What to Do About Rice?

I have a culinary question. What exactly are we supposed to do with a glob of white rice? Ever so often I get that with my entrée, most often but not exclusively, at a Vietnamese or Chinese restaurant. The rice is tasteless. Apparently we are supposed to mix it with something more flavorful from the dish, but what’s the point? Why add the calories of something that tastes like nothing?

This question is particularly sensitive down here in a land where home cooks do great things with rice, which is a native crop. There is the classic jambalaya, or the so-called “dirty rice” made with ground innards that are mixed with seasonings. Few restaurants serve it, but one of the local home-cooked masterpieces is rice and gravy, for which the debris from a pot roast is ladled over the grains. In college I had a roommate from the Cajun town of Ville Platte who actually went into rice and gravy withdrawal at night. “I need some rice and gravy so bad, Hoss,” he would say as he pined away in his asleep.

Some flavored rices exist, and lately there has been a resurgence of so-called popcorn rice. These dishes can be good if they’re done right, but quite often rice is like grits, just taking up space on the plate. Not even a pat of butter provides much relief.

There is a real kinship between Louisiana cuisine and that of the Vietnamese, particularly with seafood. While we can learn much from the Asian community, especially about new and rich vegetables, they could also learn from us about rice.  It is supposed to have flavor. If all else fails, buy canned gravy at the supermarket,

Closely related to globby white rice are vermicelli noodles, which are made from rice and are often served cold and as tasteless as the grain. If the vermicelli industry wants its product to grow, here’s a tip – hire some Italians. Let them ladle on sauces made with olive oil and garlic or perhaps rich tomatoes speckled with olive bits. The key is to actually mix something with flavor into the noodles.

This is our annual Best Restaurants issue. All of the new places are excellent. Some specialize in Mediterranean cuisine; three give deference to the American South. They serve a variety of fascinating dishes, yet none, as far as I know, serves rice and gravy. This is a dish waitingto be rediscovered. Rice will again have found its purpose.


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