Edible History: Rice Pudding
Rice pudding was thought to have originated in China, which has an ancient rice culture. This has been disputed by some food historians; they argue that rice pudding likely originated in India, which has an ancient rice culture as well as an ancient sugar culture.
Rice pudding, whilst rejected by some for being too plain and stodgy, remains one of my favourite comfort foods. It’s actually been around for centuries, believe it or not, and was thought to have originated in China, which has an ancient rice culture. This has been disputed by some food historians; they argue that rice pudding likely originated in India, which has an ancient rice culture as well as an ancient sugar culture.
Sweet rice porridge pudding in ceramic plate with berries strawberry and raspberry, walnuts, honey and mug of milk on crumpled paper over grey kitchen table. (Photo by: Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
In Asia rice pudding was never referred to as rice pudding; instead, it was called a sweet rice porridge. Rice is mixed with water, milk, or cream, and then sweetened to taste before boiling or baking. Sometimes dried fruits are added to the mixture, such as raisins or apricots.
Hazelnut Rice Pudding with orange and dark chocolate in the Los Angeles Times via Getty Images studio. (Photo by Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Nearly every country in the world has a rice pudding recipe; in Spain, it is called Arroz con leche – rice with milk, sugar, cinnamon, and lemon zest. In the south of India, it is called payasam where rice is slowly boiled with sugar or jaggery and nuts, and in the north of India, the same concoction is referred to as kheer. In Indonesia, black glutinous rice porridge is referred to as ketan hitam, and in Iran, firni is served, which is broken rice cooked with cardamom and pistachios before being reduced to a paste and served.
Forbidden Black Rice Pudding photographed in Washington, DC. (Photo by Deb Lindsey For The Washington Post via Getty Images).
In the Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson writes: Rice pudding is the descendant of earlier rice pottages, which date back to the time of the Romans, who however used such a dish only as a medicine to settle upset stomachs. There were medieval rice pottages made of rice boiled until soft, then mixed with almond milk or cow’s milk, or both, sweetened, and sometimes coloured. Rice was an expensive import, and these were luxury Lenten dishes for the rich. Recipes for baked rice puddings began to appear in the early 17th century and nutmeg survives in modern recipes.
Here’s a recipe for authentic rice pudding that was inspired by several historical Tudor dynasty cooking manuscripts; this recipe, as well as other Tudor-inspired food, can be found here, as well as notes about Tudor cookery.
2 cups dry rice (white or brown - I prefer basmati)
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
3 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3/4 cup raisins (black or golden)
3/4 cup currants
Butter or cooking spray for greasing the dish
Cinnamon sticks for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Steam rice until tender according to package instructions.
While rice is cooking, place raisins and currants into a small pot and cover with hot water. Bring just to a boil on the stovetop, then remove from heat. Let the fruit soak in the hot water to plump.
After the rice has cooked, stir in the butter till melted.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together milk, cream, egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Pour mixture into the rice and stir till combined. Drain the raisins and currants, then fold them into the rice mixture.
Grease a 9x9 inch baking dish with butter or cooking spray. Pour rice mixture into the dish. Place in the oven and bake uncovered for about 45 minutes until the top of the pudding turns golden brown.
Serve garnished with a cinnamon stick, if desired. Serve warm.
Additionally, Heston Blumenthal attempted to make old fashioned rice pudding inspired by ancient recipe books. You can watch that segment below.