20 September 2007

The Nørds, their marzipan
and why rice pudding is the miracle of life

What's the deal with the Nords, the Finnish and the Swedes and their marzipan? I didn't even know what marzipan until Double R and sure enough, she's Finnish! But, I didn't come here to talk about marzipan, an odd somewhat coconut-meets-wax confection consisting primarily of sugar and ground up almonds, I came here to talk about rice pudding, or as I like to call it, the miracle of life.

I first had rice pudding in a hospital cafeteria when I was knee-high to a grasshopper and it's been a fervid love affair ever since.

Rice puddings are found in nearly every area of the world; I've tried a lot of them and some of them are fucked up. Light years away from that hospital cafeteria in Brooklyn.

Its amazing, I don't know of many other foods like this where everyone makes theirs a different way; everyone has their own version of the same thing: rice pudding.

We all know the Spanish way arroz con leche with cinnamon and lemon or the Portugese arroz doce or arroz de leite. The eye-talians make budino di riso with raisins and an espresso orange peel...

The Germans make Milchreis with cinnamon or cherries, then theres the East Asians and their Kao niow dahm which is a black rice pudding, the Indians with their little golden raisin on top, the Pakistanis make kheer, Southern Indians make payasam with lots of nuts, Northern Indians and Pakistanis make firni with broken rice, cardamom and pistachio and served cold, you've got the Arabs and their moghlie with anise and ginger, the Egyptians make ruz bil-laban with rosewater and occasionally mastic, the Persians get all Donovan with their Shola-e-zard made with saffron, the Afghanis and Iranians call theirs Shir-berinj, in Puerto Rico its made with coconut milk and they call it Arroz con dulce/Arroz con coco, Arroz-doce is in Brazil with milk, sugar and cinnamon, some of the crazy Norweigans eat it for dinner with a pat of butter as Risgrøt or Risengrynsgrøt... every region seems to have their own take on this miracle of life; I prefer the Kozy Shack® variety.

In Scandinavia, rice pudding is traditionally served at christmas. It sometimes goes by the names julegrøt or julegrød which means Yule porridge. It can also be called tomtegröt or nissegrød which refers to the old tradition of sharing the meal with the guardian of the homestead, known as the tomte.

The pudding is usually eaten with cinnamon and sugar, with an 'eye' of butter in the middle. Sometimes an almond is hidden in the pudding.

In Sweden, popular belief has it that the one who eats the almond will be married the following year, whereas in Norway, Denmark and Iceland the one who finds it will get a prize, often a marzipan figure. Often the leftøvers or overproduction of the rice porridge is converted to risalamande by adding whipped cream and chopped almonds.

In Denmark the game of hiding an almond is often done with risalamande, making it harder to find the whole almond among all the chopped ones that risalamande contains.

Rice pudding is mentioned frequently in literature of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, typically in the context of a cheap, plain, familiar food, often served to children or invalids, and often rendered boring by too-frequent inclusion in menus.

Rice pudding is mentioned by Walt Whitman in Specimen Days. Whitman visited an invalid soldier who "was very sick, with no appetite... he confess'd that he had a hankering for a good home-made rice pudding—thought he could relish it better than anything... I soon procured B. his rice pudding. A Washington lady, (Mrs. O'C.), hearing his wish, made the pudding herself, and I took it up to him the next day. He subsequently told me he lived upon it for three or four days."

An 1884 New York Times article is entitled Living on a Small Salary: Close Economy Practiced by a Clerk and his Wife. They Live Comfortably in a Brooklyn Flat and Save Nearly $300 Out of a Yearly Income of $1000. "You observe," says the husband, "that although we have but little beyond the bare necessities of life we manage to live comfortably and happily." "Yes, indeed, we are happy," interjects the wife. The reporter describes their evening meal as a plate containing "a nice cut of beef, a couple of boiled potatoes, and a liberal portion of green peas." For dessert, there is rice pudding, which the reporter describes as "truly a delicious compound of rice and egg and sugared frosting."

Charles Dickens relates an incident of shabby treatment in A Schoolboy's Story: "it was imposing on Old Cheeseman to give him nothing but boiled mutton through a whole Vacation, but that was just like the system. When they didn't give him boiled mutton, they gave him rice pudding, pretending it was a treat. And saved the butcher."

Rice was first cultivated in Asia. Over thousands of years, various pudding recipes have developed in the Eastern Asia. Some include fruit and honey, while others are far simpler consisting of only rice, water and sugar.

For the west, rice pudding originated in the Middle East or Persia. The dessert gained popularity during the Middle Ages. Firni, one of the oldest of these Middle Eastern puddings, was introduced to India by the Moghuls. Records of an Indian sweet milk pudding occur in the 14th century. Shola was introduced to Persia by the 13th century Mongols and is now eaten in much of west Asia. However the Indian Kheer has an independent history, as it is older than 2000 years.

In Europe, rice pudding with goat's milk was first used by the Romans for medicinal purposes. For this reason, the first written records of rice pudding occur in medical texts. Medieval European sweet boiled rice pudding often was made with almond or cow’s milk. Rice pudding appears in 1542 in the then Danish town of Malmø. However, rice was an imported luxury item reserved for the rich. Baked rice puddings featuring elaborate spices and other ingredients appeared in the 17th century. In the 18th century, rice pudding began to replace rye porridge and barley porridge at festivities in Scandinavia. Over centuries, the European recipe has been simplified, resulting in the modern dish often criticized for its blandness.

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