When it comes to side dishes, rice is pretty much your no-brainer, goes-with-everything, workhorse par excellence. And while there is a sort of understated elegance to a mound of plain, unadorned rice, sometimes it can feel a little bit, well, plain. Luckily, the grains work like a sponge, soaking up any spices, broths, or dressings you add to them. The next time you’ve got some meaty or weighty mains on the menu, consider serving one of these delicious rice recipes on the side—they’ll do anything but fade into the background.
And a couple of them can even stand on their own, or nearly so (we never say no to a good side salad).
1. Rice Pilaf
On the surface, this looks like the most boring option on this list, but rice pilaf is a simple and versatile side that you can tweak depending on what you have in the pantry or fridge. Start by cooking onions and garlic, and then—this is key—cook the raw rice in the pan until it’s toasty. That creates a great base flavor which you can accentuate by adding whatever fresh herbs you like, not to mention anything else you want: spices, nuts, dried fruit, citrus juice, saffron… Get our Rice Pilaf recipe.
2. Spanish Rice
This tomato and garlic flavored rice has what it takes to balance out robust dishes like refried beans or heavily-spiced meats. Serve with fajitas or quesadillas of course—or grilled shrimp, roasted chicken, and so on. Get our Spanish Rice recipe.
Featuring chilis, herbs, scallions, and lime, arroz verde really runs with the green theme, exploring all of the different shades and flavors you can get out of one color. Get our Spicy Green Rice (Arroz Verde) recipe. (And for another herb-heavy option from a different part of the world, try this Malaysian Herbed Rice recipe.)
4. Coconut Rice
Coconut rice is way more than just creamy, fragrant, and delicious. Its richness provides a sturdy contrast to the sometimes sharp and spicy jabs of Southeast Asian cuisine (Malaysian nasi lemak is a must-try; scroll down for a video tutorial). Get the Coconut Rice recipe.
Lundberg Family Farms, California White Jasmine Rice, 32 Ounce, $6.03 on Amazon
Lemon and cumin add just enough tartness and spice to rice to make it really pop. They don’t take it too over the top, however—these grains are tame enough to serve along with other fragrant and vibrant south Indian dishes. Get the Indian Lemon Rice recipe.
Related Reading: Essential Indian Condiments You Should Know
As if the orange blossom-scented cooking water in this recipe weren’t enough, Iranian jeweled rice tops off the grains with an intoxicating overload of nuts, spices, and dried fruit, for a colorful dish that lives up to its name. Get the Iranian Jeweled Rice recipe.
If you’re making the full Baked Mussels with Pepperoni Rice recipe, the grains are cooked in the delicious liquid drained off after the mussels are steamed with wine, parsley, and garlic—but if you just want to make the rice alone, it will still be packed with flavor if you swap in 2 1/2 cups of plain water. That’s because it’s also cooked with pepperoni, tomato paste, anchovy, and oregano (oh, and more wine), with salt and lemon juice to finish. You can serve it as a side dish with something mild like pork or chicken, but it’s honestly a meaty enough meal in its own right with a simple salad or steamed green veg.
Adding healthful ingredients like ginger and turmeric is an easy way to boost both the nutrition and the aromatics in your rice. This particular Ginger and Turmeric Rice recipe takes it even further by adding in dried cranberries, pine nuts, and cilantro to mix it up, but even if you skip those add-ins, you have a delicious side dish with a gorgeous golden-orange color.
Beans and rice are a perfect pair and there are many, many variations on the theme—Jamaican-style rice and peas (which is, in fact, made with beans, despite the name) flavored with fiercely hot Scotch bonnet peppers, coconut, thyme, and garlic; Puerto Rican arroz con gandules (which starts off with pork belly drippings and a pepper and herb sofrito before the rice even hits the pan, laying the foundations for an incredibly savory dish). We love all of them, but classic Cuban black beans and rice is one of the best iterations. This Moros y Cristianos recipe swaps in brown rice and flavors it with bay leaf, garlic, onion, oregano, and cumin. Keep it vegan with the plant-based protein of your liking, or go ahead and top it with Cuban pulled pork.
Even without the shrimp, adding the sour and spicy tang of kimchi to rice definitely kicks it up several notches. Whether you make this your main or part of a multi-course meal, it’s full of over-the-top character and funk. Get our Kimchi and Shrimp Fried Rice recipe.
This one requires the extra step of transferring the rice from the pot (where it’s cooked with butter, scallions, onion, garlic, broth, and cream) to a baking dish, but it’s 100 percent worth it, especially once you see that golden, cheesy blanket on top. This is also another one that works as a meal or a side in smaller portions. Get our Cheesy Baked Rice recipe.
Miki Kawasaki wrote the original version of this article; it has been updated with additional links, text, and images.
Header image by Chowhound.