People want different things on a cold winter night: a piping hot bowl of soup or the seductive richness of, say, foie gras. I crave steaming hot rice. It could be Malaysian nasi lemak, Saudi Arabian kabsa, Iranian pilaf, Pakistani biryani, Indian tamarind rice, Qatari or Kuwaiti majboos. I don’t fuss as long as the main ingredient is earthy rice. For Asians, rice is the equivalent of American chicken soup.
Said to be cultivated since 6,000 BC in the middle Yangtze valley, rice feeds two-thirds of the world’s population. More than 120,000 varieties of rice exist. There are the fragrant Thai jasmine and the basmati, tiny sweet mochi gome, sticky Filipino malagkit, and plump Italian arborio. Sake is brewed from nine types of Japanese rice ranging from yamada nishiki to omachi. Colours range from brown rice to Chinese black rice, to Indonesian purple and pink rice. White rice is the most popular. Far East Asians like a sticky texture, while Arabic cultures prefer separate, somewhat undercooked grains.
India used to have more than 100,000 varieties of rice. Most were hand-pounded rice with the nutritious husk left intact. Today, the bulk of Asia eats polished white rice bereft of its mineral-rich skin. In Kerala, red rice is popular, while North Indians like basmati rice. A fortnight ago, South Indians celebrated Pongal, the spring harvest festival. My family served a savoury rice dish – also called Pongal – along with freshly harvested sugarcane, turmeric and other gifts of the harvest. When I lived in Manhattan, I frequently made Pongal using Thai jasmine rice that I bought in Little India.
Asia produces and consumes 90 per cent of the world’s rice. In Myanmar a single person eats 462 pounds of rice a year, relative to an American, who eats 20 pounds, according to Riceweb, a compendium of rice facts. Most Asians travel with a rice cooker, and spend a good part of their day testing and debating the merits of various brands and types of rice. For us, rice is the centre of a meal, and everything else, just condiments. In America, rice is considered, if not a condiment, a side dish.
The US farms about 20 varieties of rice, mostly in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana and Texas (where the aromatic Texmati rice originated). The type known to most is wild rice, which is not really rice – it belongs to the genus zizania, not oryza – and Uncle Ben’s “Ready Rice”, which I would argue is not really rice, either.
Vietnam ties its economy to rice grown in the Mekong Delta and its culture to rice wine (ruou nep), a ceremonial drink offered to honored guests and used to dissolve tonic medications. Indonesians base their Rijsttafel (rice table) feasts, consisting of 100-odd dishes, on rice. In Bangladesh, China and Thailand, a common greeting is “Have you had your rice today?” to which an appropriate answer is “No, come and share some rice with me.” Filipinos consider the Banaue rice terraces in Northern Luzon to be the eighth wonder of the world and make bibingkas – sweet rice patties – for holidays. Koreans offer songp’yon (rice cakes) to their ancestors and believe each bowl of ttokkuk (rice soup) eaten on New Year’s Day adds a year to their life. India and Pakistan feud on almost everything except for rice pilaf recipes.
As for me, I don’t feel like I’ve eaten till I eat rice. I may enjoy stinky cheeses, artisanal breads, rich creamy desserts, dark chocolates and cheesy pizza. But at the end of the day, or night, I have to eat steaming hot rice, served with a dollop of ghee. It is the taste of home.
Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India