By itself, rice is a pretty simple grain. But in South Florida, rice rises to a heightened importance, thanks to the multitude of cultures that use it in different roles.
In some cultures, rice is a side dish. In others, it’s the main event at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Others still consider the grain a luxury, a delicacy.
Here, we talk with several South Floridians about what rice means to them.
Maria Teresa de Arango learned how to make coconut rice when she was 10 years old, from her aunt who lived in Cartagena, Colombia.
“We didn’t make it as much, but when we did it was — whoa! Very special,” said Arango, who is from Bogota. “When we went to the coast, we would eat it every day.”
Arroz de coco was more common in Cartagena because of the abundance of coconut trees there. In Miami, Arango only makes the dish once or twice a month.
She sprinkles raisins over a steaming pan of rice. The smell of brown sugar and coconut lingers in the air as she puts the finishing touches on her arroz de coco.
“It’s a hard and long [recipe] to make. Sometimes I find the titote already made, so it is easier,” she said of the rice’s base, formed by reducing coconut milk.
With the liquid is reduced to coconut oil and browned bits, Arango pours in uncooked rice along with sugar and raisins and more coconut milk. She serves it as a side dish, with fish and tostones.
“This dish is different when you take it with your family, in your house, with your grandma, with your nephews,” she said. “This is the reason ... family.”
When Patricia Baptiste was growing up in Haiti, black mushroom rice, diri ak djon djon, meant guests were coming over. The dish is usually cooked for special occasions, like communions and baptisms, among other gatherings.
“We could eat [rice] three times a day, different ways,” Baptiste said. “We eat it as pudding in the morning... for dinner, you eat [it] with beans and fish.”
Rice is an integral part of Haitian culture. It’s part of almost every meal and is the usually the main dish.
“We don’t feel like we’ve eaten if we don’t have our rice,” she said.
To prepare her rice, Baptiste soaks dehydrated black mushrooms in water and sets them aside. She then slices and peels all of her vegetables, keeping them sorted in wooden bowls on the counter.
After that, she adds crushed garlic and scallions to sizzling oil. She stirs until the mixture is golden brown, then adds lima beans, tomatoes, cashews, parsley and salted pork to the mix.
The black mushrooms are the most important ingredient, giving the rice its dark color. Baptiste finds that the imported Haitian mushrooms are readily available in South Florida.
Baptiste didn’t learn how to cook until she came to the United States. Cooking helped her feel like she was at home.
“I started cooking when I came here,” she said. “I never used to cook at home. I feel like I’m home because I have to cook my Haitian food.”
For Ricardo Gutierrez, red rice is a side dish that takes him back to different stages of his life. As he eats, he remembers his past like a movie playing in his mind.
If he eats it with scrambled eggs, it reminds him of his childhood. If he mixes it with tuna, it takes him back to his teenage years when he wanted something quick to eat. And when he mixes it with chicken soup, it reminds him of how his mom cared for him when he was sick.
“I think the red rice is higher quality than white rice,” he said. “And we mix it with mole poblano and chicken.”
Like Baptiste, Gutierrez rinses his rice before cooking it.
First he fries garlic in oil in a pan, then adds the rice to until it takes on a golden color. At the same time, Gutierrez puts tomatoes, onions and garlic inside the blender to prepare the sauce.
“I don't know why they call [it] red rice,” he said, “because it’s actually orange.”
Once he mixes the sauce in the rice, he adds a secret ingredient brought from Mexico: tomato-flavored chicken bouillon. It gives the rice its salty flavor.
He lets the rice cook for ten minutes without stirring. During this process, Gutierrez always thinks of his mom, because he learned to cook from her.
After moving from Mexico City to Miami, Ricardo Gutierrez suffered from severe food nostalgia. He says in his country, eating is part of the culture.
“It’s like two, three hours of happiness when you find the flavors that you remember when you were young or with your family in Mexico.”
Visit wlrn.org for an audio report of this story.
Arroz Rojo (Red Rice)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup uncooked rice
2 cloves garlic
1/3 medium onion
3 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons chicken bouillon or salt to taste
2 carrots, cut into pieces
Heat oil in a skillet. When the oil is hot, add rice and 1 garlic clove, stirring occasionally to make sure no pieces burn. As the rice toasts, place in a blender the other garlic clove, onion, 2 cups water, tomatoes and chicken bouillon. Blend for 30 seconds, then strain into a small bowl.
Once the rice gets golden in color, add the strained sauce and the chopped carrots. When the sauce begins to simmer, add remaining 1 1/2 cups water, reduce heat to medium, cover and let cook about 10 minutes, until water is evaporated. Remove rice from heat, and fluff with a fork before serving.
Source: Ricardo Gutierrez.
Arroz de Coco (Coconut Rice)
6 cups water
4 tablespoons brown sugar
2 pounds uncooked, thick-grain rice
2 tablespoons salt
Cut coconut into small pieces, discarding the brown parts. In a blender, mix coconut pieces with two cups of warm water, and blend for 30 seconds. Strain and squeeze the coconut liquid, reserving the liquid and the shredded coconut.
Place the strained liquid in a sauce pan with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. Boil until liquid evaporates and all that remains is coconut oil and black grains, called titote. Add remaining 4 cups water to shredded coconut, then strain and squeeze again. Add that coconut liquid to the pan with the oil and titote, then add rice, remaining sugar and salt and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to medium and cook for 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and let rice sit, covered, for 5-10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.
Notes: Raisins can be added to the rice once the mixture begins to boil. Titote can be found in some ethnic markets and grocery stores.
Source: Maria Teresa de Arango.