Make Rice Not War is my call to rice lovers to open their minds to different ways of cooking rice other than their own. It’s a celebration of the diversity of rice dishes and the countless ways rice is cooked around the world. It’s intended to inspire curiosity in how others cook rice in their homes, on the streets, in restaurants, and in communities, in their countries of origin and adoption, and in diasporas around the world.
Make Rice Not War is my message of peace to rice lovers around the world who believe their way of steaming rice or frying rice – even measuring rice – is the only way and the right way of cooking rice, to put down their… um, fingers… pick up a pot, and try their hand at cooking rice dishes other than their own.
In my pursuit of peace, (rice) love and understanding, I reached out to 50 rice experts from around the world, including chefs (even an Iron Chef), street food cooks (one of whom happens to have a Michelin star), home cooks, cooking school instructors, cookbook authors, food writers, culinary guides, hosts of pop-ups, supper-clubs and market stalls, and even an ex-MasterChef contestant or two (yes, ‘That Rendang Lady’!) to share their favourite 50 rice dishes and rice cooking tips.
But before I share their 50 rice dishes, advice, anecdotes and stories, from everywhere from Africa to Australia – where our Aboriginal peoples have been cooking native rice for thousands of years; archaeologists have unearthed grinding stones dating to 12-15,000 years – Indonesia to India, the UK to the UAE, let me tell you how this came about and why I’m on a mission to share the rice love around the world.
*Make Rice Not War is a play on Make Love Not War, which, for those of you too young to remember, was an anti-war slogan of the hippie movement of the 1960s that appeared on placards and buttons during anti-Vietnam protests. #MakeRiceNotWar seemed an apt rallying cry for 2020.
Make Rice Not War – A Celebration of Rice Dish Diversity to Inspire Curiosity and Connection
To ask “how are you?” in much of Asia is to ask someone if they’ve eaten yet and specifically “have you eaten rice?”. “Sok sa-bai teh? Nahm bai?” my Khmer-speaking friends ask me here in Cambodia, where I’ve lived for seven years. ‘Bai’ means rice. “Sok sa-bai! Nahm bai,” I respond cheerily, as if to say: I’m good, I’ve eaten, I’m happy. Rice equals happiness here in Cambodia, as it does in much of Southeast Asia, where there’s rarely a meal without rice.
But my friend, Sokin Nou, a 24-year-old tour guide specialising in Cambodian archaeology, history and food, was not happy when she messaged me one late July morning with a link to a viral YouTube video and a “have you seen this?” Everyone in Asia appeared to have seen Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng’s review of British-Indian BBC food presenter Hersha Patel’s egg fried rice.
Playing a know-it-all armchair critic called ‘Uncle Roger’, Ng gave Patel’s egg fried rice cooking demo a brutal critique. According to Uncle Roger, Patel was doing it all wrong. She didn’t start with leftover rice, she measured the rice with a cup not her finger, she boiled it rather than steamed it in a rice cooker, she drained it with a colander, and she fried it in a non-stick pan instead of a wok.
“Now, the rice stinky like you!” Uncle Roger bellowed at the screen when Patel didn’t rinse her rice to remove the starch before boiling it. “Where you learn how to make rice? Some white people cooking school or something?” Ng’s growing number of fans agreed with Uncle Roger, with the likes increasing by the thousands each day – along with the hateful comments on Patel’s social media accounts.
Not everyone was a fan of Uncle Roger, however, and nor was it clear to those unfamiliar with the comic that he was playing a character and it was meant to be funny. Sure, we can all relate to that bossy uncle who turns up to the family barbecue and tells you that you should have used wood instead of charcoal, that the heat wasn’t hot enough, that you underdid the steaks – yet not once did he pick up a pair of tongs. But humour doesn’t travel as well as food.
“I don’t like the way he did that to her,” Sokin confessed. “I didn’t find anything wrong with her cooking.” A lot of Cambodian women, young and old, seemed to agree, and when a Cambodian woman tells me something to do with food, I listen. I’ve been researching and writing a Cambodian cookbook and culinary history for seven years, interviewing and observing Cambodian cooks and documenting their recipes.
Cambodians know their rice. Cambodian rice is frequently voted the world’s best and much of that rice is grown by small farmers. Rice paddies are practically in people’s backyards, so the woman dishing up your fried rice or rice noodles at a village market stall may well have planted that rice, harvested it, dried it out in the sun on the road in front of their house (if you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ve got that photo), milled it, made it into rice flour, rice noodles and rice cakes, and stored the rest of it to last the family until the next rice season.
“Rice is life,” Sokin once told me with a wide smile, as we stood at the edge of a gorgeous, lush rice field, set against a backdrop of lofty sugar palm trees. I’ll never forget that morning. We were watching a family, mostly women, knee-deep in muddy water, while they re-planted young rice, the shade of fresh limes.
The ladies were working under an already-scorching early-morning sun – and it’s backbreaking work, I’ve tried it. They wore mismatched floral pyjamas, tucked into rubber rain-boots, and colourful, floppy, crocheted sun-hats. They were joking, giggling and laughing. Rice is life in Cambodia. Rarely fought over or argued about, rice brings people together.
