5 Countries

1 Ingredient

The cultural conections of rice cuisines

While the origins of rice cultivation are found mainly in Asia, today, this grain crop is a staple in most households around the world. On this page, you'll get to explore the similarities in countries previously colonized by Spain through a single ingredient: rice. Just as the Spanish came to a so-called "new world," these U.S. immigrants share their family recipes, along with their story.

Rice History Lesson

Rice was first domesticated in China near the Yangtze River around 10,000 years ago, according to Ricepedia.org . It was traded amongst the Arabs in the Middle East with the Indians. During the Age of Exploration, the Moors brought rice cultivation practices to Europe through the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in the 10th Century. Those practices later expanded to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean during the Spanish Colonization.

The Sierra Club does note that Native Americans had been harvesting wild rice before colonial times, but the conquistadors were the ones who implemented the cultivation of the crops. Wild rice is a completely different species from cultivated rice (Oryza sativa) and there are many varieties of both.

While rice is only grown and exported in certain countries, it's consumed in every part of the world ( except Antarctica ).

Like in most countries, rice serves as a main source of nutrients. And while it feeds billions of people every day, there are many ways to eat it. Passionate foodies from Spanish influenced countries share the recipes for rice dishes of their region.

If you hover your curser over the map below you can see what rice dish each highlighted country makes. If you're on a mobile device, click on one of the countries in yellow to visit that section.


Paella Valenciana (Spain)

Its original ingredients include rice, rabbit, chicken, snails, tabellas, lima beans, flat green beans, garlic, tomato, saffron, extra virgin olive oil, salt and rosemary (optional). But like many specialty foods, the ingredients can change depending on where the dish is cooked.

Paellas are usually made in the summer, and like a U.S. barbecue, it's made at celebrations with family and friends where you drink, eat, and talk. Having paella is a "social thing," according to Jesus Romero. He was born in Malaga, but his mother came from a smaller city in Valencia, home of the Paella Valenciana, where he learned to make the iconic Spanish dish.

Jesus Romero holding his award winning Paella.

He came to the U.S. with friends to study English in 2002, where he met his wife.

With a handful of Spanish restaurants in L.A., Romero noticed there wasn't a paella like the ones he knew in Spain. He opened his catering business Social Paella to bring a piece of Spain to his customers' homes.

The paella originated in Valencia, a Spanish province along the east side of the country. And as much as he would like to stick to the original ingredients, they're not all easy to find halfway across the world.

"Paella Valenciana is the mother of all paellas," Romero said. "We try to make it as authentic as possible, but there are ingredients like the "tabellas" that are only found in the areas where they're grown."

Different parts of Spain add their own variations. In the coastal parts of Andalucia, it's made with seafood. In the countryside, they use chicken or beef. Up north in Galicia, the rice is black because they add squid ink. Other places make it to their own taste, adding whatever toppings they enjoy.

"You learn to make it by making it many times," Romero said. "I'm still learning to make paella and rice. You never stop learning. There's always a new technique, a new ingredient you can add. If you have a recipe and you don't change it, you have to evolve a little."

Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to one of the first places Spanish settlers colonized, Cuba holds a very similar version of the paella.

Arroz con Pollo a la Chorrera (Cuban)

Elba Medrano in her kitchen.

Elba Medrano was born in Havana, Cuba. Other than the beaches, her memories of the island weren't the best back in the early 1960s.

"The little that I remember was nothing pleasant," Medrano said.

The process of coming to the U.S. wasn't easy either. As soon as her family filed to leave the country, at 5 years old, she wasn't allowed to eat lunch at school anymore. Her classmates called her names, ostracized her. The government put her father to work in the coffee and sugar cane fields. Many times he would come home sick.

"It was almost like a punishment because you were leaving," she said. "They figured you were like a traitor, so we're going to hurt you in any way we can."

The government came and took inventory of everything they had in the house. In 1969, 4 years later, when the day to fly to Miami came, they had to leave everything behind.

"We only came with our clothes on our backs," she said.

And while Medrano said she doesn't have the best memories, one of the parts of Cuba she and her family brought with them was the food. Her mom did most of the cooking -- all Cuban plates -- and "arroz a la chorrera" is one of the few recipes her daughters' love.

