If there is one dish that is enjoyed across many cultures and cuisines of the world, it is our beloved rice pudding. Call it arroz con leche or arroz doce, kheer or payasam, moghli or muhalibiyya, riz au lait or rizogalo, it is a universal dish that is known worldwide by different names. A simple, no-nonsense dish primarily made of rice and milk/water has its presence in every nook and corner of the world. We can very well say that this is one of the oldest dishes, that exists till date in the culinary world.
What is the origin or rice pudding?
It’s hard to discern the origin of rice pudding, as it has been present in different forms across different continents and in different time periods. The first occurrence of rice pudding is recorded around 1390 and the earlier recordings reveal that rice puddings were initially savory and were mostly meat based. The rice pudding was used as a stuffing inside sausage skin. But they were very similar to the ancient Roman dish grain/rice pottage. Pottage is a form of thick stew or soup, which is made by boiling meat, vegetables or grains. But the common theory is that rice pudding originated in India and travelled to other parts of the world.
The first mention of sweet rice pudding was in the 15th century in Austin manuscripts. Sweeteners like honey and sugar were used instead of salt and broth. Apart from milk and rice, puddings also included eggs, suet, spices like nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, currants etc.
One of the interesting associations of rice pudding is that in ancient times, it was mainly used for settling upset stomachs. Rice pudding has been mentioned more often in medicinal books than in cookbooks. In the 18th century when rice became a common commodity, rice pudding also became a commoner’s dish.
Alexander the great who brought back rice grains from the Indus Valley to Greece after his expeditions to Asia in around 320 B.C introduced rice to Europe. Even though the ancient Greeks and Romans knew about rice grains, they were only praised for its nutritional and healing properties. In ancient times, rice items were mainly used a as medicinal herb, especially for treating digestive related issues.
In Europe, the Moors introduced consumption and cultivation of rice in the 8th century in Iberian Peninsula. It travelled east to west through the Middle East. But rice was an expensive import and considered a luxurious crop throughout Europe. The climate of Europe was not suitable for rice crops and it was a labor intensive process for mass cultivation. Hence, rice was reserved for the royal kitchens and considered elite until around 18th century. In Greece, only post world war, rice cultivation and consumption increased. The ancient Greeks mainly used grains like corn, bulgur and wheat. Rice is a recent addition in the Greek kitchens.
Dolmades, rizogalo (rice pudding), spanakorizo, and pilafi are some of the common rice-based dishes made in Greece. Common rice varieties that are used in everyday Greek cooking now include the long grain varieties like nihaki (nee-hah-kee) and bonnet (parboiled), for making pilaf; brown rice variety, carolina, is used as a stuffing; and the medium grain rice variety, glacé (gla-seh) is used for making desserts.
Rizogalo is a traditional Greek style rice pudding flavored with vanilla beans and cinnamon. Rizogalo simply translates to “rice milk”; rizo means “rice” and galo is “milk” in Greek.
The etymology of the greek word óryza or rýzi (rice) is also inconclusive. Some believe that óryza is derived from the Indo-Iranian languages like Persian and Sanskrit while some say it is a phonetic derivation of the Tamil (a Dravidian language) word arici. Though its origin is highly debatable, óryza is the root of the English word rice.
How to make rizogalo
The variety of rice used in making a rice pudding is very crucial. Even though its preparation and flavor hugely vary, the end product is always the same – rich and creamy. In order to get this consistency and texture, short-grained white rice is used. This is also known as pudding rice in England, the holy place for pudding.
Rizogalo is traditionally prepared using a Greek short-grain rice variety called glacé. The grains of this rice become soft and tender when cooked. They also stick to each other during cooking making the rizogalo thicker and creamier. This type of rice is also suitable for soups. The next best substitute is the Arborio rice, which has similar properties.
Key to making a decadent rizogalo is to stir it constantly to get the creamier texture. It is very similar a risotto preparation. Slow cooked rice absorbs more starch and makes the pudding more luscious.
While rice pudding across the world has three elements in common (rice, milk and sugar), the possibilities of incorporating flavoring agents seem endless. Rice pudding is versatile and it is a great flavor absorbent. Firni, a Persian dessert is made with rice flour and flavored with rose water. It is quite thin in consistency. Similarly, the Indian kheer or payasam is flavored with rose water, saffron and topped with nuts like cashews, pistachios and almonds. The Mediterranean and Middle Eastern rice puddings like riz bi halib (Lebanese rice pudding) use lemon zest and orange blossom water to enhance the flavor. But the common flavors across western countries seem to be cinnamon and vanilla essence.
The Greek style rizogalo is quite simple to make and is mildly flavored. It uses vanilla bean and cinnamon. More than a dessert, rizogalo is more of a comfort food. You can serve it warm in the winters and chilled in the summer months. The Greeks make their pudding spicy by adding a generous amount of cinnamon on top.
In spite of a slow start, rice pudding has become a universal treat now. It is eaten across many homes either as a comfort food or in a celebratory scenario. In some places like Denmark and Sweden, rice pudding is a must during Christmas. A whole almond is hidden inside some pudding bowls and the person who finds it is considered lucky. The Danish pudding is called risalamande and the Swedish version is risgrynsgröt. Even in India, kheer is mainly prepared during festive occasions.
Learn more about the different versions of rice puddings around the world here.
- ½ cup round rice
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups milk
- ½ cup caster sugar
- 1 tablespoon cornflour
- 1 vanilla pod
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- In a non-stick pot, bring the rice and water to a boil and cook on low heat until the rice is cooked through (about 25 minutes)
- At this stage, only very little water remains, and the result is like a kind of porridge. Mix everything.
- Reserve a little milk and dilute the sugar and cornflour with a whisk.
- Pour the rest of the milk into the rice and add the vanilla pod.
- Heat slightly over medium-low heat while stirring, then pour the mixture of milk, sugar and cornflour.
- Bring to a boil over low heat, stirring constantly.
- Pour into cups and sprinkle with cinnamon.
- Enjoy hot or cold.