One grain to find them,
One grain to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them.
(with apologies to JRR)
If the Dark Lord Sauron ever sought to rule our world, he would tactically want to get his evil hands on Asia first, with its ginormous land area and 4 billion strong population. And how would the power-hungry villain achieve control? Just by seizing the rice supply, he would have the earth in his thrall.
Rice is the Asian staple food, and is the foundation on which the typical meal is built—it ain’t a meal without it. Rice is the soothing subtlety that tames the fierce and strong flavors of the cuisine, the yin of tranquility to the yang of the intense spicy, salty, sour, or sweet. Aside from the classic steamed rice, Asian countries do their best to explore and exploit the versatility of this grain, making it into porridge or pudding, grinding it up as flour, or combining it with other ingredients to make hearty one-dish-meals.
It is also marvelously filling, and packs enough joules to keep people jumping all day. That’s why a lot of Asians cringe at the thought of low-carb diets, because giving up rice is too painful. Case in point: I once decided to not eat rice for a month. I lived through it, but I was miserable, perpetually hungry, and increasingly grumpy.
Rice is so basic, so essential, that even when it is best grown in flat lands, people manage–by sheer force of will–to grow this grain in places where nature said it couldn’t.
Rice is undeniably Asia’s power source. This continent runs on it.
If you’d like a first-hand experience of the rice phenomenon, but can’t hop on a plane right now, you can bring the experience to your own home. Go on a cultural food trip and try out these 5 easy rice recipes from 5 Asian countries.
Pilaf – India – Tomato Rice
There are many variations of this dish in India, with different degrees of complicated-ness, but this one’s an easy fool-proof recipe from a busy mom. Thanks for sharing this, Chitra!
1 teaspoon cumin
2 large tomatoes, diced
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon chili powder
a handful of chopped cabbage
3 cups rice
3 ¾ cups water
Saute the first 6 ingredients in a rice cooker or pot. Wash and drain the rice and add it to the the pot/cooker with the water. Season with salt. If using a rice cooker, you can just leave it, coming back only to give it a stir halfway through the cooking process. For stovetop cooking, bring it up to a boil, then down to a simmer, stirring to mix everything through before all the water is absorbed.
Fried Rice – Indonesia – Nasi Goreng
Nasi Goreng literally means “fried rice”. Such a broad definition means that there is every conceivable version of it, from street food to fine dining. This one can be your very own kitchen version.
2 tablespoons oil
1 red chili (seeded)
1/2 teaspoon toasted belacan (shrimp paste)
1/2 teaspoon palm sugar
1/2 tablespoon kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)
8 oz. overnight rice
1 fried egg, well done, for topping
I would just saute the shallot and garlic in the oil, then add everything else. But if I wanted to elevate the dish a bit and complicate my life just a little, then I would follow the directions given here.
Pudding – Thailand – Coconut Rice Pudding with Mango (Kai Neuw Mamuang)
This is a lovely Thai dessert that is surprisingly easy to make — it has only 6 ingredients and there are no special gadgets needed.
Porridge – Philippines – Arroz Caldo
The name is Spanish for rice soup (arroz=rice, caldo=broth). This is the ultimate Filipino comfort food, perfect for rainy days, sick days, or sad days. Recipe from my sister Lulu.
1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
2 pieces of thumb-sized ginger, julienned
Chicken pieces (from half a chicken)
2 cups uncooked rice, washed and drained
4 cups water (if using boneless chicken, use the same volume in chicken stock)
fish sauce or salt to taste
optional: 1 teaspoon of dried safflower, for color
optional toppings: chopped chives, toasted garlic, sliced boiled eggs, squeeze of calamondin or lime
Saute garlic and ginger until garlic has some color. Add the chicken, and let it cook for a bit — around 5 minutes. Add the rice and the water. A little fish sauce and pepper. Give it a stir and bring up to a boil. For a creamy consistency, stir continuously until the rice is tender like risotto. If you want a thinner porridge, adjust with more water or chicken stock. Taste and adjust the seasoning before serving.
Rice Topping – Japan – Chirashi Sushi
Like sushi but don’t have the patience or the skill to make those exquisite little bites? Here’s how a lot of Japanese families do it, with minimum fuss and maximum enjoyment. It’s just your basic vinegared rice laid out on a large dish, topped with your choice of sushi toppings. If you like raw seafood, lay it on; if not, then just go for cucumber slices, mushrooms and nori strips.