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Navigating My Love-Hate Relationship with Rice, My Favorite Carb

By Maida Pineda
July 22, 2022
Image credit: Lindsey Engelken for Clean Plates | Maida Pineda

Like most Filipinos, I love rice: In my culture, it’s standard to eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — and we might even sneak in rice cakes for snack and dessert. It’s not unusual to eat bangus (milkfish) with scrambled eggs and garlic rice for breakfast, and for midday snacks, we often eat a variety of rice-based snacks. Personally, I love bibingka, a rice cake baked in a terracotta oven with salted egg, slathered with butter, a sprinkling of sugar, and grated fresh coconut. 

The most famous dishes from the Philippines, including classic pork and chicken adobo, must be eaten with rice, too. These are often paired with sinigang, a tamarind soup. We scoop the broth into the rice and eat it all together with the meat and vegetables. It’s delicious.

We don’t have snow days in the Philippines, but we do have torrential rains and typhoons during the monsoon season, often causing floods and havoc. When school would get canceled, and the weather would be a few degrees cooler than average, my mom would always cook a hot breakfast of champorado, a rich, thick chocolate porridge served with salted dried fish. The combination of sweet and salty, creamy and crisp, create a delightful contrast. Similarly, when we were sick, we didn’t eat chicken noodle soup. Instead, we had a hearty bowl of chicken arroz caldo, a ginger-spiced rice porridge topped with fried garlic and a sprinkling of green onions, served with fish sauce and calamansi, a native citrus fruit. The ginger and garlic would always soothe our sniffles or sore throat. 

These rice dishes are staples of a Filipino childhood — and an important part of our culture. 

So saying that “Filipinos love rice” is a serious understatement. Our meals are not complete without it, and every Filipino household has a rice cooker or a pot that’s constantly being filled with cooked rice. The poorest of the poor in the Philippines sometimes survive eating only rice and some patis (fish sauce) or bagoong (fish or shrimp paste). 

When traveling abroad as a child, my family would enjoy eating a few meals of burgers, pizza, and pasta. But after a few days, we’d always seek out a Chinese restaurant for our rice fix. I even know of Filipinos who travel abroad with a small rice cooker in their suitcases (and I totally get it). 

But when I turned 38, I realized I was at my heaviest and also unhealthiest.

I was easily tired, sluggish, and not really feeling great about life. I could barely recognize the person looking back at me in the mirror and I just did not feel good about myself. So at 174 lbs, I decided to finally become fit before I turned forty. I started eating clean, and I gave up sugar, processed food, and rice. I absolutely eliminated rice from my house and decided I could only eat rice once a week, when I ate out with friends and family on the weekend. I knew that starch turns into sugar, and eating too much rice and carbs would be stored as sugar and fat in my body, so I replaced rice with more vegetables in my meals. 

Through healthy food choices and diligent exercise, I lost 25 pounds by my 40th birthday — and I kept them off for several years.

When the Covid-19 pandemic started, however, I had just moved to Melbourne, Australia, which meant that I had to experience the lockdown all alone in a new city. In that first period, I probably ate more rice than I had in the previous five years combined. I needed to comfort the isolation, loneliness, and uncertainty, so I started making Filipino rice specialties that I’d long since stopped cooking. I just could not bring myself to eat salads on the cold, dreary Melbourne winter days, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that I longed for rice, and for the layered, saucy Filipino dishes that soak into it so perfectly. By the time the Australian lockdown ended on October 21, 2021, I had lived alone for 263 days and survived. But I’d also gained the 25 pounds I lost back. 

It’s been a few months and my mental and emotional health are now much more stable. I’ve started moving and exercising more. I have a healthier relationship with food, and have balanced out my relationship with rice as a part of that. While most Filipino dishes are paired with rice, I still eat them, but often I’ll enjoy them on their own, without the rice. These days, I don’t eat rice for every meal like I was during the height of the pandemic, but you can now find it in my cupboard, and I do eat it more often than I did before. So far, I am nine pounds lighter than I was during the height of the pandemic, and I’m feeling good about where I am. 

I’m thrilled that I’ve learned to really celebrate rice when I cook. 

Two days ago, I found myself sleep deprived and my emotions were all out of whack. I chose to be gentle with myself, and that involved eating a delicious rice dish, which I knew would comfort me in a way no salad possibly could.

Now in my mid-forties, I’ve come to deeply understand that food is not just about nutrients and health benefits. Food nourishes our bodies, but its job is also to comfort us. And when you’re sick, sad, or lonely, no other food can soothe you like the one that is central to your family’s home cooking. Rice is at the heart of Filipino cuisine and our love for it flows deep in our veins. I’ve come to appreciate the complexity of our relationship: for me, I’ve discovered that eating rice is both my body’s kryptonite and my heart’s solace. I’ve been slowly learning to engage in this complex dance, to find that Goldilocks spot where I can nourish a healthy body — while not depriving a hungry spirit.

Maida Pineda is a food and travel writer and author of two books. She has a Master of Arts degree in Gastronomy. You can follow here on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook

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