It's called a la "chorrera" because the rice is still moist. Chorrear is Spanish means to drip. She customized the recipe to her daughters' liking, making sure to blend all of the ingredients so that it didn't have bits and pieces of veggies. She makes it with chicken and serves it with roasted bell peppers on top for garnish.

Across the Caribbean Sea, on the mainland in America, a similar dish with the same main ingredients -- rice and chicken -- is made in a different style.

Arroz con Gandules y Pollo Guisado (Panama)

It's a dish that any Panamanian would recognize, in the city or in rural areas.

Gandules are pea-shaped beans that grow in the backyards of many Panamanian households. They're commonly found in the Caribbean.

"Pollo guisado" is Spanish for stewed chicken. The chicken is cooked at the bottom of a pan with oil and salt. Flavorful vegetables like tomato, parsley, bell peppers, garlic, and onions are added on top to flavor the chicken and keep its moisture. It's eaten with a side of "plátano maduro," or ripe plantains, adding a sweet element to the plate. This dish is not only a classic in Panama, but many other Central Americans have their own variation.

Yoitza Lugo from Panama City, Panama sitting in her kitchen with a plate of Arroz con Gandules y Pollo Guisado.

Yoitza Lugo was born and raised in Panama City. Cooking was an activity she shared with her family. She remembers her brothers and sisters taking turns making dinner every day to help her mom. And out of everything back home, her family is what she misses the most... and then the food.

"You find somethings here, but they're not the same," she said. "If I want to make something with corn, the corn over there is completely different. The flavor is different."

Even though the food she loves back home is a flavor that can be difficult to find in L.A., her life in the U.S. is one she wouldn't give up.

"You get used to it. When I visit Panama, I feel like I have to come back. This is my home," Lugo said. "When you have kids and you watch them grow up, it's part of you now."

"Arroz con gandules y pollo guisado" is a recipe that reminds her of her mother, Lugo shares it with us.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Spanish influence reached the islands of the Philippines.

Lugaw (Philippines)

Lugaw is also known as arroz caldo in the Philippines. The name comes from the Spanish arroz caldoso, literally translating to soupy rice. The dish itself is more like the Chinese Congee. It's not a very flavorful dish, but it's packed with vitamins and nutrients to boost your immune system. The chicken and rice porridge is filled with fresh ginger, garlic, onion, and citrus making it the ultimate comfort food in the Philippines.

Elsa Lazaro(left) and Cecilia De Leon (right) from Manila, Philippines standing in their kitchen with a bowl of Lugaw.

Elsa Lazaro grew up in a small town outside of the Philippines capital, Manila. Unlike in the U.S., she remembers having to cook outside over an open fire because there wasn't electricity.

Her daughter, Cecilia De Leon, was 8 when they came to California. When her family's ability to prosper was reaching its peak, they chose to immigrate to the U.S. for a better, more stable life. Because they weren't allowed to take any of their savings with them, she remembers sneaking money in her clothes.

Lugaw was a dish Elsa would make her whenever she got sick. Now, she does the same for her three boys.

Spanish Rice (Mexico)

While the tomato flavored rice is typical in Mexican dishes, it's uncertain why it's named Spanish rice, since it's not made in Spain. The Spanish introduced rice to the area since it didn't natively grow there according to Spruce Eats. Like most cultural influences, Mexicans made it their own, adding broth, tomato, onion, and garlic to add flavor to the rice.

It is paired with tacos, enchiladas, and sometimes just on its own or with beans. It's eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

"The rice goes with everything. It's a staple. Even eggs in the morning, huevos rancheros," said Barbara Frausto from Yucatan Mexico.

Barbara Frausto from Yukatán Mexico with her plate of Spanish Mexican Rice.

Growing up, Frausto would watch her grandmother and mother cook, learning their techniques and assisting them in the kitchen. As a child, she remembers standing in front of the stove and being given the task of stirring the rice.

Over the years she took over the dish and made it her own, switching the chicken stock to vegetable stock so her vegan daughter could eat it too.

Frausto came to the U.S. when she was 5 years old to start school, but she was raised in a traditional household.

"In our house, we might as well have been in Mexico," Frausto said. "We could only speak Spanish. Everything we did was just like living over there."

They would go back to visit Yucatán in the summer and when she got older she brought her daughter too. Sharing her family recipe was important to Frausto.

"I want my children to pass all this down," she said. "I don't want it to die with me."

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