Rice, its History and 3 Knockout Recipes

Firstly, rice is that rare food which is gluten-free, though one has to be careful when reading labels: some producers use various coatings to enrich it and I would suggest to check carefully if you are gluten-intolerant. Since white rice is by far the most common of all types (white rice can be kept indefinitely in a cool, dry area), it is consumed in all countries of the world. White rice is de-hulled, has all bran and germ layers removed, and is often enriched, giving it more nutritional value than it holds on its own. Personally I like brown rice best, for its flavor and concomitant vitamins. Then wild rice, then red rice from my neck of the woods, Camargues (see pic below)

The first rice is thought to have been grown in East and South Asia some 12,000 years ago, when people began to settle in river deltas and domesticated wild rice (I have perused hundreds of sites for origins of rice though historians hold little or no stock in any data. Others believe the roots of rice come from 3000 BC India, where natives discovered the plant growing in the wild and began to experiment with it, however there is ample data of morphological studies of rice phytoliths from the Diaotonghuan archaeological site which clearly show the transition from the collection of wild rice to the cultivation of domesticated rice around 11,000 to 13,000 years ago.)

While rice is not only a prominent food for the Chinese of today, it is also the first grain that was farmed there in earnest. At that time, inhabitants prepared rice by boiling it in water, which is pretty much the same way we still do it today. Eventually some smart guy discovered that rice can be made into wine, which then became a well-known and popular drink throughout Asia since prehistoric days.

In Japan, rice was introduced about 400 B.C. during the Jomon Period. The Yayoi culture (circa 250 B.C. to AD 250) was characterized by production of iron & bronze weapons and wet cultivation of rice. These two features suggest the beginning of strong Chinese influence (Ch’in and Han dynasties) which filtered through Chinese colonies in Korea.

Cultivation and cooking methods are thought to have spread to the west rapidly and by medieval times, southern Europe saw the introduction of rice as a companion grain to wheat, barley and rye. Today, rice is grown and harvested on every continent except Antarctica, though I’m almost sure that in the not so distant future (climate change) conditions will make its growth possible. Today, the majority of all rice produced comes from India, China, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and Bangladesh. Asian farmers still account for over 90% of the world’s total rice production. More than 750 million tons of rice is produced annually around the globe (on par with that other power grain, wheat).

All over the world rice is an ingredient of many soups and dishes with fish, poultry, and other types of meat. It is also used to stuff vegetables or is wrapped in grape leaves (Middle-East). In Japan it is used in sushi. When combined with milk, sugar and honey, it is used to make incredibly good desserts. The recipes and uses of rice are endless in their permutations. Though there are over 140,000 varieties of rice, there are only four major categories worldwide: Indica, Japonica, aromatic and glutinous.

Rice is usually distinguished by the length of its grain i.e. long, medium, or short. Long grain rice produces a light and fluffy consistency because the grains do not stick together. It’s extremely versatile and often used in side dishes like pilaf and fried rice. Compared with white rice which is not a complete protein (it does not contain all of the essential amino acids in sufficient amounts), brown rice is more nutritious because it contains bran, which is a source of fiber, oils, B vitamins, and important minerals. Since a large portion of maize crops are grown for purposes other than human consumption, rice is the most important grain with regard to human nutrition and caloric intake, providing more than one fifth of the calories consumed worldwide by the human species.

So, now for the three recipes:

Paella could easily qualify as a signature dish for the Slow Food movement: you can get most of the ingredients locally and it is a slowly cooked affair. There are literally hundreds of paella recipes, and not just from Spain where it originated (ample documentation puts Valencia in the spotlight, where the Moors introduced rice cultivation around the 8th or 9th century). I’ve had Cuban paellas, Mexican ones and even one from Ecuador. Each region in Spain has its version with almost infinite permutations. There is also one known as “arroz negro” (black rice) which is quite popular in Catalonia, made with squid and of course quite a bit of squid ink.

To make a proper paella it is best to procure yourself with a round flat pan with two handles, or “paellera”, as it is known in Spain. The rice used in a true paella is critical to its success, as is the quality of the saffron. Ideally, a long or medium grain rice is the ticket. There are some folks who would gladly use arborio rice for this dish but I would refrain from using a short, plump grain, and let’s face it, it is of better use in a risotto dish.

I have made quite a few paellas in Australia as this sort of dish is immensely suitable for a pool or a beach party: build a small fire in the sand, ring it with some stones or use a portable gas range, throw the pan on top of it and start cooking. I like the Catalonian idea of mixing seafood with chicken and selected vegetables such as fresh peas, eggplant and bell peppers. The following recipe though is seafood only, and serves 6 to 8 (depending on the pan size. You can get a large one that would easily cater for 12 to 15 people).

1 pound of long grain rice, 1 pound of cleaned squid (if you can’t buy fresh, nowadays you can find a good quality cleaned squid in supermarkets) cut in long strips, 2 pounds of fresh mussels in the shell, cleaned and scrubbed (make sure that they’re super fresh!), 1 pound of king prawns, de-veined and shelled but with head still on, 1 pound of fresh clams, washed and de-sanded, 8 ounces of shelled peas, 4 red bell peppers, de-seeded and cut into thick strips, 4 yellow bell peppers, same as the red ones, 6 to 8 garlic cloves, peeled and cut up roughly, 2 large red onions, peeled and chopped roughly, a pinch or two of good saffron (that’s an important ingredient), 2 pints of either fish, chicken or vegetable stock plus have a pint or so of water on hand just in case, salt & pepper to taste, and make sure you have some good olive oil to start with, you may need about 4 to 6 tablespoons. Now the fun begins. But first, drop a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in the rice and mix well, this will separate the rice nicely.

