Is anything more satisfying than a rice bowl? It’s elemental—a base of filling starch, with various goodies perched upon or mixed into it. Whatever meat or veg you have access to, even in small quantity, fleshes it out, but rice is your base. It is the staple food for more than half of the world’s population, comprising some ¾ of their meals.
History of Rice
Rice has been a documented food source since 2500 BC, and has been cultivated since 2000 BC, beginning in China along the Huai and Yangtze rivers, then spreading to Sri Lanka and India, before the rest of the world caught up, with Europe introduced to rice thanks to its role as an early staple in Greece, and the Americas following suit when Portuguese colonists imported it to Brazil. At least that’s the most-agreed-upon version. But scholars have recently found rice grains in Indian pottery from Uttar Pradesh dating to 6500 BC—if that’s true, then all of a sudden, rice seems to have been eaten four millennia earlier than generally believed.
Many Asian cultures have origin myths in which rice is given by the gods, like manna. The Balinese believe that Lord Vishnu caused the earth to rupture and rice to spew forth. The Chinese thought that rice was a gift provided by animals to feed humans (presumably encouraging them to remain vegetarians in the process).
19 Types of Rice Dishes to Try
Since rice is, thankfully, very inexpensive, nutritious and filling it is the base for a wide array of foods, from cucina povera to haut tables. Putting steamed rice in a bowl to eat needs no explanation (just try chasing wayward grains on a plate), but it’s worth examining just a handful of the innumerable, diverse and far-flung dishes that feature rice across our world.
Colombian arroz de lisa: served in a bijao leaf instead of a bowl, with cassava, costeno cheese and suero atollabuey sauce.
Valencian paella: the saffron-rich rice dish cooked in a huge, shallow pan to maximize the crusty burnt bits at the bottom where the rice meats the pan, caramelizing it. Topped with a mixture of meat and shellfish.
Korean bibimbap: rice with gochujang chili paste and an array of toppings, often served in a hot stone bowl, so the outer edges of the rice caramelize. Throw an egg on top while it’s all still hot and mix.
Egyptian kushari: just in case you’re in need to a starch infusion, this is rice topped with macaroni, lentils and chickpeas, with fried onion and tomato sauce for flavor.
Pakistani biryani: there are biryani rice-based dishes throughout northern India and Pakistan, but this features masala and prawns. The trick with biryani is the lay out the steamed basmati rice atop the cooking protein and veg and then seal the cooking vessel, so the flavor from the cooking steams into the rice.
Karnatakan bisi bele bath: the wonderfully-named specialty of an exotic Indian state, it is time-consuming to make, featuring toor dal, nutmeg, curry leaves, tamarind pulp, masala, asafetida and more ingredients that tend not to be lying around western pantries.
Hawaiian loco moco: island American, this is rice topped with a burger, sunny side up egg and gravy.
Singaporean claypot chicken rice: rice cooked in a clay pot, with meat and veg made on a grill and added after, with a dash of dark soy.
Hong Kong congee: the outlier in this list, it’s actually a porridge made by simmering rice well after it has been boiled and saturated with liquid (after it is “done”). Popular throughout Asia, especially for breakfast or as a late-night comfort food.
Cajun etoufee: an elaborate shellfish dish over rice, which is “smothered,” a Cajun technique that is essentially braising on the stovetop—a sautee pan is covered so the liquid in it infuses the protein. The name, somewhat ominously, is French for “to choke.”
Jordanian mansaf: rice is topped with lamb cooked in fermented dried yogurt. Indonesian nasi padang: a sort of southeast Asian smorgasbord, with steamed rice as the core, to which you can add any of a wide array of toppings and sauces, with the more options considered the better.
Turkish pilaf: while most rice is cooked in water (boiled or steamed), many of the fancier dishes see it cooked in a seasoned broth, which infuses it with flavor. There are scores of variations on rice pilaf, topped with meat, fish and veg and nicely browned with sautéed onion. One variation is…
Uzbek plov: a descendant of a dish said to have been served to Alexander the Great in the city now called Samarkand, with his army importing the preparation to Macedonia and Greece. Here the rice is not steamed, but simmered in a stew called a zirvak until the liquid disappears into the rice (read here the full recipe for Uzbek plov).
Milanese risotto: the classic of northern Italian cuisine (here's the iconic recipe by Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi) features Arborio rice slowly cooked with wine and broth, until it achieves an ideal brothy-bite. The Milanese version is flavored and colored with saffron.
New Orleans red beans and rice: many of the world’s cultures combine these two inexpensive, filling starches, but it is a gourmet treat in New Orleans, with andouille sausage, pepper, onion and smoky spices.
Chinese fried rice: a simple preparation with many variations of steamed rice then sautéed with egg, vegetables and protein.
Iranian havij polo: rice with shredded carrot and meatballs, a specialty of Tehran.
Puerto Rican jibaro: yellow rice sautéed with sofrito and annatto oil and topped with a fried egg.
British kedgeree: an Anglo-Indian specialty often eaten for breakfast. Smoked white fish, like haddock, is flaked away from the bone and tossed with rice, eggs and butter.