7 Rice Dishes Around The World And Their Cultural Significance

The popular rice dish pongal is integral to the harvest festival of the same name. We bring to you seven dishes like Pongal from around the world, which have deep cultural and traditional roots.

By Ritika Banerjee  • 8 min read

7 Rice Dishes Around The World And Their Cultural Significance

Holding onto her mother’s sari, with a puzzled look, 6-year-old Aanya was watching the pot of rice simmering on a stove made of bricks. There was a lot of hustle and bustle in the house and great care was being taken to cook this ‘special dish'.

Finally, when Aanya couldn't understand what was going on around her, she decided to ask her mother. Pointing at the pot of rice that was cooking, she asked, “Ma, what is this and why is everyone waiting for it to cook?”

Aanya's mother thought that this was the perfect opportunity to introduce her little one to our customs and traditions. So, she made Aanya sit beside her and began telling her all about the harvest festival of Pongal and the dish she was preparing.

The significance of Pongal

In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the festival of Pongal marks the beginning of the harvest season. During Pongal, prayers and thanks are offered to the Sun god for a healthy and successful yield.

How the dish got its name

In Tamil, the word Pongal means 'boiling or spilling over'. The pongal dish is prepared from a mixture of rice, milk and jaggery. This mixture is cooked in a clay pot on a stove, which is usually placed in the sun-lit area like the courtyard. The mixture is allowed to come to a boil and spill over.

In addition to the sweet form of pongal, which is called Sakkarai pongal, there is also a spicy variant called Ven pongal or Milagu pongal.

Pongal and similar traditional dishes

Like Pongal, across the world, there are many rice-based traditional dishes that are an inseparable part of a country’s history and culture. We bring to you seven such dishes:

1. Paella — Spain

The slightly crisp and flavourful Paella originated in the city of Valencia on the east coast of Spain. The name Paella is derived from the old French word 'paelle' which means a frying pan. Over the years, the recipe of Paella has undergone many changes. However, this has not affected the popularity of Paella in any way. A spoonful of Paella is not just a matter of relish, it is more a symbol of togetherness. Family and friends come together to enjoy a bowl of Paella.

2. Tahdig - Iran

The buttered and crusty Iranian delicacy Tahdig, which means ‘the bottom of the pan’, is considered difficult to prepare to perfection, especially amongst other Persian cuisines. However, Tahdig is not exclusive to any particular occasion or festival. In Iran, if there is rice on the menu, the dish will most probably be Tahdig.

3. Nasi Lemak - Malaysia

The name translates to ‘rich rice’ in Malay as the rice is cooked in coconut cream. The dish used to be served for breakfast. But, with changing times, it is now consumed during any meal of the day. Initially cooked in the households of farmers and fishermen before the start of day, Nasi Lemak has, over the years, become popular with everyone. The story behind Nasi Lemak is a popular folklore from the village of Malacca. According to the story, this dish came into being by accident. Nasi Lemak connects Malaysia with its rich past.

4. Risotto - Italy

Simplicity is what best defines this popular Italian dish. It reflects the rich history of the country’s love for rice. The grain was introduced to the Italians by the Arabs in the 1500s and quickly became a part of their daily diet. Risotto, however, was cooked for the first time as an act of revenge by a young artist but received great reviews and became a popular dish from then on. Even today, this versatile dish can be cooked with different ingredients each time it is prepared.

5. Jollof Rice – West Africa

The dish is an emblem of West African pride. It is both sweet and spicy just like the story of its origin, which is full of controversies. According to one such story, the history of this tangy, one-pot rice dish can be traced back to the country’s Senegambian region that was under the rule of the Jolof empire. Jollof Rice is hugely popular in West Africa and features as a special dish on the menu of almost every festive or ceremonial occasion.

6. Jambalaya - New Orleans

While the dish originated in Louisiana, the exact story behind it remains unknown. The earliest recipes of Jambalaya were found in books written during the 1800s. During this time, church fairs were common and Jambalaya was one of the popular dishes served on those occasions. Soon, the recipe was adopted by most households in Louisiana, and Jambalaya began to be served during public and social gatherings.

7. Biryani - India

In Persian, ‘Birian’ means ‘to fry before cooking’. A dish favoured by a large number of Indians, Biryani comes in many variations. One of the stories about the origin of Biryani dates back to Queen Mumtaz Mahal of the Mughal Dynasty, who ordered the head chef to cook a well-balanced meal for her army and he cooked biryani.

This Pongal season, as you and your family come together for the festivities, you can try one or more of these dishes.

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