Pic below is the Cuban version:

Secure your paella pan over the heat of your choice, it has to start over low heat or flame, increasing the heat as you go on. Pour the equivalent of 3 tablespoons of a good olive oil and throw the cut up onions and garlic. Fry those for a minute and add the oiled up rice, the saffron and spread well. Pour a little stock, it should bubble a little (it’s not that different than making a risotto, the idea is to add liquids to the rice as it cooks). I have done this with fresh crabs as well though it is messy to eat but fun nevertheless. Pour yourself a nice glass of wine or beer and keep stirring the rice, adding more stock, now arrange the bell peppers strips all over the dish and keep at it for a couple of minutes. Now it should be half done, place the squid strips, prawns and mussel around and stir gently, cook for another 2 minutes. At this juncture I would add the clams (both clams & mussels will release some very tasty sea juices so check for salt at the very end of cooking), and the peas. Always make sure the rice gets liquid and doesn’t stick to the pan. The whole affair should not take more than 20 minutes. Pic below is a Mexican paella.

The next recipe is dead easy. If you’re having a curry or some sort of stew, may it be a meaty one, vegetable or seafood, chances are that you might need a quick rice dish to accompany it. I really love this one as a quick snack as well, and its uses can be many: in a fajita, taco, salad etc. and at a stretch, you can even make a mock sushi using this rice. I do, when in a hurry. The recipe is for 1 cup (200 grams or 7 ounces) of Jasmine rice, so just double or triple the amount to suit your purpose:

1 cup Jasmine rice, washed & rinsed, 1 half of a tin of coconut cream (better than coconut milk for this purpose), 2 cups of cold water, the juice of 2 limes, salt to taste.

Place the washed rice into a thick-bottomed saucepan or if you have one, a rice cooker. Mix the coconut cream and water together and pour over the rice. Bring it to a slow boil, stir, then at the lowest possible heat, cover the saucepan with a lid. Simmer, and I mean simmer the dish for about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, leaving the lid on, and set aside for 15 minutes. This will make it nicely fluffy when you stir in the lime juice and adjust the salt to your liking.

During my eight-month sojourn in Bali, I have eaten more nasi goreng than any other dish, in fact almost every day because it is the sort of dish that lets you add whatever there is left in the pantry or the refrigerator, may it be chicken, prawns, all sorts of vegetables, bean sprouts and so on. I guess the nearest equivalent would be Louisiana’s Dirty Rice but sans the Cajun spices, or the giblets. In Indonesia and Malaysia it is always served with strips of thin omelet casually resting on top of the dish, with various juliennes of vegetables. You can also add smoked tofu or tempeh and make this a healthy meal. Pic below compliments from goodnewsfromindonesia.org.

This version is the one that sustained me for those months:

for 4 to 6 persons you will need 1 ½ cups rice (Basmati is a popular choice), 6 tablespoons of peanut oil, 2 eggs, 1 pound of thigh chicken meat, half a pound of shrimps, peeled and de-veined, 2 tablespoons of shrimp paste, 2 brown onions, peeled and cut, 6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced, 2 small red chilies, de-seeded and cut up, 1 large bunch of green onions, all finely sliced, 2 carrots, peeled and cut in julienne, 1 cucumber, de-seeded and peeled and cut into long strips, 2 celery sticks, 1 cup of bean sprouts, 2 or 3 tablespoons of Ketjap Manis (wonderful Indonesian fermented sauce, slightly sweet, made with molasses among other things), 2 tablespoons of Sambal oelek (though with me, it’s more likely to put more), 2 tablespoons of fish sauce or Nam plah, and don’t forget the water to boil your rice!

By the way, the rice used to make this dish is more often than not cooked ahead of time which explains why nasi goreng is widely eaten as a way to clear up the previous day’s leftovers.

First, beat the eggs and make into a omelet, slice into strips and set aside. Assuming you have your rice cooked, heat up the peanut oil in your wok (if you’re allergic to this oil, use sunflower or sesame) and throw the onions, garlic and the cubed chicken thigh meat, cook and stir for 2 or 3 minutes, then add the green onions, chilies, carrot and celery, cook/stir for a couple of minutes before adding the cooked rice. Stir well and add shrimps, the shrimp paste, the fish sauce, kecap manis and the sambal, cook for 2 minutes. This should color the rice well, then add the bean sprouts and serve with the julienne of cucumber on top alongside the cut up omelet.

And lastly I’m sure some of you know this story: a Chinese invented the chess board. The emperor got interested in the game. He was so impressed with the inventor that he was willing to get any of his wish granted. ” Ask anything and it will be given, ” said the emperor. “I have only a very small desire, the inventor replied. “Keep one grain of rice in the first column, two in the next, four in the third and so on until the last column.” The emperor felt it was a very small wish and readily agreed. He asked his servants to keep one grain in the first, 2 in the second, four in the third, eight in the fourth, 16 in the fifth, 32 in the sixth, 64 in the seventh ….128,…. 256…..512….1024….2048……4096…. … 8112…. 16224… and 32448 in the 16th column. The number of grains just got doubled and when it reached the 25th column it became a ton of rice. He had to get 128 tons of rice for the 32nd column and 32768 tones in the 40th column. The entire rice produced in China and the whole world did not suffice for the 60th column. There were four more to go. The emperor accepted defeat.

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