The Proverbial Lugaw

by Fernando Perfas

Westlake Rice Porridge | Photo by Wally Gobetz via Flickr/Creative Commons

It is said that lugaw or porridge rice originated from a poor man’s hut when he had to add more water to stretch out a cup of rice grains enough to feed his family’s soupy meal. It has since been considered a poor man’s meal.

While growing up in my sleepy barrio in Bicol, there were days when food was scarce, and my mom had to improvise. Instead of preparing lugaw, which was the poor’s ultimate food, she would add just enough water to cook the rice as kanin malata (soggy boiled rice) that could feed more mouths than a regularly boiled rice. In her mind, eating plain lugaw was a desperate measure, the last resort to stave off hunger. The only exception to this was consuming lugaw for nutrition and as a home remedy when sick. The notion of lugaw as a poor man’s meal stuck in my head, and it was not until later, when I started to travel the world for work when I began to change my lowly opinion of lugaw.

“Nowadays, when my trip takes me to Southeast Asia, one of my favorite breakfast meals is porridge rice with various condiments added for flavor. By this time, the lowly lugaw has elevated to some international stature. I find that each country has its own version, or more like a variation, of the same basic cooking style of porridge rice”

Nowadays, when my trip takes me to Southeast Asia, one of my favorite breakfast meals is porridge rice with various condiments added for flavor. By this time, the lowly lugaw has elevated to some international stature. I find that each country has its own version, or more like a variation, of the same basic cooking style of porridge rice. In the Philippines, one finds goto, consisting of tripe boiled with rice and spiced with safflower, garlic, onion, peppercorn, ginger, and garnished with toasted garlic, fish sauce, lemon juice, chopped scallions, and topped with a hard-boiled egg. This has been my favorite lugaw until I stopped eating meat. The most popular is arroz caldo, chicken porridge rice with saffron, a Spanish spin to a very Filipino dish. Other regional variations are achieved by adding different ingredients.

The Thais have what they call khao tom, which comes with either fish (khao tom pla) or chicken (khao tom khai) as the main ingredient. The Thais use a sauce with a mixture of vinegar, sugar, fish sauce or soy sauce, and chili pepper. From them, I also learned to eat khao tom with salted fried peanuts as an aside. Among Thais, you start the day with a breakfast of khao tom and cap the night with it, too. In that society, it’s the ultimate comfort food. The porridge rice is eaten with balut, boiled unhatched duck egg with the embryo among Vietnamese people. It’s usually served either in the morning or at night. My favorite topping for plain porridge rice is fried garlic toasted brown in oil, sprinkled with some fish sauce and lemon juice. On the side is boiled egg, salted egg, or fried dilis (dried salted anchovy).

“The lowly lugaw has come a long way. It has come out of the poor man’s kitchen’s confines and found its way into the breakfast buffet menu of some five-star hotels throughout Asia.”

In the far-flung region of Central Asia, the popular dish closest to lugaw is plov, which, according to legend, originated from the Army of the Turco-Mongol Conqueror Tamerlane from Uzbekistan. He once ordered his Army’s chef to concoct a complete meal that did not require too many preparations to serve to a highly mobile army. The outcome was a dish that consisted of rice, mutton, carrots, and spices.

The lowly lugaw has come a long way. It has come out of the poor man’s kitchen’s confines and found its way into the breakfast buffet menu of some five-star hotels throughout Asia. When I’m in the mood, I make my own version of khao tom pla, which is a fusion of Thai and Filipino porridge rice with fish and ginger, garnished with chopped scallion, a few drops of fish sauce, a pinch of lemon juice, and topped with fried garlic in oil. It still doesn’t make me feel like a millionaire eating it, but comfort food puts me in a happy mood.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR  Dr. Fernando B. Perfas is an addiction specialist who has written several books and articles on the subject. He currently provides training and consulting services to various government and non-government drug treatment agencies regarding drug treatment and prevention approaches. He can be reached at fbperfas@gmail.com.

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