The actual practice of colouring rice with natural ingredients already exists in both traditional Yunnan and Malaysian culture. Combining my gastronomical adventures in China with my native Malaysian culinary knowledge, I was inspired to come up with my own version of rainbow rice. Simple and healthy rice cooker versions that you can easily make at home.
When I was living in Beijing, I used to frequent this cozy Yunnan restaurant that serves up a King’s Feast or Wa Wang Yan 佤王宴. This feast originates from the Wa ethnic minority group in Yunnan province where all the food is laid out on a huge table covered with banana leaves. A very impressive layout that fills up the entire table with colourful rice, vegetables, meat and ethnic delicacies. You can see the Southeast Asian influence here as they offer you a pot or basin to wash your hands at the table. Eating is to be conducted with your hands.
I noticed that they had three different types of rice laid out on the table. The restaurant owner told me that one of them is rice cooked in Pu’er tea. That really fascinated me as I have never thought of cooking rice in tea before. Pu’er tea gives the rice a light tea fragrance that doesn’t overwhelm the natural aroma of rice. So I kept that idea in a little corner of my brain, telling myself that I will try it out one day.
When I finally went to Yunnan a couple of years ago, I got to try the feast of the Dai ethnic minority group, known as shou zhua fan 手抓饭 meaning rice grabbed with hands. Again, I noticed the different coloured rice arranged in a radial pattern on a bamboo platter. Dying glutinous rice with the natural colours from flowers and herbs is a tradition in Yunnan culture. They have something called 5 coloured rice – red, purple, yellow, black and white rice soaked in dye extracted from local plants and flowers. Platters of colourful glutinous rice are served during festivities and for ancestral prayers.
Back in Malaysia, our traditional Malay rice dishes comes in a variety of colours too. Besides the plain white nasi lemak (coconut rice), there is also the nasi pandan (usually paired with grilled chicken) which is cooked with the juice from pandan leaves, nasi kerabu (Malay herb salad rice) which is cooked with the blue water from blue pea flowers and nasi kunyit (usually paired with curry chicken) which is cooked with turmeric powder or fresh turmeric. These rice dishes do not only look attractive, they smell absolutely wonderful.
With inspiration from both places, I have listed a variety of natural colour options to be used for dying rice:
White – coconut milk or just plain water
Green – pandan leaf
Yellow – turmeric powder/fresh turmeric or saffron
Blue – blue pea flower
Brown – Pu’er tea
- For a stronger blue colour, blend the blue pea flower with some water
- You can add these herbs and spices to your rice according preference: onion, garlic, ginger, galangal, kaffir lime leaf, torch ginger flower, pandan leaf, lemongrass, star anise, cloves, salt and pepper
- For a healthier option, I add organic coconut oil instead of coconut milk for the wonderful coconut fragrance
- Pu’er tea needs to be diluted with water so that you won’t taste the bitterness of strong concentrated tea. You can also add cloves and star anise to the rice for a stronger flavour
- These aromatic rice goes well with meat curry, fried fish, grilled chicken, herb salad
- You can use white rice, glutinous rice or mixed grain rice. Some people like to mix plain rice with glutinous rice to get a slightly firmer and stickier texture. Turmeric rice is traditionally made with glutinous rice.
- Coating knife with a layer of oil can minimize stain from the turmeric roots. The coat of oil protects the knife and makes the yellow stain easier to rub off