Arroz con leche is the Spanish version of Rice Pudding, but it is widely believed that this dish has origins in Moorish cuisine. This simple Spanish dessert is enjoyed throughout the Spanish peninsular as well as across the world, including South America and Asia.
Those who study Spanish history will know that the Moors occupied Spain for a period of around 700 years, so it is no surprise that some of their culture and gastronomy rubbed off on the Spanish. This theory that Spanish Rice Pudding comes from Arabic culture is supported by the very traditional Arabic mix of cinnamon and rice, which makes up a large part of the Spanish dish.
The Spanish however felt that this simple yet tasty dish was worth sharing and so the dish can be found in many countries across the world, including many former Spanish colonies including the majority of the South American countries and even in some parts of Asia. Yes, rice pudding can even be found in Malasia!
Naturally, being so widespread, many variations of arroz con leche exist. One of the more common varieties is called 'arroz emperatriz' whose recipe differs due to the addition of egg yolks. In some countries, sugar is sprinkled on the top and then heated so that it caramelizes and gives the desert a crunchy top. This is particularly common in Portugal as well as in the Spanish region of Asturias. In some places, the dish is said to be very beneficial. According to the population of Costa Rica, arroz con leche heals the wounds of the soul and brightens the day.
In Colombia, grated coconut is often used as an extra ingredient as well as a garnish on the top of the rice pudding. In Peru, arroz con leche is made with cloves which give the dessert a special aroma and flavour. They also have a version called 'arroz zambito' which is made with a Peruvian cake made from maize.
This simple rice dish has become such a common part of Hispanic culture that it has also been used in popular culture. For example, there was a soap or 'telenovela' made in Venezuela in 2007 called 'Arroz con leche' while there was also an Argentinean film made in the 1950's under the same name. Ordering arroz con leche will therefore mean that you have truly undergone a Spanish immersion into Spanish culture and gastronomy.
Of course there are also a number of different types of rice pudding across the world that aren't necessarily derived from the Spanish version of the dish but still have links to the Arabic food. For example, the rice pudding of the Anglo-American and Nordic countries is normally made using vanilla while the rice pudding of Iran is made with saffron, and in the North of India they use cardamom.
Arroz con leche can be served hot or cold, although if you order it at a Spanish restaurant when you visit Spain you will most likely be served it hot and straight from the kitchen. Sometimes, this Spanish dessert is decorated with raisins or a sprinkling of cinnamon. Although at first sight, rice pudding may not seem like a fancy dish to be serving at a dinner party, with the addition of different ingredients and a bit of creative presentation, it is sure to surprise your guests. However, it is still a great comfort food too!