the insides of a pumpkin are scooped out and sautéd in a separate pan. Then, rice is added and left to simmer with the pumpkin. Cranberries, raisins or nuts are added as needed, and the rice mixture is placed back in the pumpkin to serve. Giandjian shares the significance of the dish, saying, “When a family is gathering and it just happens to be in the fall, you prepare a dish like this. It’s more like a cultural thing that people adapted to have a religious meaning … The rice represents people all across the world so that each grain of rice is one person. And because we are Orthodox Christians, the raisins are meant to represent the Orthodox Christians around the world.”

Moving a couple countries over, sitting firmly in the southern part of Asia is India. Satish Bhatnagar is a Mathematics professor and advisor to the Hindu Student Association. For Bhatnagar, kheer is his favorite recipe with rice. Kheer is a dessert recipe, where rice is cooked with milk and sugar. Bhatnagar shares how to make it, saying, “Take a pot with a heavy bottom and apply a clarified butter called ghee. Gently put that at the bottom. Then, you have your handful of rice and put half a liter of whole milk [in the pot]. You can literally forget it and leave it on the stove.” He jokes, “Sometimes I will put it on at 11 o’clock at night, and in the morning, at five or six o’clock, it’ll be ready.” This recipe can be modified by adding almonds, pine tree nuts or walnuts. Kheer is served on various occasions, with Bhatnagar saying, “As far as India’s concerned, rice is considered auspicious. At weddings, marriage ceremonies, funerals, they are considered a good sign.”

Bhatnagar explains the history behind rice in India, specifically the Punjab region. Bhatnagar explains, “Rice is really a common grain in southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, etc. Rice is almost a staple food for a whole chunk of the population … In [northwest India], rice was not popular; wheat was the main item. India was colonized and wheat was a colonial grain. The British destroyed the [rice] industry, but my mother always made rice. Without rice, I couldn’t enjoy food.” Bhatnagar goes on to joke that he could always keep eating rice, that he loves it so much that he could never be satisfied with rice. 

Across the Pacific Ocean, the people in Puebla, a state in Mexico, cook rice with a tomato sauce. Laisha Diaz, the Vice President of Student Organization of Latinx’s, shares Mole con arroz rojo as a favorite Mexican dish with rice. Mole con arroz rojo is a dish with chicken and rice. First, chicken is seared with three different types of chilies. Theen, for arroz rojo, the sauce is first prepared by blending tomatoes, onion, garlic, salt and a little bit of water. Long grain rice is toasted on a pan, then combined with the sauce to cook all together. Diaz says, “It’s a really hard thing to cook. The thing about it is that it burns easily. It’s really easy to mess up. So, people from Puebla, all make sure they do not leave with an empty stomach … No one can really say no to Mole. It’s time-consuming and intensive to make, so it’s something that brings people together; it brings a sense of home.”

Across oceans and continents, a single ingredient, rice, has cultures all over the world finding their own way to cook it. Some cultures attach religious significance to their rice dishes, while others serve rice during special occasions. And yet, with an infinite number of ways to cook it, rice still brings people together in the past and will continue to do so for generations to come.

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