Wide world of rice in K-W restaurants highlights globally eaten food
Grain eaten by billions has versatile use in global panorama of dishes
From sushi to paella, rice is a basic food for many people around the world.
While it nourishes billions and can have traditional and ritualistic importance (good luck, for instance), we can simply eat it for its flavour and the unique ingredients for which it forms a foundation.
And you can find examples of all that right here in Waterloo region, whether it's jasmine, basmati or Arborio varieties.
Drop by just about any restaurant and you'll find rice in its Italian, Spanish, Indian and Chinese iterations: Sicilian arancini with a tomato gravy are food-truck staples, and classic dishes such as risotto Milanese with saffron, like that found at Kitchener's Italian-inspired Del Dente.
Restaurants specializing in Chinese dim sum, the little snacks we order with pen and paper, serve a sticky, glutinous rice wrapped in a lotus leaf; the heady, earthy aroma arrives before the dish gets to the table and you dig in to find "treasures" of pork and shrimp.
It's available at Cameron Seafood in Kitchener and Crystal Palace in Uptown Waterloo, among a host of other venues too numerous to name here.
Rice appears in kitchens that specialize in Thai and Laotian cooking, too. MiMo Kitchen in Waterloo serves a delicious Thai fried rice that includes shrimp and cashews.
Choun Kitchen in Hespeler prepares a Thai-influenced rice, according to chef-owner Bobby Chounramany, adding that high heat and flame are essential for the best flavour.
"It's a street-style fried rice," he says. "The oil in the wok has to be super hot so when the vegetables get tossed in it creates a flame for about five seconds, giving it the perfect amount of heat to cook and also char the veg to give it a smoky flavour."
Choun also serves nam kao, a crispy rice salad with pork.
Rice is also served at breakfast in many countries such as China, India, Cambodia and Korea: check out congee, a thin rice-based "porridge" that is eaten in Asian countries. Examples that I have enjoyed are found at Jia Jia Lok on King Street near Wilfrid Laurier University and Crystal Palace.
At her thrice-weekly pop-up on Hurst Avenue, Rosel DeGuzman, who was born in the Philippines, says she grew up with rice and acknowledges the importance of the foodstuff to the culture. She makes pineapple-fried rice and garlic fried rice as well as coconut sticky rice.
"At home, we ate rice five times a day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and sometimes for snacks. Coming to Canada was different because here it's bread. I found that I needed rice when I came here," she says.
Paul Boehmer, chef and owner of Waterloo's Bhima's Warung, notes the significant role that rice plays in food and culture.
"Rice plays a huge part of most Asian cultures, but in particular in Bali where Sri Dewi, the goddess of rice and fertility, is the most important and revered god. Rice is raised to a heavenly status," Boehmer says. "I prefer sticky rice done perfectly. Nasi kuning, a yellow coconut rice is good."
He says there are different Balinese words for rice seed, rice that's growing, rice that has been harvested but not yet cooked, and rice that has been cooked.
"That took me a while to figure out," he says, adding the restaurant has also prepared nasi ulam, a northern Malay rice with a good amount of shredded herbs and spices added at the last minute.
Central American rice
Central American rices are found in many dishes and often seasoned with annatto, which creates a rich reddish-orange colour in the jasmine rice. Genesis Restaurant and Latinoamerica Unida are Cambridge examples.
At Waterloo's Taco Farm, the kitchen uses basmati rice, not typically Central American, because of the way it cooks for service. They add caramelized garlic, charred-tomato salsa, lime juice and the liquid from the pickled jalapenos that they make.
"The acidity and the subtle touch of heat give this rice a unique flavour," says owner Nick Benninger.
At Bogda Restaurant in Waterloo, the menu focuses on Uyghur dishes (those found in the autonomous Xinjiang region in northwest China), including what owner and chef Rahila David calls a pilau — a rice dish simply prepared with carrots, onions and raisins and served with roasted lamb.
Rice bowls and bibimbap like those at Waterloo's Aroma Cafe and Taste of Seoul in Kitchener, respectively, are other classic rice dishes; the former is made with kimchi and gochujang; the latter features the wonderful nurungji crunchy-crisp rice on the bottom.
Hakka cuisine blends Indian and Chinese flavours and techniques; check out Hakka Hut in Cambridge for Manchurian fried rice, which is cooked in a high flame with spicy Szechuan seasoning.
One of my all-time favourites is arroz de mariscos, the Portuguese rice and seafood dish. It's not on the menu at Kitchener's Algarve Restaurant on Stirling Avenue at Courtland, but if you call them and order it they will prepare it for you: it's for two people.
Suffice it to say that in many ways and in many cultures, rice is the great equalizer: nothing in the fridge is off limits, according to Chounramany at Choun.
"Growing up as kids our grandma, grandpa, our mom, dad and aunts and uncles were making rice for us," he says. "It's a quick go-to meal, but it's always different because fried rice is like a casserole. It's whatever is in the fridge that gets tossed in."
Basic fried rice at home
This recipe is flexible and is only a guide: make fried rice using ingredients that you've got on hand. It can have protein, such as leftover chicken or pork, or not. Don't be afraid to experiment: you're not going to break anything! The amounts and measurements in this recipe aren't important, so cook and adjust to your taste.
- ½ white onion, chopped
- Spices to taste
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- ½ carrot, finely chopped
- ¼ cup red pepper, chopped
- ¼ cup green pepper, chopped
- fresh ginger, grated
- 2-3 cups cooked and cold rice
- sesame oil
- soy sauce
- 1-2 eggs, beaten (depending on how eggy you want it)
- 1 green onion, thinly sliced on the bias
- sesame seeds
- Add some vegetable oil to a pan and heat it on medium-high.
- Toss in the onion and cook just until soft. Add whatever spices you like and toast them a bit.
- Add the garlic, but be careful it doesn't burn. Throw in the vegetables and cook, then add the ginger.
- Cook for a few minutes. Add the rice and turn the heat to high. Stir and toss to combine.
- Add sesame oil and soy to taste.
- Make a space in the centre of the pan and pour in the beaten egg. Stir egg vigorously, then combine and toss with the other ingredients.
- At the last minute, add the green onion slices, reserving a few for garnish. To serve, place in a bowl, add green onion garnish and sprinkle with sesame seeds.