Rice is like a mother, an old Khmer proverb goes. Eaten at home, markets, and on the streets, for breakfast as borbor (rice porridge), lunch as bai char (fried rice), in desserts and drinks, rice nourishes, sustains, comforts, connects, and cheers – at all stages of its life, planting, harvesting, cooking, and eating.
Rice is made to be shared. It’s placed in a big pot on the table, an array of dishes surrounding it. Everything else is an accompaniment to rice. A mountain of rice is heaped onto each plate and everyone helps themselves to a little of everything else. Rice is always at the centre of a shared family meal and there are few meals without rice in Cambodia.
Cambodian cuisine is one of Southeast Asia’s oldest, having influenced the cuisines of neighbouring countries, as much as those countries have influenced Cambodian food. The Khmer Empire (802-1431 AD) was one of Southeast Asia’s greatest, with stupendous temple cities with hospitals and universities. It relied on a sophisticated hydraulic system of canals and dams to produce two rice harvests a year.
At its peak, the Khmer Empire ruled over most of present-day Thailand, Laos, Southern Vietnam, and Northern Malaysia from its centre at Angkor near Siem Reap. Rice was very much a part of everyday life, as the journals of travellers and bas-reliefs on the temple walls tell us. However, the neolithic Khmer civilisation of Snay was also very sophisticated.
Along with bronze ornaments, jewellery, weapons, and agricultural tools, archaeologists unearthed countless bronze ladles and cooking spoons, and hundreds of highly decorative ceramic cooking vessels, including clay pots that were very similar to the clay pots that are still used to boil rice in the villages and countryside of Cambodia these days.
While ‘Uncle Roger’ might be relieved to know that most urban Cambodians in cities and towns would use a rice cooker to steam their rice these days – most also use leftover steamed rice to make fried rice, stir-fried in a wok – some 80% of Cambodians live in the countryside, most are poor, many don’t have electricity, and those who don’t probably wouldn’t have a refrigerator or rice cooker. Rice will be cooked as it’s always been cooked, boiled in a big pot on an open fire outside or in a clay rice-cooking vessel on a traditional brazier, using the absorption method, where the rice absorbs all the water.
In Ratanakiri and Modulkiri, indigenous tribes stuff rice into bamboo tubes which they grill over fire or nestle into coals. They also cook vegetables, stews and curries the same way. Right around Cambodia a delicious sweet rice snack called kralan is also made like this. Also worth noting: not all cooks in the countryside rinse their rice, especially if it’s their own organic rice from a paddy behind their home, grown without the use of pesticide, partly because rice starch provides much needed energy for a long day in the rice fields, and partly because to wash the rice is to wash away the aromas that ‘Uncle Roger’ calls “stinky”.
While rice in Cambodia is cooked much the same way it’s cooked across Southeast Asia and Southern China, where rice is a staple, rice is also a staple in other parts of the world, where rice is steamed, boiled, par-boiled, braised, baked, and buried in the earth, depending on the kind of rice used and the rice dish being cooked.
In India, you have biryani, pulao, sakkarai pongal, pulihoria, khichdi, and curd rice. In Iran, you’ll find tahdig, tahchin, gheyman nesar, and all the ‘polos’. In the Middle East, there’s kabsa, mathlotha, mumawwash, machboos, and mansaf. In Africa, you’ve got geelrys, waakye, cabidella, thieboudienne, and jollofs in virtually every country. In the Americas, arroz chaufa, arroz carreteiro, baião, juane, jambalaya. And in the ’Stans and Russia, there are pilafs and plovs. And then there’s Europe.
A ‘plov’ is a pilaf and it also happens to be Russia’s favourite rice dish. Growing up in Western Sydney in Australia in the 1970s, my family would gather around my Russian grandparents dining table on Sunday afternoons, where baboushka’s wonderfully aromatic lamb rice pilaf occasionally made an appearance alongside cabbage rolls stuffed with spiced mince and rice, drenched in a tomato sauce, big bowls of potato and cheese dumplings, pelmeni and vareniki, with sour cream, pink potato beetroot salad, dill pickles, salamis, boiled eggs with caviar, and plenty of papa’s homemade vodka.
Russian food is part of my cultural identity, as the daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter of post-World War Two Russian refugees from Ukraine, who learnt to make Russian food in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens. But so too is Australia’s beautiful produce, especially seafood, fruit and vegetables, thanks to grandparents who were farmers and market gardeners, parents with green thumbs who could grow anything, and the summer holidays of my childhood spent running between tomato vines, chasing chickens, fishing from beaches and boats, and gathering oysters from lakes. My allegiance to the Sydney rock oyster will never waver.
