The concept of adding spices to sweet dishes, is traditional as it is delicious. You can take an ordinary banana bread to new heights by just adding a dash of cinnamon and/or nutmeg powders. A sprinkle of dried ginger or the addition of cloves into puddings or cakes add an extra element of undeniably tasty goodness. Have you ever tried chilli hot chocolate - a remedial concoction invented by the Mayans of ancient Mexico? In India, two spices dominate the sugary realm of sweets and desserts and add an extra dimension of flavour, with the subtle release of their aromas.
Who would have thought that something as tiny and apparently insignificant as a grain of rice would be the foundation that sustains the world’s largest populations for millennia? The variety of grains and the multitude of ways in which they are used are as diverse as the inhabitants who occupy India. The origins of the cereal grain are traced back to ancient China, where it has been cultivated for 5,000 years. The grain is said to have worked its way through to India from China via the Himalayas. Rice was first mentioned in the ancient Sanskrit text Yajur Veda (1500 - 800 BC) and its earliest cultivated remains date from around 2000 BC - making it pretty darn ancient!
In India, rice is the first and last food as it is easy on the digestion. For babies it is their first solid and for the infirm and old their last sustenance. Nowadays, in most regions of India, rice is a staple dish and is consumed in a myriad of ways.
Below, we explore some of the different uses of rice in the daily lives of Indians.
Flavoured rices - One of the most revered rice dishes out there is the festive dish called Biryani (we’ve dedicated an entire post to this which you can read about here). It is made up with layers of fragrant, coloured rice (saffron gives it a beautiful mustard tinge) and mixed with a thick and spicy gravy of any meat dish (mutton is my favourite) or even vegetables. The rice and the gravy are cooked separately and layered together at the end (much like an Italian lasagne). The dish is usually garnished with raisins fried in ghee and then onions caramelised in the remaining ghee. Pilaf is a less fancy, but equally tasty version of Biryani and can be prepared in a single pot. It is usually vegetarian and also involves fragrant rice which is cooked together with the vegetables and masalas (click here for our fool-proof recipe). Across India, you will find rice dishes prepared with lemon, tamarind, yoghurt and lentils. Lentil rice is known as Kitchari - it is very wholesome and can be prepared with little or no spices (you can find our recipe here). Rice and spice provide the variety in life for Indians!
Puffed rice - Do the names Rice Bubbles and Coco Pops ring a bell? Puffed rice is exactly that (minus the sugar and cocoa, respectively) and is the base for many popular street snacks across the Indian subcontinent. The process of puffing rice is quite cumbersome (if you are interested in knowing how, here’s a link that describes the process) but you do not have to do it yourself as you can purchase the puffed rice ready-made. Bhel Puriis a dish that is made up of a mixture of tasty and tangy ingredients with puffed rice at its base. It is a popular dish that is served on the streets and by local vendors during train journeys with Indian Railways. The textures in bhel puri are titillating to the palate; the crunch from the puffed rice and raw onions; the acidity from the tomatoes and tamarind sauce; the spicy bite of the fresh green chillies; the complex aromas from the chaat masala; the tanginess from the lemon; the sweetness of the tamarind sauce and the pop of freshness from coriander leaves. How can so much flavour be combined in just one spoonful? Try bhel puri and you will know exactly how!
Beaten/Flattened rice - Don’t worry, this isn’t as painful as it sounds! Beaten rice is similar to ‘rolled oats’ and another term for it is ‘flaked rice’. This type of rice cooks much faster than normal rice because it is a lot thinner and swells once added to any liquid. You can add this to your morning yoghurt and fruits or make a spicy breakfast called ‘poha’. Poha is a popular dish throughout India. It is very simple to make - just follow our recipe for a tasty snack that’s easy to put together with a few pantry and fresh ingredients.
Sweetened rice - Kheer is a dish made from rice that is cooked slowly in milk until the two blend with artistic precision. The rice dissolves just enough to become part of the milk, but not to the extent that the individual grains, softened yet defined, cannot be felt by the bite of one’s teeth. Sugar is added according to taste, so if you are not much of a sweet tooth or watching your sugar levels, you can still enjoy this dish in all its richness with a few sultanas. The best part of this dish is the almonds and cashews which are added halfway through the cooking process. The nuts take on a new form; their hard texture is softened in the hot milk and they simply melt in your mouth. Something is missing though, yes, you guessed it right - spice! Saffron is added to the kheer to give it a slight colour and beautiful fragrance as is ground cardamom. Kheer can be served as a hot dish, to melt away winter blues, or as a cold dish, to cool the soul during those hot Indian summers. Let us know if you would like the recipe and we will of course oblige. Below is an image of Zarda - another type of sweet rice prepared by infusing cardamom and saffron in a syrup. The basmati rice is cooked in this syrup and dried fruits are added for extra bursts of flavour.
Rice flour - I’m not kidding when I say that Indians love making flour out of everything and rice is no exception. Chickpeas are finely ground to a powder to make besan - a popular batter that is used to make tasty snacks like pakoras (a term used to describe anything deep fried in chickpea batter). We also apply this to our skin - babies are washed in it and it works as a cooling face-pack too. Lentils are ground to make batter for dosas - the Indian crepe as it is known. Lentil flour is also a healthier alternative to wheat flour. Rice is ground into flour and makes an excellent batter when frying any item. Try rice flour in a batter for your chicken or fish and your ears will delight at the crispy sound made when you bite into your food!
Rice water - Nothing is ever wasted in India! The water in which rice is boiled (traditionally red rice, which is unpolished) is drunk as it has nutritional value. We call it congee in India but it differs from the Asian congee which is eaten. As kids, whenever my mother would cook rice, she would half fill two glasses of the boiled rice water when straining it and give it to my brother and I to drink. The water would be slightly salty and always have grains of rice floating in it. Traditionally, congee is served with something on the side as it is very plain (for Indian palates at least). In Goa it is served with a spicy mango pickle or dried fish. In Kerala the congee is garnished with freshly grated coconut and eaten with lemon pickle on the side and any dry vegetable mixed with coconut (known as varavu).
Decorative rice - Just when you think you have heard it all when it comes to the uses of rice, we’ve got another one up our sleeve. Rice is used in the preparation of rangoli - a colourful art form which usually decorates the doorsteps or courtyards in a home. The term rangoli derives from Sanskrit and means ‘the expression of artistic vision’. The rice is coloured and beautiful patterns and designs are hand-made (traditionally by the lady of the house) to decorate the home, especially around festive periods. Rangoli can also be made using coloured powders and flower petals.
There you have it - some of the main uses of rice in India, though far from all the uses. Have we missed anything? Comment below and let us know.