red rice/arroz rojo

arroz rojo

arroz rojo

Whenever my family is plotting a get-together, the same question gets asked: “Quien va traer el arroz?” This question, who will bring the rice, reverberates across the room with each woman pondering the question. Every tia needs to think that their arroz is the best.

The question is always settled gracefully. There is never fighting among the tias–but for the brief moment after the question is asked, each woman feels she is the only one talented enough to bring the arroz.

El arroz in question is always arroz rojo. Red rice. That there could be another type of rice at the party is not only distasteful but inconceivable.

In Mexican restaurants, the rice is called “Spanish rice” but no Mexican I’ve ever talked to has called it that. My cousins dodge around calling it anything at all by defaulting to Spanglish. They say things like, “Yeah, I guess the food was pretty good. The arroz was bomb.”

To my cousins and me, rice can be anything–fried with pineapple, plain with soy sauce, brown with steamed veggies but arroz can only be rojo.

The pros over at Wikipedia have the following to say about this rice: “Although called ‘Spanish rice’, this dish is unknown in Spain. The term ‘Spanish rice’ is not used by Mexicans or Mexican food enthusiasts, and its use probably stems from the fact that the Spanish language is spoken in Mexico; the dish is usually simply referred to as arroz (‘rice’) or arroz rojo (‘red rice’) in Mexico.”

What a mysterious Wikipedia entry–all the language loops around itself. At the core, there is no discernible origin to arroz rojo. Who knows where it originated?

All we know is that is the only partner for frijoles and carne asada.

Last year, my roommate embarked on a journey to make the perfect arroz rojo.

“I asked my mom to teach me,” he said confidently. I nodded and believed him. Here was a guy who had been roasting perfect chicken, marinating salmon, and baking pretty flan for as long I’d lived with him. Dude could cook.

A couple of weeks later, he came into my room, eyes wide. “Look!” he said, holding out a pan of rice. It was beyond mushy–it was soupy. And yet, it also managed to be horribly burnt.

“This is the third time!” he cried, giving up. From then on, he started bring pre-made arroz in a giant Ziploc bag. He would barge into my room and unfurl the rice bag in my face.

“Check out this riiiiiiiiiice,” he said. “My mom made it. I gave up on the arroz rojo life forever.”

I’ve never tried to make arroz rojo. I’ve made rice though–I’ve doused rice in olive oil and garam masala. One night, during finals week, I tossed rice, a can of chickpeas, turmeric, dried cranberries, and a chili pepper that a professor had given me into my ricemaker and recklessly pressed “cook”. The results were astoundingly edible.

But I’ve never ventured into the arroz rojo business. I am afraid to get it wrong or, even worse, to get it right.

Arroz rojo should only belong to my mom and tias.

My tia Violeta makes an awesome rice–extra corn and with individually defined grains. No mushes for her.

My tia is a really serene and no-nonsense lady. Her rice reflects that. However, for a brief time, when I was growing up, she allowed her rice to be tainted. Her youngest son, David, was a really picky eater. He was a tiny baby (and super annoying, too). He never like to eat anything but sweets. My sneaky tia eventually discovered that if she cut up a banana into his arroz, he would eat.

This continued for a long time, eventually corrupting her other children. I remember her getting up to look for a banana during a carne asada. Meanwhile, I ate my rice with frijoles and scowled at them. Why mess with my tia’s perfect rice?


My favorite kind of rice is my mom’s. She has no loyalty or uniformity. I doubt she has ever, in her entire life, followed a recipe. She makes the rice with garlic and tomato sauce, like everyone else. But she adds vegetables, or carrot chunks, or whatever she finds in the fridge.

Once, right before a party, when she was cooking five things at once, she accidentally put way too much salt in the rice. I saw her do it and gasped. I only cared about the rice.

“No hay problema,” she said. She quickly chopped up a potato and tossed it in the rice pot. “The potato will soak up the salt.”

Rice with potato slices? I was skeptical. But it was a big hit.

My mom hates traditions–she thinks tamales are stupid and unhealthy and will happily microwave something if she thinks she can get away with it.

Her arroz is rojo but unpredictable. She keeps the arroz tradition but bends it at will.

I find that the arroz rojo tradition lends itself to bending. Recently I attended a carne asada surprise birthday party for my friend. The party was hosted by his boyfriend. In the kitchen, the boyfriend’s mom was painstakingly making arroz rojo. When the rice was brought out, it was extra red and delightfully mushy.

I thought about Catholic traditions in Mexican families which strictly prohibit any kind of homosexuality. And yet. Here was the arroz rojo, an offering from a loving madre to her son’s boyfriend.

I chewed the rice and put some salsa on it. It was really good.


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