The many cuisines of my multicultural roots, which I’ve been eating for more than half a century, are also part of that identity. I grew up in Sydney’s multicultural western suburbs of Parramatta, Blacktown and Lidcombe, where my young playmates had recently arrived from Lebanon, Turkey and Vietnam, or were of Russian, Irish, Greek, and Italian heritage; where my parents cooked Chinese food one night, Indian the next, Italian or French the night after, and the kitchen cupboards were crammed with everything from dry spices to soya sauces, pickles and mustards.
It was the 1970s after all, when Australia’s first Thai and Lebanese restaurants opened – there’d long been a Chinese restaurant in every suburb and almost every country town across Australia, and my parents religiously took us out for Chinese dinners on Thursdays after ‘late night shopping’ – Don Dunstan’s cookbook was released with its French, Italian, Greek, Indian, and Malay recipes, and the first Australian Women’s Weekly Cookbook launched, both of which reflected the multicultural cooking of cosmopolitan Australians at the time.
That original 1970 Australian Women’s Weekly Cookbook, which became the cooking bible for many Australian women, contained recipes for the likes of Chinese braised pork ribs, Burmese chicken curry, tabbouleh, plenty of Indonesian dishes, from sambal goreng udang and sate kambing to serundeng and goreng bawang, and loads of French and Italian recipes. It also had lots of very Anglo recipes for tripe, brains, livers, kidneys, giblets, knuckles, and ox tongue, along with plenty of rice recipes.
There were recipes for steamed rice, oven-steamed rice, fluffy boiled rice, a pilaf, simple risotto, nasi goreng, and, of course, Chinese fried rice (with long grain rice, pork, ham, prawns, shallots and soy sauce), along with rice salads, and rice desserts that were favourites of the time, such as creamed rice, baked rice pudding, and a banana cream pie made with rice. Rice in all its forms and countless dishes featured heavily in my childhood, and would remain very much a part of my life.
In the mid-1980s my well-travelled uncle who had backpacked all over Asia during the 1970s introduced my 18-year-old self to the breadth and depth of Asian cuisines after I moved into his Glebe flat when I started university in Sydney. Several nights a week we’d dine out on Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian. After Terence moved to Sydney, he’d joined us, and after Terence and I moved in together into a Balmain terrace house basement, we’d cook dishes from different cuisines every night.
When we Terence and I ate out, at least a few times a week, we did as all our food-loving friends did at the time, and we worked our way through the Cheap Eats guidebooks, which launched in 1986, and were jam-packed with what were termed ‘ethnic’ restaurants 34 years ago, offering everything from Argentinian to Ethiopian.
For our generation, it was completely normal in the 1980s and 1990s to go for a French or Moroccan café breakfast, tuck into a bowl of Singapore laksa or Japanese ramen for lunch in Chinatown, pick up some Malaysian or Thai takeaway after work, head out for Spanish tapas after a mid-week movie, go for Korean on Friday nights with friends, and celebrate birthdays at a Turkish restaurant with post-cake belly-dancing.
During the same period, Australian chefs of our generation and the generation before were developing a new style of fusion cuisine that we at first called Modern Australian or ‘Mod Oz’ that came naturally to chefs with similar upbringings to my own – chefs who reached into a pantry that had fish sauce next to the Vegemite, chefs who came from a country that sent its soldiers off to the Boer war in 1898 with tins of Keen’s Curry Powder included among their rations. Established in Tasmania in the 1850s, for a while Keen’s Curry Powder was more Australian than Vegemite, which wasn’t invented until 1922.
What we cook and eat is part of my cultural identity, and your identity, and the identities of all the Hersha Patel haters who couldn’t overlook her not washing her rice and draining it in a colander. We are what we eat, or as Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1826 Physiologie du Gout ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”. Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are. While the phrase was adopted by nutritionists in the 1930s to encourage better eating, change the ‘what’ to ‘who’ and we’re talking about identity.
It’s that inextricable link between identity and what we cook and eat that gets people so worked up about food. While my friend Sokin Nou wasn’t fussed about how Hersha cooked her rice – which apparently wasn’t her rice recipe, but one provided by the BBC – millions of people were vexed, even outraged, by what they perceived as Patel’s crimes against rice, or rather, their way of cooking rice.
These are momentous times that we live in. A global pandemic has killed one million people* around the world. The planet is on the brink of climate catastrophe. Many countries are in recession. Everything is uncertain. With businesses ruined, jobs gone, careers curtailed, loved-ones lost, and the futures we dreamt and envisaged for ourselves in doubt, even our identities are unstable.
Which goes some way to explain why we are all clinging so tightly onto the things that we can, the things that really matter to us – our memories, stories, history, heritage, rituals, traditions, culture, and culinary culture – and why some get so upset by how other people cook rice.
The thing is – which comes through in the rice dishes shared in the next post – we are all more same same than different. Let’s not let a little thing, like how someone cooks rice, divide us. Let’s be curious and inspired and share and connect instead. Let’s make rice, not war x
*As at publication on 29 September 2020.
P.S. If you haven’t kept up with the ‘Uncle Roger’ and ‘Aunty Hersha’ rice war, Hersha took off her colander and ‘Uncle Roger’ took his feet off the chair and they’ve since become friends.