Come to think of it, another resource we have not exactly fully developed, or updated with new culinary trends is one that we have easy access to: rice, our staple grains, the one food we cannot do without, the commodity that makes or breaks Presidents in this country.
We’ve been eating rice all this time as a staple with viand on the side that we have not really used it to come up with new dishes. Of course, we now have the sushi, the Japanese rolled rice that we have slowly been adapting into our mainstream. There is also rice pilaf, another foreign influence, but then again this has its Pinoy equivalent in our kalo-kalo, or fried rice.
What I’m trying to say is, to this day, we continue to do rice the way our great grandmothers and maybe even their grandmothers before them, did and we can count them with our fingers: valenciana, arroz caldo, arroz ala cubana, ibus, but-ong…
For a national staple, we haven’t really done justice to rice, have we? We have kept it as a main dish to be made interesting by accompanying it with viands of meats or vegetables.
Yet, you can only imagine how much can be done with rice, given its versatility. I have been to humble homes where lunch is nothing but steaming hot, aromatic rice eaten with salt and crunchy langkawas. We all know how versatile our rice is, but you will never know how much until you get the chance to eat it as simply as this meal with langkawas. By itself, the hot rice was packed with subtle flavors; paired with salt and langkawas, it was an experience.
I also remember the old folks eating hot rice with a dollop of pork lard and dashes of rock salt locally called toltol. I remember being fascinated by the sleeping white lard slowly melting on top of the steaming rice. Flavored with the toltol, this was eaten by hand and no way else.
Another way to experience the versatility of our rice is with arroz caldo, which is basically just rice, onions, garlic, ginger and chicken bits boiled over time in chicken stock.
Even more interesting, and emphatic of the flavors of rice, is the vegetarian arroz caldo which does not use chicken: here you get to fully appreciate the full flavors of the rice alone.
A food trend that started a few years back are rice toppings, which is basically just the way we eat rice, except that the viand is already put on top, so the juices start coating the rice under. This has been served successfully by the Bacolod-based Chinese resto L’Sea, which uses its dimsum numbers to be paired with rice.
There are also food carts selling flavored rice with meat and vegetable bits, our kalo-kalo, if you please, glamorized by the way it is served as a mall food. Interestingly, they even come hot as this is heated before it is served.
A few years back, I went to this rice cooking festival in Bago city, where they had a competition among its barangays on the many ways of cooking with rice, to highlight the fact that this city is a rice granary. Out came all varieties of rice, white, brown, black.
What was stunning were the dishes they came up with: rice balls, rice wraps and rice pairings that all boiled down to one conclusion: there is still so much to be done with rice, and our culinary culture can only be richer with it.*