I remember, as a child, eating sweet, dark, fragrant cake/pudding so sticky it stuck to my teeth. It was made of rice, or course—the only kind of cake I ever ate until my mother learned to bake. She didn’t make those rice cakes. Generous aunts usually brought them. Or, we bought them from street vendors and, at my grandma’s little town, from hawkers who called their wares out as they walked along streets, frequently just outside her house.
One of my earliest memories is standing just past midnight on Christmas day in front of a church, a remnant of nearly 400 years of Spanish domination, salivating as I waited for a treat to finish cooking. What—you ask—was a child of 3 or 4 doing out at midnight? In those days, on that Catholic island I grew up in, midnight mass was the first essential ritual of Christmas for old and young.I’m sure I had my hand out before the vendor could coax those purplish black rolls out of tubes she pulled out of an earthen brazier nearly crimson from burning coals. She placed the rolls on a square of banana leaf, then topped them with grated fresh coconut. Nothing, but nothing, can ever duplicate that experience nor even that of sinking my teeth into those still hot rolls complemented by the naturally sweet creamy nuttiness of fresh coconut. The experience becomes even more unique as the heat of the rolls releases the fragrance of the banana leaf, infusing every bite with it.
Largely, I think, from those experiences, I bought a bag of black rice when I first saw it years ago at the Asian market in nearby Richmond that we often go to. I had no idea how to cook it except that it was rice. So, how different or difficult could it be to cook? I knew, at least, that our trusty cheap, old rice cooker couldn’t do the trick. And I was right. It took nearly two hours for the rice to approach the consistency I could remember. The pudding cake I made this way was tasty—nearly anything would be from the addition of sugar and coconut milk. But the texture did not satisfy.
I kept a bag of black rice in my pantry, mostly out of nostalgia. But I very seldom used it because, for me, processing it took too much time and the results did not warrant that kind of investment. Well, that is, until a few days ago when a serveuse at Padi, an Indonesian restaurant on College Avenue suggested Rich and I share a bowl of Indonesian black rice pudding to finish our lunch.It was a sweet surprise. This one really was pudding, nothing cakey about it. It was served in a large parfait glass through which you could see the thick layer of purplish black pudding and the thin creamy layer of coconut milk. Out of the glass, we caught the herby flowery fragrance of the rice. The contrasts were not only in color but also in texture and taste. The black rice was sweet, hot and custardy with nutty al dente rice grains while the unsugared coconut was cool, inherently sweet, and had the consistency of heavy cream.
It was the custardy consistency of the black rice pudding that got to me. We had to ask the chef how he achieved it. His short response: two hours of soaking and five hours of simmering. Not exactly what I wanted to hear.
At home, Rich suggested: why not five hours in a slow cooker? Brilliant, I thought. Why not, indeed! So, out came the slow cooker that had been shoved in the dark corners of a small room under the stairs that we call our pantry. It had gathered dust and had to be cleaned. When squeaky enough, I dumped in three parts rice and thirteen parts hot water with one cup brown sugar. Why? No logic to it. Brown rice requires water twice the amount of white rice and black is a tougher rice to crack. But 13? Lucky number and I wanted custard. Plus, what is an adventurous foodie supposed to do?
I turned the old crock pot to auto and left it to do its thing. Four hours later, I checked it and found it still kept its separate layers of solid rice at the bottom and black watery liquid on top. At that rate, I knew I wasn’t going to get custard in an hour. So, I turned the unit to high and checked it about an hour later. Eh, voila! Eureka! The custard. Too thick for my taste, though. So, I boiled some water, cascaded two more parts into the mix and stirred. Still not there. The 17th part did the trick for me.
I served it in a bowl, topped with heavy cream. Tropical heaven. Better for you, too, apparently (from anthocyanins) than brown rice. This is a keeper.