A foreigner visited the Philippines, tried the local cuisine and wrote in his blog how amazed he was at the ceremony with which we serve our rice — and he was just commenting on a restaurant practice of shaping rice in a small bowl and inverting it onto a plate.
What he probably didn’t know is just how many ways we eat our rice. We boil rice with water and serve it alongside just about any viand. We fry day-old rice, often with lots of toasted garlic bits, and serve it with our staple fish or meat and egg combo for breakfast. We simmer rice in broth until the grains turn mushy and the mixture turns thick and we have our lugaw, a popular midday snack. We grind rice, mix it with coconut milk and sugar, and we have countless sweet delicacies in the form of suman and kalamay that we enjoy as snack or dessert. In some parts of the country, rice is dry toasted then brewed to make a coffee-like beverage.
And what the tourist probably knew even less is just how many varieties of rice we have in the Philippines. Even I get confused sometimes. We have labels like wagwag, laon, sinandomeng, denorado, milagrosa, malagkit… And those are just the Philippine labels for white rice. When we add red and brown rice to the list, it grows much, much longer. And when we consider more varieties raised and sold in the entire Asian region, we have a list with names and classifications that may require a degree in agriculture to decipher and understand.
We Asians love our rice, no doubt, and that’s why with every sign of shortage, the population panics. I know a lot of Filipinos who just can’t seem to make the shift from rice to bread or noodles. It’s not the same, they say. Personally, I like variety in the carbs in my diet. I like shifting from rice to bread to noodles and back as it makes carbs less monotonous.
Even with the way we eat rice in the house, we observe variety — in cooking methods, in seasonings, in colors, flavors and textures. We try to go beyond the usual and have discovered that a bowl of rice is even more satisfying when cooked a certain way and served with certain dishes. Here are a few examples:
White rice with mussel or clam broth
We discovered this after adding too much water when cooking mussel soup. Not wanting the ginger-flavored broth to go to waste, we used it to cook rice and the result was pretty addictive. For months, we practically bought mussels or clams every day so that the kids could have their fix of shellfish-flavored rice.
Glutinous rice with turmeric and coconut milk
Inspired by a recipe I found in a Malaysian cookbook, glutinous rice is recommended for this rice dish. Soak the rice in water overnight and strain. Cook in a mixture of coconut milk (start with a 1:1 ratio as the rice is already swelled up with water after the soaking), finely grated turmeric, chopped onion and a tablespoonful of peppercorns. Add some salt for flavor and serve with salty fish like tuyo or tinapa.
Rice with garlic, onion and basil
If you love garlic fried rice, let me assure you that there is a way to make it even better. Pour cooking oil in a wok or frying pan. Add some finely chopped garlic, onion and Thai basil. Cook over medium-low heat until the garlic and onion bits start to brown. Add day-old rice and salt. Cook, stirring, until the rice is heated through.
Inspired by the herbed rice at the Vieux Chalet Swiss Inn in Antipolo, this heady rice is not recommended to go with stews but is best served with lightly flavored fish and seafood dishes. It is very similar to the rice with garlic, onion and basil above but starts with a lower cooking temperature and requires more herbs too. Pour a couple of tablespoonfuls of olive oil in a pan and, over low heat, gently cook chopped garlic, onion and your favorite herb combination. You can really get creative here. Try Thai basil, Vietnamese cilantro and mint; rosemary and dill; thyme and tarragon… Or you can even use the herbs and spices that make up classics like bouquet garni, fines herbes or herbes de Provence. The trick is to gently and patiently cook the herbs and spices to allow them to disperse their flavors into the oil. Then, you add day-old rice and salt, and cook until the rice is heated through.
And those are just a few ways to get creative with rice. With common ingredients and simple cooking methods, there’s no reason why you have to limit your daily family menu to boiled rice and fried rice with toasted garlic. Explore the possibilities and discover just how versatile rice can be.