How South Floridians From Different Countries Get A Taste Of Home Through Rice

Aug 7, 2014

Click through the photos above to see the different dishes.

By itself, rice is a pretty simple grain. But in South Florida, rice takes on several roles.

For some cultures, it's a side dish, for others it's a main dish or even a delicacy. Below, South Floridians from different countries talk about what rice means to them.


Maria Teresa De Arango learned how to make coconut rice when she was 10 years old, from her aunt who lived in Cartagena, a small town off the coast of Colombia.

“We didn’t make it as much, but when we did it was -- whoa! Very special,” says Arango, who is from Bogota. “When we went to the coast, we would eat it everyday.”

Arroz de coco was more common in Cartagena because of the abundance of coconut trees there. But now Arango only makes the rice once or twice a month.

She sprinkles raisins over a steaming pan of rice. The smell of brown sugar and coconut lingers in the air as she puts the finishing touches on her arroz the coco.

"It's a hard and long to make. Sometimes I find the titote already made, so it is easier," she says.

Arango prepares the titote, which is the base and gives color to the coconut rice.
Credit Constanza Gallardo / WLRN

Titote is the base of coconut rice. After Narvaez blends the coconut, she strains out the water and drops the blended coconut pulp into the pan. Then, she fries it. The heat causes a flavorful oil to form, called titote.

When the oil is medium to dark brown, Arango pours in the rice. She then adds heaps of sugar and raisins.

For Arango, family makes arroz de coco special.

“This dish is different when you take it with your family, in your house, with your grandma, with your nephews,” she says. “This is the reason... family.”


When Patricia Baptiste was growing up, black mushroom rice, or diri avek djon djon, meant guests were coming over. The dish is usually cooked for special occasions, like communions, parties and baptisms, among others.

“We could eat [rice] three times a day different ways,” says Baptiste. “We eat it as pudding in the morning... for dinner, you eat [it] with beans and fish.”

Rice is an integral part of the Haitian culture. It’s part of almost every meal and is the usually the main dish. "We [Haitians] don't feel like we've eaten if we don't have our rice," says Baptiste. "If rice wasn't available here I would go to Haiti more often."

To prepare for the rice, Baptiste soaks black mushrooms in water and sets them aside. She then slices and peels all of her vegetables, keeping them sorted in wooden bowls on the counter.

After that, she heads to the stove where she adds crushed garlic and scallions to sizzling oil. She stirs until the mixture is golden brown. Once the garlic and scallions are browned, Baptiste adds lima beans, tomatoes, cashews, parsley and salted pork to fry together.

The black mushrooms give the color to the rice.
Credit Constanza Gallardo / WLRN

The black mushrooms are the most important ingredient for this rice dish. They're used to stain the water black, which gives the rice its dark color.

They're imported from Haiti because they don't grow in South Florida. But Baptiste says she doesn't have a problem finding them.

Baptiste says she didn't learn how to cook until she came to the United States. Learning was the only way she could feel like she was at home.

"I started cooking when I come here," she says. I never used to cook at home. ... I feel like I'm home because I have to cook my Haitian food."


For Gutierrez, red rice is a side dish that takes him back to different stages of his life. As he eats, he remembers his past like a movie playing in his mind.

If he eats it with scrambled eggs, it reminds him of his childhood; if he mixes it with tuna, it takes him back to his teenage years when he wanted something quick to eat. And when he mixes it with chicken soup, it reminds him of how his mom cared for him when he was sick.

“I think the red rice is higher quality than white rice,” he says as he recalls his mother and aunt making red rice during family parties and weddings. “And we mix it with mole poblano and chicken.”

Like Baptiste, Gutierrez also washes the rice before starting to cook. As he prepares the raw rice, he fries garlic in a pan to add flavor.

Then he fries the rice and waits until it gets a golden color. At the same time, Gutierrez puts tomatoes, onions and garlic inside the blender to prepare the sauce.

"I don't know why they call [it] red rice," he says, "because it's actually orange."

The tomato flavor chicken bouillon is Gutierrez' secret ingredient when cooking red rice.
Credit Constanza Gallardo / WLRN

Once he mixes the sauce in the rice, he adds the secret ingredient brought from Mexico: tomato-flavored chicken bouillon. It gives the rice its salty taste.

Now, he lets the rice cook for ten minutes without stirring. During this process, Gutierrez always thinks of his mom because he learned to cook from her.

After moving from Mexico City to Miami, Ricardo Gutierrez suffered from severe food nostalgia. He says in his country, eating is part of the culture.

“It’s like two, three hours of happiness when you find the flavors that you remember when you were young or with your family in Mexico,” he says.

This piece was produced by Jephie Bernard, Carla Javier, Selima Hussain and Constanza Gallardo.