Rice deserves more than three whistles. All through the pandemic, the glutinous grains have kept meals, conversations, schedules, composures, families and economies from falling apart. Humans have been cultivating rice for close to 12,000 years – it’s the staple food for at least half the world. But in the last few months, almost without anybody noticing, it’s become something of a superstar.
“The lockdown changed the way we cook,” says Nandita Iyer, the writer behind the popular food blog, Saffrontrail. “We used to have breakfast on the run, lunch at the workplace or school, and dinner at home. Now, everyone’s home all day, every day, for all three meals. Six months in, even those who enjoyed cooking probably see it as a chore.”
This is where rice has come to the rescue. “It’s the simplest thing to put on the table,” Iyer says. “With roti or bread, you have to prepare something to eat it with. Rice allows for a variety of one-dish meals. Feeding a rice-eater is the easiest thing to do.”
And even when people outsource the cooking (order in, that is), rice is the default option. Biryani has topped food-delivery company Swiggy’s annual list of the year’s most-ordered foods since they started releasing records three years ago. Until March, during the evening order rush, India would order 95 biryanis a minute – chicken, mutton, egg, and various meatless (can they even be called biryani?) versions. Between end-March and end-July, the first four months of the lockdown, Swiggy claimed to have delivered 5.5 lakh biryanis.
On America’s Uber Eats Cravings Report for the lockdown, also released in July, rice appeared twice among the top 10 unexpected food combos (with white sauce, and with applesauce). That it made the list at all is unexpected. The average American eats 12 kg of rice annually; the average Asian, in comparison, polishes off 136 kg.
Writer and food columnist Vir Sanghvi chalks it down to a different reason. “It’s been the season of takeaways, and in the West, a large part of that is Japanese, Chinese and Indian food – cuisines that involve rice,” he says. “You can order a sandwich but you can’t keep it for the next day. With rice, you can eat three spoons and save the rest for the next meal.”
Except, no one really eats three spoons, do they? Rice is among the world’s most enduring comfort foods.
“It’s warm, soft and has a nurturing quality,” says Iyer. It might explain why it’s fed to children as soon as they start on solid foods, and why we never quite forget the taste. It’s probably why we crave it when we travel abroad, or seek it out on a stressful day. And because it fills us up cheaply, rice-growing communities around the world pile on the servings. “For much of India, meat and fish were and still are out for reach for everyday meals,” Iyer says. “Our diet is very carbohydrate-rich. We’re programmed to like rice.”
Ajit Bhaskar, a chemical engineer who chronicles his kitchen experiences on Instagram as @macroajit, tries to explain our love of the grain.
All through the pandemic, the glutinous grains have kept meals, conversations, schedules, composures, families and economies from falling apart.
“Polished white rice, once the husk and endosperm covering is removed, has no base flavour,” he says. “Unlike millets or even wheat, there’s none of the nuttiness that might have interfered with the flavours of the accompanying dish. You can pound and ferment it for dosas and sannas, use it to steam modaks, make rotis, put it into everything from breakfast to dessert. We really take its versatility for granted.”
But we also feel strongly about it. Consider the recent global uproar over an innocuous BBC Food video involving the ‘proper’ way to cook rice. In April 2019, presenter Harsha Patel demonstrated an egg fried rice recipe that called for washing and draining rice in a colander after cooking, rather than before. No one blinked an eye. But when Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng posted a reaction video in his online avatar as Uncle Roger this July, locked down rice-eating netizens exploded. The wave of hate and horror surprised both Ng and Patel, who collaborated on a separate video in August, explaining how rice-cooking traditions vary around the world. It’s had more than 2 million views.
“As someone who tried making chapatis in the lockdown, I know that rice is much simpler to get right,” says Kainaz Contractor, chef-partner at Delhi restaurants Rustom’s and Bhawan.
TOP OF THE CROP
“You can order a sandwich but you can’t keep it for the next day. With rice, you can eat three spoons and save the rest for the next meal,” says Vir Sanghvi. Except, no one really eats three spoons, do they?
That explains the burst of rice-related stories in the Western press these past few months. Slow-fermenting sourdough dominated Instagram, but when it came to throwing together a quick meal for the evening’s dinner, everyone wanted rice. On Pop Sugar, model Chrissy Teigen’s recipe for sweet and salty coconut rice in May was merely an outcome of her viral rice-meal posts on Instagram. In an August issue of The New Yorker, writer Bill Buford describes how the French make rice, with an ode to the baked Lyonnais rice pilaf. “It achieves a surprisingly delicate puffy texture, as if it has been gently but moistly roasted,” he writes. As recently as late September, the UK’s Telegraph was proclaiming, “fluffy, fragrant rice topped with buttery, spicy mushrooms,” as the ultimate autumn comfort food.
In Food & Wine magazine in August, restaurant editor Khushbu Shah wrote about finding home and healing in a familiar Indian dish. Her headline: When the World Makes No Sense, I Eat Yogurt Rice. Nearly every major publication has put out a rice recipe in the lockdown. Bon Appetit has fried rice pancakes (using leftovers). The Guardian’s Isol-Asian cooking section features Chinese Billionaire Fried Rice (featuring costly dried scallops).
It’s no surprise that a shake-up of global proportions is causing us to eat differently. Europeans ate differently before the Black Death arrived by infected ships in 1347. Vegetables were for lowly peasants, ale was safer than water, and noblemen sat down to rich banquets of wild bird, veal and exotic flavourings. By the time the bubonic plague died out in 1353, having killed between 75 and 200 million, Europeans were eating simpler foods course by course so as not to spread infections or upset their systems.
The influenza pandemic of 1918 created food shortages in several cities. Doctors prescribed comfort foods then as well: rich soups, porridge, milk and toast.
The Instant Pot, America’s game-changing kitchen gadget of the 2010s, made rice cooking . And it’s birthed a community of advice-swapping fans and thousands of set-it-and-forget-it cookbooks.
Perhaps the pandemic merely brought to a boil, a trend that had been simmering this past decade. Robert Wang’s invention, the Instant Pot, an electric pressure cooker that can also be used to steam, sauté and make yoghurt, has been America’s game-changing kitchen gadget of the 2010s.
It’s made rice cooking foolproof — regardless of grain variety, preparation and experience. And it’s birthed a community of advice-swapping fans and thousands of set-it-and-forget-it cookbooks.
Google data shows that searches for the cooker increased more than 1,000% in the lockdown, as more at-home cooks found time to hone new skills. On the site’s blog, How to Cook Perfect Rice is the most popular post. Bloggers, no longer intimidated by the grain, are going all-out, concocting recipes for fish biryanis and vegan teriyaki.
“Rice hasn’t quite made it to upmarket American and European restaurant menus yet,” notes Sanghvi. “In a meat and potato culture, it’s still seen as an ethnic cuisine ingredient.”
That might well change too. In Harlem, New York, a tiny year-old restaurant called FieldTrip has been trying something new. The counter-serve eatery describes itself as a “Community-driven rice bowl shop that celebrates culture through the shared experience of rice”. This means a short menu of one-bowl preparations from around the world – from gumbo to jollof to fried rice – made with five varieties of heirloom rice grains.
To those who’ve cooked through the lockdown, FieldTrip’s ethos, embodied on a wall sign, will come as no surprise: Rice is culture.