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Rice Rice Baby: Two Cultures, One Grain

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

Unpopular opinion: I don’t like rice. At least, not in the way that my Korean family expects me to. It might sound like a silly stereotype, but you’d be surprised at how many worried family members have offered to send me rice cookers after finding out from my mom that I don’t cook rice for myself while here at NYU (for some reason, my rice-eating behaviors seem to be a common topic of conversation for my family).

Still, my relationship with rice is a little more complex than simply disliking it. Although the steamed rice commonly eaten in Korean meals always seemed a bit bland and boring to me, the Bolivian rice dishes I grew up eating are still some of my favorite foods.

Exactly 5659 miles (according to Google) away from the rest of my family in Seoul, there lies the small-ish city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, which I have called home for all nineteen years of my life. Here, rice functions as more of a side dish when it comes to meal dynamics. This makes sense, given that rice is a relatively new crop compared to the traditionally grown potatoes and maize. That isn't to say that Bolivia’s rice game is in any way inferior. With dishes like arroz con queso (literally translated to rice with cheese), majadito (rice with meat, fried plantains, and a fried egg on top), and the sweet arroz con leche for dessert (creamy rice pudding with a sprinkle of cinnamon), eating rice in Bolivia involves an explosion of a variety of flavors.

Photo Courtesy of Nicolás M.

In Korea, however, rice is pretty much the opposite in every way. Usually steamed with nothing but water, the unseasoned rice serves as the foundation of a meal, a blank canvas that balances out the strong flavors of the banchan, or side dishes (think salty, spicy, and fermented). To many, including my grandma, a meal is not a meal without rice. Cue the inevitable “Why did you eat so little?” question that pops up if I can’t finish the overflowing bowls of rice she loves to serve, regardless of how much I ate of everything else.

Photo Courtesy of Korean Bapsang

Ultimately, despite my preference for certain preparations, I appreciate rice in its many forms. The manner in which this seemingly simple staple ingredient is prepared and eaten serves as a way of gaining some insight into the different cultures that consume it. So, whether you happen to be in South Korea or Bolivia or anywhere else in the world, grab a bowl of rice. You might learn a thing or two.


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