Arroz Rojo Mexicano (Mexican Red Rice)
This recipe for arroz rojo Mexicano, or Mexican red rice, is incredibly easy to make. While some chefs and home cooks add vegetables like peas and carrots, this version lets the tomato flavor shine.
I knew the sound before I even knew what it was—a mad, angry hiss. A sizzle that coughed up a puff of steam. My mom would stand there holding the saucepan, letting the hot tap water run until it reached the invisible line only she knew. She'd grab an open can of tomato sauce and pour in a thick stream. Then she'd clamp on the lid and set the saucepan on the stove. The rice steamed quietly while she worked on the rest of our dinner—Hamburger Helper if we were lucky, or some sort of saucy mixture of ground beef, vegetables and canned tomato sauce that I now recognize as a guisado.
Even when the lunchmeat ran out, or the sliced cheese or bread or even, heaven forbid, the flour tortillas, we always, always had Mexican rice in the fridge. As a kid, I ate it for lunch, dinner and sometimes breakfast. A few times I even ate it cold in a bowl. ("You did?" my mom asked, when I told her recently. "I never did that.") A bowl of this tomatoey rice was my constant companion in my childhood. My mom made it with three things: canned tomato sauce, long-grain rice and onion.
So it was weird when I grew up and left home and realized: other Mexicans put things in this rice. I had seen rice with diced carrot and peas at Mexican restaurants in Southern California, but I thought they were just being fancy. No one I knew made rice like that. When I moved to Mexico well into adulthood, I got an even bigger shock: Mexican rice wasn't traditionally made with canned tomato sauce. Instead, cooks use homemade tomato puree and chicken stock. This felt like when I learned that pasta could be made fresh and not from a package. I was stupefied. What else about this rice didn't I know?
The rice suddenly seemed like a symbol of my own pochismo—the watered-down Mexicanness that came with being third generation. Perhaps the red rice I grew up eating, like me, wasn't Mexican enough. In 2012, I took a private cooking class with the late Diana Kennedy, and she asked me if I knew how to cook Mexican rice. I said yes. "How long do you need to soak it for?" she quizzed. I didn't know. My mom had never soaked her rice. Diana said that proper Mexican rice needed to be soaked for 10 to 15 minutes and cooked in a clay pot. She nestled a whole serrano chile into the grains right before steaming, something I'd never seen before.
Thinking my childhood rice needed freshening up, I began experimenting, cutting up carrots and adding whole chiles and making my own chicken broth and tomato purees. This rice was good—occasionally delicious. But it didn't fill that hole inside of me like my mom's rice did. I brushed off the feeling, thinking it would take time to get used to the new version. Eventually, when I became a parent, I stopped making Mexican rice as much, because I didn't have time to puree my own tomatoes or make my own stock.
During the pandemic, I started digging into my family history when I felt the most lonely. One thing I learned was that many Mexican women in my family, for generations, have worked outside the home and taken care of children. It hit me that making this rice with just three ingredients wasn't a rejection of tradition, or a poor imitation of "real" Mexican food. It was a clever way for the women in my family to nourish their loved ones when they were short on time, using the ingredients they had available. With so much of their language and culture lost to assimilation, these women, including my mother, made sure the rice survived.
Until I asked her, my mom hadn't really thought about how she learned to make her style of Mexican rice. She said she must've learned from her stepmother, who's from Sinaloa. Then she shared a story I'd never heard before. When she was a junior in high school, she visited her real mother, whom she hadn't seen in six years. My grandmother served my mom Mexican red rice. "It was so fluffy, and so good," my mom said, the awe still apparent in her voice. "Our rice was good. But my mother's was just amazing."
My grandmother's rice recipe is lost; she died before I thought to ask her for it. Still, when I eat this rice at home now, I realize how lucky I am to have a tangible piece of my family still with me. The smell of the toasting grains, the hiss of the pan—it feels like a gift. Other people can add extra ingredients and seasonings. To me this rice should taste just like it does: lightly of tomato, and nothing else.
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