From the Root

Complexity from Simplicity: Rice

Like many people today, I’m the product of parents from very different parts of the world. My mom is Cuban and my dad is Iranian, and that blend of identities and cultures has shaped who I am today.

I’m also a knitter, a wanderer, a photographer, a reader, and – most of all – a foodie. I like to cook and I love to experience all different types of food, from every corner of the world.

For me, though, food has always been a little complicated. My family is comprised of two very distinct cultures that intertwine in amazing ways, particularly in the kitchen. I’m also lactose intolerant and keep halal, but when I’m in my own kitchen I can control what I’m eating and my cultural background always shines through in what I prepare.

There’s so much of the world I want to explore. I’m just getting started. Location: Sunflower field at Clear Meadow Farm, Maryland

 

It’s Complicated

Because of my cultural and ethnic background, dietary restrictions, and genuine love of all food, I think it would be safe to call me a “complicated foodie.” When I’m asked, “What do you like to eat?” I’ve noticed my response tends to be, “Well, it’s complicated.”

So what’s so complicated for me? Well, take rice for example.

In many cultures, including American, rice isn’t that important. It’s not something everyone eats or cooks, let alone keeps in their cupboard.

More often than not, if I’m going to a friend’s house for dinner who isn’t Cuban or Iranian, I don’t expect to have rice. In America, rice is often served as a plain side dish or as part of food from another culture’s cuisine, like Chinese or Mexican. If they do have rice, I tend to hesitate because I know it’s probably instant rice from a box. To me, this means that it likely isn’t as artistically made as the rice I’m used to having.

But for me, rice is much more complicated than that. Rice is a major staple in both Iranian and Cuban cuisine, and it can be made in a wide variety of ways. If whoever’s making dinner decides not to make at least one rice dish, someone in my family will inevitably say something.

Delicious arroz y frijoles negros (rice and black beans) by my mother

 

Even during American holidays, like Thanksgiving, my family finds a way to incorporate our cultural dishes with the traditional American fare. Every year, we end up with rice next to our turkey, potatoes, and stuffing. Yes – even on Thanksgiving, we’re sure to have rice.

I think that if people were to experience all the types of multi-cultural rice dishes that I grew up with and have learned about on my travels, the possibilities would blow their mind and definitely change the way they see it in their diet.

So I’d like to share a few of my perspectives on this deceptively versatile and complicated ingredient.

The Middle Eastern Menu

In Iranian cooking, rice is both a necessity and an art form.

The best part of Persian rice is the crispy bottom layer of the pot that’s been steamed and cooked slowly to create a golden brown crust.

It’s called Tahdig and it’s delicious. The crunchier the better. Those who know the trick can also fry up thin slices of potato before adding the semi-cooked rice back on top to finish steaming. This creates an infused rice/potato crust that’s perfectly crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Persian rice can also be a dish all on its own, often made with ingredients mixed in and served as a meal. Dishes like this include Shirin Polo (jeweled rice), Polo Alocheh (sour cherry rice), and Loobiya Polo (green bean rice with ground beef).

Tahdig covered rice

 

Caribbean Cooking

Rice in Cuban cuisine often takes center stage as well. There’s hardly ever a time when rice isn’t on the table, often accompanied by black beans.

Although rice is important in Cuban food, my family didn’t go to such extremes as we did with Persian dishes. Rice was just rice – plain and simple but always there. A few rice-heavy dishes that we always ate at home were Arroz Blanco con Huevo (white rice with egg), Morros y Cristianos (rice cooked in black beans), and Arroz Imperial (rice, chicken, and cheese casserole).

Arroz con huevo frito (rice and fried egg) handmade by my mother

 

Finishing Touches

My mom perfected the art of Persian rice and can make it as well or better than my dad can. My dad turned to cooking Cuban foods as well, and so my home truly became a perfect blend of different culinary cultures.

Growing up with all these unique and exciting ways to prepare a single ingredient, it’s no wonder that I developed such an appreciation for the possibilities of even the humblest foods. 

Like I said, even an ingredient like rice – which seems so simple – can quickly get delightfully complicated for me and my family.

This mixing of foods and dishes from my different cultures is what I love about being a complicated foodie. I am so privileged to be able to experience food in such an amazing way. It’s taught me a lot about cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, and it’s made me more open to new experiences in every aspect of my life.

I hope you’ll join me as I continue to explore the complexities and wonders of the foods we take for granted, the ones we struggle with, and even the ones we’ve never heard of.

“Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta. Location: Castillo San Cristóbal, Puerto Rico

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Dora
    02/24/2017 at 7:12 pm

    Love this! Rice is such an undervalued staple in the US! I have fond memories of my mom making me chicken soup but with rice instead of noodles to soothe my aching tummy as a kid, and also of sitting around the kitchen table with the matriarchs of my family too late on a Saturday night, gossiping over heaping servings of arroz doce (rice pudding).

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