Anatomy of a Classic

Chicken and Rice Through the Centuries

Exploring the pleasures of a time-honored pairing at the country’s largest Mexican cookbook collection


It’s one thing to share recipes across generations. It’s another to discover a link between a recipe you made for dinner last night and one a cook prepared centuries ago.

That’s, in part, the work Carla Burgos has taken on at the University of Texas at San Antonio. For the past three years, Burgos, a graduate student, has been transcribing historic culinary manuscripts contained in the university’s Mexican cookbook collection. With more than two thousand titles in English and Spanish and some manuscripts dating back to 1789, the archive is considered the largest of its kind in the country.

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Born in Santiago, Chile, Burgos moved to Texas when she was ten. She began burrowing into the collection’s handwritten recipes for her thesis and for the library, which is working to digitize the collection. “Each cookbook has its own history,” she says. By deciphering old cookbooks, she can trace the evolution of cooking tools and the way Spanish and French ingredients made their way into Mexican dishes. Doodles and notes in the margins make the manuscripts come alive. “They teach us how cooking is connected to location, customs, traditions, and families.”

The recipes also connect the past to the present. Take arroz con pollo, a dish Latin families have been making for centuries and a mainstay on countless modern Southern tables. Burgos found an early version, called Valencia Rice, in a cookbook handwritten by Manuela Heredia y Cervantes in 1886. In the recipe, chicken and rice are cooked with onions, garlic, and tomatoes, then stuffed into peppers and simmered in broth. Saffron gives the dish color.


It’s a cousin to a more contemporary chicken and rice recipe from the British food writer Diana Kennedy, who died last July at ninety-nine. Kennedy spent decades living in Mexico, researching the culinary traditions of its many regions with the passion of a cook and the curiosity of an anthropologist. She donated her entire archive, which included thirteen linear feet of books and research and personal papers, to the university.

As in Valencia Rice, Kennedy’s version relies on saffron for color, and she builds the dish from a sauté of onion, garlic, and tomatoes. But she also adds tomatillos, allspice, and clove. And she makes things a little easier, simply poaching the chicken, then simmering it with rice in the poaching liquid and serving it on its own. (You can brown the chicken first if you prefer, though it’s not necessary.)

The recipe offers the reliable, comforting mixture of rice and chicken laced through with spices that bears similarities to Spanish paella. Kennedy’s is a decidedly Mexican take, though variations abound across Latin America. Burgos says Valencia Rice reminds her of her mother’s chicken and rice casserole. It reminds her of home. “I love food not only for the food itself,” she says, “but also for how it allows people to join together, sharing what they enjoy.” 



  • Arroz con Pollo Yield: 4–6 servings

  • For the chicken

    • 1 chicken, cut into serving pieces, skin on (the breast should be quartered; or use 4 thighs and 2 breast halves, cut into quarters)

    • 3 unpeeled garlic cloves, lightly crushed

    • ½ medium white onion, chopped

    • Chicken broth or water, to cover

    • 1 tsp. salt

  • For the rest of the dish

    • 1¾ cups long-grain rice

    • 3 tbsp. vegetable oil, plus more if needed

    • ½ medium white onion, finely chopped

    • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

    • 2 tomatillos, finely chopped

    • 1¼ lb. tomatoes, chopped and blended

    • About 20 saffron threads

    • 1 large sprig flat-leaf parsley

    • 1 clove, lightly crushed

    • 1 allspice berry, lightly crushed

    • Chopped parsley, for garnish


  1. Put chicken, raw or browned, unpeeled garlic, and chopped onion in a large pot or Dutch oven. Cover well with chicken broth or water and add salt. Cook over medium heat until the chicken is tender but not cooked all the way through, about 30 minutes. Remove chicken, set aside, and strain broth. Measure out 5 cups, adding a little water or reducing the broth as needed.

  2. Rinse rice well a few times and strain. Pour the oil into a wide, deep pan or a Dutch oven and fry the rice over medium heat, stirring well so the grains fry evenly and adding more oil if needed. It should sound brittle but should not brown. Remove rice from pan and set aside.

  3. Add finely chopped onion, garlic, and tomatillos to the pan and fry for a few seconds before adding the blended tomatoes. Continue cooking for about 10 minutes, stirring to keep the mixture from sticking. Stir in the rice. Lightly toast the saffron in a pan, then dissolve in ¼ cup of the chicken stock and stir into the rice. Arrange the chicken on top. Add the parsley sprig, the rest of the spices, and the remaining chicken stock. Adjust for salt.

  4. Cover and cook on low heat until the liquid is absorbed into the rice, about 30 minutes. The rice should be very moist. Garnish with chopped parsley.


Santiago, Chile

If you could travel back in time to eat, when would it be?
“I would eat prior to 1800 because the food was mainly baked or cooked over a firepit, not in the microwave or air fryer. Homemade food that is healthy and fresh has a taste that is very different.”

What do you like to eat when you’re conducting research?
“Snacks that I like are lima beans, cold with lemon juice or olive oil, and tuna salads with lettuce, celery, carrots, and cherry tomatoes. Sometimes I enjoy Goya Maria cookies spread with manjar [dulce de leche].”

Favorite kitchen tool:
“I have a cast-iron saucepan that I love and use every day.”