Cuban Rice 101

We walked down the dusty, hot, bustling streets of Centro Havana, to the bodega. We entered and a scruffy, 30-something man looked at Watson, his tattered blue libreta, and then me.  He started rounding up the goods from behind the counter that Watson requested, and I stood as quietly as I could, to not attract a ton of attention. Even as I stood silently, I received confused glances from those around me, and my soon to be husband picked up his items and handed me the bag of the rice.

Courtesy of
Bodega in Havana, courtesy of

It is pretty much impossible to talk Cuban food (and so many other cuisines for that matter) without delving into rice.  Rice has been a staple in Cuban cuisine since colonial times, and has become especially crucial to the daily diet of the island since the implementation of the libreta (ration book) in 1962 after the Cuban Revolution.  The libreta provides Cubans with a certain amount of basic foods and goods to survive.  Currently, the libreta provides a minimum quantity of rice, sugar, matches, and oil, among other goods. Being such an important part of almost all Cubans’ diets, anywhere in Cuba, whether you be at a paladar, a cafeteria, or anyone’s home enjoying a good meal, I can almost guarantee that there will be rice on the table.

Rice in Cuba comes in many forms, from plain white, arroz congrí, paella, among innumerable other rice dishes.  But what kind of rice is used in these dishes?  Here in the United States, even in the most meager of supermarkets, there is almost a whole aisle, or at least a large section, dedicated solely to rice and rice products, from long grain white, brown, parboiled, wild, to pre-packaged pilafs.  So if I were to venture into making a Cuban rice dish, which one should I choose? Does color matter?  Does size matter?

While we are afforded so many options in the U.S., Cubans don’t have to worry about what rice to use.  They just use the only one available.  If you ask them what to use, they would say, “What do mean? Just use the rice!”  My quest to translate “just use the rice” into something more helpful to a reader with so many options, is what brought me to the bodega that supplies the items in the libreta.  What I had examined that fateful day in the bag handed to me was, from the best I could tell, a medium grain rice.

From Left to Right: Short Grain, Long Grain, Medium Grain, courtesy of
From Left to Right: Short Grain, Long Grain, Medium Grain, courtesy of

When me and Watson were finally in the States together, and I was faced with the reality of cooking rice daily for the rest of our happily-ever-after, I resorted to what he knew best, a medium grain rice.  So, while long grain can be substituted in most recipes I make, I wouldn’t switch a medium grain for a short, arborio, brown, or any other type of rice, unless otherwise noted.

A few other notes- I also do subscribe to the “toast your rice” club (is that a real thing?) and the club my mother-in-law just recently converted me to, the “wash your rice” club, so I almost always rinse my rice in a fine mesh colander before cooking and then toast my rice in the pan before adding my liquid.  These steps can be skipped, and you can just add the oil, salt, rice and liquid in at the same time and cook together for the specified time.  Also, I recently borrowed (forever…) my parents’ electric rice cooker, which makes my life so much easier when I am working on other complicated main dishes.

Does anyone else belong to these “clubs”? Am I just crazy to do these every time I cook rice?






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