Technically the seed of a grass, rice has been a nutritious and cost-effective staple for cultures around the world since it was domesticated more than 13,000 years ago in China. Prices vary according to region, variety, and processing, but nearly all varieties cost less than $1 a cup dry -- and many cost much less. Here are 12 dishes from around the globe that feature this age-old and budget-friendly grain.
Related: 13 Ways to Use Pasta
With its own subtle flavor, rice serves as a great backdrop for creative flavor combinations that evoke a sense of place. With a mix of herbs such as oregano, thyme, and parsley, any variety of rice can be infused with a Mediterranean sensibility. Add chickpeas for protein, lemon juice for brightness, and a simple dressing of high-quality olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper (or follow a recipe from Sunset magazine). This light yet flavorful dish can be served warm or at room temperature and contributes a nutritiously balanced and inexpensive component to any meal.
Short-grain sushi rice gets its stickiness from a high starch content and its characteristic tang from being gently seasoned with rice vinegar (Food & Wine has instructions). Once the rice is prepared and cool enough to handle, it can be made into easy-to-eat snacks. These include traditional sushi rolls, in which rice and other ingredients such as fish and vegetables are rolled and sliced, and nigiri, a log of rice with a single piece of fish or vegetable topping. Two other common applications are chirashi, which uses rice as a bed for a bowl of typical sushi fillings, and onigiri, which envelopes the ingredients inside a ball of rice that is then wrapped in seaweed. To keep cost down, skip the fish and use seasonal vegetables to roll, top, and stuff sushi rice snacks.
This dish is a go-to for leftover rice -- the texture actually comes out better when the rice has been sitting in the fridge for a day or two. Fried rice also works exceptionally well with frozen vegetables, another money- and time-saving perk. A few cups of leftover rice of any variety added to quickly sautéed, chopped veggies such as carrots, peas, broccoli, and onions and a few dashes of soy sauce becomes a crowd-pleasing side dish in less than 10 minutes. Take a tip from Epicurious and transform fried rice into the main event by topping it with grilled chicken or tofu for an easy and cheap family meal.
Related: A Frugal Twist on 12 Classic Dishes Made by Mom
Italy's answer for leftover rice is to mix it with a little sauce -- anything from meat ragu to plain marinara -- bread it, and fry it into a golden ball of crispy goodness. Modern takes on this indulgent snack food include fillings such as roasted vegetables and even sausage; a recipe from Christina's Cucina suggests mozzarella and cooked peas. Arancini can be made big or small, but they're traditionally baseball-size and make a hearty midday snack or appetizer. They can easily be reworked into hockey-puck-shaped cakes and pan-fried for a less fattening and cheaper version that uses less oil. Omitting the filling and topping with sauce makes sophisticated and tasty bites for just a few cents apiece.
With flavors such as mango and coconut from Hawaii, cinnamon and raisins from Mexico, or sweet cardamom from India, this classic comfort food varies in flavor depending on what culture is at the helm. The basic recipe stays the same: Combine polished white rice with milk, sugar, seasonings, and fruit, and cook it down into a soft, custardy pudding. The Pioneer Woman adds an extra kick with a splash of bourbon or whiskey. A bowl of rice pudding is satisfying served fresh and warm or chilled. Easy to make in large batches from humble and low-cost ingredients, it's a good way to feature rice for large gatherings and potlucks.
Born from a culture where food scarcity is a reality for the majority, this Indian preparation is a way of turning the inexpensive and accessible rice grain into a richly layered main dish -- something of a rice casserole. Spices, nuts, and fruit are layered into semi-cooked rice, along with scraps of vegetables or meat. When these are steamed together, spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, and nutmeg infuse each grain, transforming plain rice into a satisfying meal. A version on the blog Swasthi's Recipes is a flavorful blend of seasoned rice with morsels of vegetables.
This dish can cost less than $1 a serving but passes for haute cuisine. Like sushi, risotto requires a starchy, short-grain rice (usually arborio, but any short-grain white rice will work well, and even longer-grain rice can be coerced). At its core, this dish is true peasant food, made from incorporating broth slowly into rice until blended into a smooth, stew-like consistency. Additions of butter, cheese, vegetables, and seasonings such as lemon can be incorporated into a basic recipe from Eating Well and vary depending what's on hand. Risotto is a blank canvas that will accept everything from leftover roasted vegetables to a handful of frozen peas and a sprinkle of parmesan.
This staple of Caribbean culture combines rice, red beans, a blend of warm spices such as thyme and black pepper, and coconut milk for a hearty side dish present at nearly every meal. It contributes layers of flavor for just pennies a serving. Chilies can make Caribbean food extra spicy, so the coconut milk adds a much-needed palate-cooling effect to the rice. A recipe from the blog That Girl Cooks Healthy switches out regular steamed rice for Jamaican-style "rice and peas" (although it's often made with red or kidney beans, pigeon peas or yellow peas are traditional).Related: 12 Tasty Bean Recipes
One of the best-loved fusion dishes of Creole cuisine is dirty rice, so-called for its brown color. Cheap ingredients come together to create something special in this flavorful stew of rice and chicken giblets, along with vegetables such as bell pepper, celery, and onion. Pungent chicken livers give a dirty rice recipe from the blog Simply Recipes a distinct depth of flavor. Instead of being tossed to the trash, these leftover bits of chicken can be combined with a few dollars' worth of rice and converted into an iconic Southern dish.
This Latin American drink is a concoction of milky rice, cinnamon, and vanilla. Something of a drinkable rice pudding, horchata is made by grinding dry rice and cinnamon into a powder and soaking it in water, as in a Food Network recipe. Once the rice powder has fully infused, the liquid is strained off and combined with sugar and vanilla. This lightly sweet beverage is typically served over ice any time of day. It can also be flavored further with fruit or used as the base of a decadent cocktail.
A thick rice porridge traditional in Chinese cuisine, congee is very much a comfort food. Rice is cooked until it disintegrates into tiny bits to form a soupy consistency, and then flavored with vegetables, meat or fish, and a dash of vinegar and chili oil. Congee is a hearty dish and full of nutrition. It's a specialty at many Chinese restaurants, although it can also be made at home with a recipe from The Kitchn.
An elegant combination of rich spice and protein, this rice dish is a one-pan party. Paella can be made with mixed seafood, chicken, sausage, (even rabbit, as in a Food.com recipe), or a combination of all of them, embedded in spice-infused rice. Some paella gets toasted on the bottom, creating a layer of crisp crust, allowing diners to enjoy the soft, fluffy, and crunchy textures that rice has to offer.