There are many pieces of iconography, if you will, that I associate with my Nana’s house. One constant that was always in her refrigerator was a gray, nondescript container of store-bought rice pudding; the containers — emptied and cleaned and used as storage vessels for various detritus — were also all throughout the apartment. I’m not certain if I even knew what rice pudding was in those days, but I knew of its existence, its presence, the fact that it was always there. I didn’t eat it then, though.
Fast-forward to my college years, when my “big brother” in my fraternity absolutely, truly cherished rice pudding. It resulted in lots of barbs and jabs from friends, lots of questioning about why a twenty-something college student would eat rice pudding — a dish often derided as being so decidedly un-hip and “old”— so often, but I thought it was a fun little quirk and so I’d pick up little containers in the dining hall for him here and there.
But rice pudding still hadn’t captured me yet.
Sometime within the past decade, though, rice pudding has become a mainstay for me.
From individual delivery dessert containers to large, supermarket buckets, I can make my way through rice pudding with aplomb and deep satisfaction. I love the viscosity, the way the grains remain separate though the dish is a verifiable “pudding,” the smattering of ground cinnamon atop . . . it’s all terrific. It’s also a pretty top-tier comfort food for a bummer of a day, a rainy day, what have you. (I also tend to eat my rice pudding with a little container of ground cinnamon, so I can continue to add more as I make my way through the bowl). For some time there, during COVID quarantine, I’d order the rice pudding from any restaurant that had it on the menu. At some point, I had a true mountain of takeout rice pudding containers stacked atop each other in my fridge.
A few Christmases ago, I opted to make a cardamom–coconut rice pudding pie of sorts. Truthfully, it didn’t look that great, but it tasted pretty darn terrific. Now, while my dad was the world’s biggest pudding fan, he didn’t necessarily love rice pudding or coconut (although he did love lots of coconut-filled chocolate candy bars). So I was pleasantly surprised when, over the holidays, he ate a few slices with gusto, plus some of the leftover rice pudding that I had stashed in a storage container and thrown into the fridge when it didn’t fit into the pie crust.
I was so pleased to see how much he enjoyed it — also because we were the only two people in the family to eat it whatsoever. Over the years, I made many a dish that no one else liked and forced myself to eat and then promptly discard the leftovers. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case this time.
Again, a point for rice pudding.
Much like someone might refer to a dish like congee as a comfort food, rice pudding is within that same frame of reference. Rice overall offers such a stability, a familiarity, a reliability: the toothsomeness of the grain, the way it’ll cook up and take on the flavors of whatever is added to the liquid, the fat that, at some point, it will break down from singular grains to some sort of indecipherable mush.
Rice is a treasure at large — but I wonder if rice pudding might actually be rice in its most powerful, elite form.
Rice pudding shares lots in common with oatmeal, from flavor profiles to texture — but I’d pick rice pudding any day. Interestingly enough, though, that oatmeal is generally regarded as a breakfast item whilst rice pudding is almost singularly a dessert?
Now, of course, oatmeal often sports nuts, seeds, dried fruits, extraneous sweeteners and what have you, but rice pudding has more of a simplicity. Maybe that’s why I’m such a fan. While some might throw in some raisins or currants or other garnishes or mix-ins, the best rice puddings need nothing more than rice, water, milk or cream, some sugar and lots and lots of cinnamon. There’s no reason for anything superfluous to gild the lily. Just those five ingredients yield something really special.
Something else that’s so special about rice pudding is its amazing universality. It is eaten in practically every country worldwide, with different flavor profiles and ingredients to accentuate the humble dish. From Lebanon and Turkey to Bengali and Thailand to Europe and Latin America, rice pudding is a staple in nearly every single culture — and for a good reason.
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As Sharon Benjamin writes in Gulf News, many countries would argue that rice pudding is “theirs.” Generally, though, it is assumed that India’s kheer, which supposedly traces its origins to 6000 BCE, might possibly be the victor of the very first rice pudding. Throughout the Middle East, rice pudding was also said to have a medicinal or digestive purpose beyond just the need for sustenance. No matter the origin or the purpose for eating it, though, the modest pudding’s legacy and importance is undisputed.
Now, though, rice is a potentially precarious resource, as climate change has resulted in destroyed, submerged rice paddies throughout India, the primary exporter of rice internationally. It’s said that rice prices will soon skyrocket, so you might want to buy some larger bags or bucketfuls in the meantime. as reported last month by Rhea Mogul, Vedika Sud and Sonia Farooqui in CNN.
No matter if you call it moghli, riz au lait, sholezard, firni, put chai ko or arroz con leche, rice pudding is a veritable comfort for all.
So no matter if you’re purchasing rice pudding in tiny, single-serve containers from a local diner, making your own at home or purchasing it by the vat-ful from your local supermarket, make sure you have enough ground cinnamon on hand. And thanks Nana and Garrett for introducing me to this dish, which, for some twenty-something years, I pretty much completely ignored. I’m glad that I’ve changed my tune ever since.
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