I’s a fair bet that more rice gets eaten in South East Asia and the Indian sub-continent than anywhere else in the world. The interesting thing is to note not how much is eaten as how it is eaten. McDonald’s have famously added a rice burger to their menu in Japan, which tells you not only about the popularity of the grain, but also about its versatility.
In Kashmir – which is where my husband hails from – the word for meal is the same for rice (just like it is in Thai), and there’s no doubt that the Kashmiris take their rice very seriously indeed. Not only are there innumerable proverbs about rice, but there are several words for rice. It’s called batha when it’s cooked, but tombul when it’s raw and for a few seconds between the two stages, it’s called vye. Vye is what you scoop up with a cup measure to cook. What is left in the rice bin is tombul, and as soon as you’ve washed the vye and emptied it into the cooking pot, it becomes batha!
In Goa, while rice is eaten for lunch and dinner, farmers have eaten rice gruel as a sort of late breakfast for centuries. Chinese-speaking cultures – China, Taiwan and Hong Kong – also breakfast off rice gruel, but while the general idea is the same as Goa and Mangalore, the execution is different. In Goa, red rice is cooked till it’s just about done, and served in its own liquid. The more you over-cook rice, the progressively thicker the water becomes, and cooked rice swimming in liquid is nobody’s idea of a gourmet meal, so it’s the accompaniments that become all-important. Water pickle (also called, derisively, poor man’s pickle) was raw mango preserved in brine with a sprinkling of spices. When you couldn’t get a piece of fried fish, spicy Goa sausage or prawn balchao, you’d settle for water pickle.
Jok, as the Chinese version is called, is a much more cooked porridge, in which the grains of rice can just about be discerned, and which is sometimes so thick that you can actually eat it with chopsticks. Usually served with an array of accompaniments like grilled eel that is faintly sweet, chopped chives, Chinese ham and dried fish, it’s the quintessential street food. In Taiwan and Singapore, even the most westernized, plush hotel that offers classic French food for dinner has jok on its breakfast buffet.
My mother in law tells me of a dish called dodh vagra or overcooked rice, which was fed to convalescents in Kashmir. It was made with a certain amount of milk and seems to have gone so completely out of fashion, that in all the years I’ve been married, I’ve never seen or tasted it. Nevertheless, from what I have been able to glean, it was mashed with the stout wooden pestle called tchote, the better to pulverize the rice into a gruel, before being seasoned with a pinch of shahi zeera, also known as black cumin or Kashmiri zeera.
Rice has been elevated to high art in Lucknow, Hyderabad and other places where biryani is made, but neither that nor Kashmiri tahar (rice boiled with turmeric and mixed with strips of fried onion and salt) comes close to idlis, puttu, dosas and appams of the South, or Goan sannas. They’re all staples, eaten with curries at home or powdered masalas in tiffin boxes, that use rice flour in conjunction with dal (in the case of idlis and dosas) or grated coconut (in the case of puttu) and are steamed in moulds or griddle fried on tepanyaki-like counters, which is what essentially happens to dosas. Sannas and appams are fermented with toddy to make them fluffy. While sannas have become a party-time accompaniment to sorpotel, appams are still a commonly enjoyed staple in many parts of Kerala, especially with a mild stew.
In Sri Lanka, rice is used in even more ways than it is in South India. Besides being served with a host of vegetables, chutneys and a chicken or fish curry, several forms of it appear on the breakfast table. In addition to hoppers and pittu (appams and puttu to you and me), there are string hoppers (like the iddiappam of Kerala) and milk rice – hard to resist cubes of red or white rice cooked till it loses its texture and then put into a tray and cut into squares. It’s just a shade more homely than the Malaysian lontong that is famously served with satays and peanut sauce. Milk rice is supposed to be eaten with a fish or chicken curry, failing which an incendiary sambol or chutney of dried shrimp, chillies and coconut scrapings works fabulously.
Interestingly, while rice is a staple in Thailand, it is hardly eaten in the quantities as it is in India to the west or Indonesia to the east: Thais eat approximately one fourth of the amount that we do, and even that has the starch drained out, in spite of the fact that Thai rice is much lighter than Indian rice. Though Thai street food hardly makes use of rice, (Singapore, on the other hand, has its Hainan chicken rice at every street corner) many khanoms (sweets) use pounded rice in conjunction with coconut milk, agar-agar and sugar or jaggery to amazing effect. In Taiwan’s eastern province of Hualien, even the most casual visitor can’t help but notice that muachi is something of a local speciality. Sticky, glutinous toffees that use rice as their base, mwachi are wrapped in individual, colour coded bubble packs and sold at every third store. The taste and texture, and the surprising fillings – anything from green tea and sweet bean paste to coffee and peanut butter – embodies the pre-eminent position of rice as a staple as well as a sweet.
Usually, noodles are the staple for wheat-eating communities, but you’ll get the occasional rice noodle, which is a little bit like having your cake and eating it too. In those South East Asian countries where sticky rice is eaten: Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and Singapore, fried rice tends to be a one-meal dish, served on its own. No self-respecting Indian would eat abalone and stir-fried lettuce with anything else but chicken fried rice, yet such a meal would be considered eccentric by any standards.
Spanish paella, Italian risotto, wild rice that appears on menus in California’s New Age cafes – the humble grain has more versatility than almost any other food.