Buddhist Sutras state that Gautama Buddha’s final meal before his enlightenment was a large bowl of rice pudding.  He was not alone in appreciating this dish.  Rice puddings are found worldwide, especially in regions where rice is a staple.

In Mexico One Plate at a Time, Rick Bayless writes that “Mexico is a humble country that has been kept together, in great part, by rice pudding.  Tight webs of family ties have held the country together through regimes and revolutions, over impassable mountain ranges and impenetrable jungles.  And rice pudding, I notice, is everywhere… one of the human race’s great comfort foods… and one that’s welcome practically anywhere”

Eight Precious rice pudding, actually more of a steamed rice cake than a pudding, has become a “quite common conclusion to banquets both in China and in the United States” according Celia Chaing in her cookbook and memoir The Seventh Daughter.  She attributes its popularity to “its festive appearance and its symbolism – eight is a lucky number.”  Originally from Shanghai, it traditionally is served on Chinese New Year.

The Chinese are not the only people who have made rice pudding a tradition at holiday celebrations.  Caroline Fleming, in her book titled Cook Yourself Happy the Danish Way, reports that, in Scandinavia, “many families will eat rice pudding on Christmas Eve… We have a wonderful tradition of putting one single almond in the mix and whoever gets the almond gets the almond gift – big joy!” She goes on to note that “we love to use any leftovers to make rice pudding splodges (pancakes) the next day.”

And Claudia Roden writes in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food that “the Middle East possesses a wide range of milky puddings made with whole rice, rice flour or cornstarch, each with a subtle difference in texture and taste.  The addition of flavorings such as orange blossom or rose water, mastic, cinnamon and cardamom; the incorporation of ground almonds, raisins and nuts and traditional decorations transform humble ingredients into exquisite exotic desserts.”

Last but by no means least, author Julie Sahni writes in Williams Sonoma’s Savoring India that “Kheer is the primary dessert of India.  Home cooks generally prepare a simple rice and milk version; more elaborate renditions, with nuts, fruits, flower essences and spice embellishments, are served in restaurants and at wedding feasts.  Scented rice, such as gobinda bhog or basmati, is preferred, since it is the main flavor of the pudding.” 

At its most basic level, the pudding consists simply of rice cooked in water or milk, sweetened with sugar or honey and flavored with dried fruits or spices.  It can be boiled (for a looser consistency) or baked (to make it more like a custard).  Usually short grain rice is preferred, but many other varieties (long grain, basmati, jasmine, brown or black) are possible. The liquid could be water, whole milk, cream, coconut milk or evaporated milk.  Spices typically are cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon or ginger.  Flavorings may include vanilla, orange, lemon, rose water, pistachios, almonds, cashews, raisins or walnuts. Sweeteners can be sugar, brown sugar, honey, sweetened condensed milk, dates, or fruit syrups.