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Rice around the world

Swapping science for savoury - let’s appreciate the cultural significance of a crop that acts as a staple food for half of the people on Earth.

June 20, 2016

Setting aside the huge scientific value of analysing 1600 rice genomes and training Vietnamese rice breeders in bioinformatics for a moment - let’s appreciate the cultural significance of a crop that acts as a staple food for half of the people on Earth.

Here, we celebrate rice in its plethora of culinary forms - and you can have my essential risotto recipe for free (described by real Italians as “buonissimo”)! Read on to discover the rice facts you never thought you’d need to know.

Unsurprisingly, Asia - the home of rice domestication - accounts for 90% of global rice consumption1.

However, this hasn’t stopped rice from becoming a truly global grain and satiating an international palate2.

Not just a staple crop in some of the most severely food-stricken regions of the planet, rice provides significant calories for some of the the world’s poorest people, for whom even wheat - something taken for granted in the Western world with our crusty ciabatte and buttery brioches - is a precious luxury.

The rice to the top.

Despite being mostly consumed (and produced) in Asia, rice is swiftly becoming a staple crop in other regions. Consumption has doubled in the Middle East in recent years, while in Africa rice is the most rapidly increasing staple constituent - replacing others such as cassava and yam1.

This can only be a good thing.

Since rice ended up in the hands of varied cultures throughout the world, it has coughed up some truly tremendous dishes - biryani, paella and risotto to name but a few.

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Since rice ended up in the hands of varied cultures throughout the world, it has coughed up some truly tremendous dishes - biryani, paella and risotto to name but a few.

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Pulao to paella - you’re pulaoing my leg.

Alongside flamenco, El Classico, bullfighting, conquistadors and Rafael Nadal, paella is one of the many things for which Spain is famous throughout the world.

Though who’d have linked the famous pilau rice consumed by ravenous Brits in Bangladeshi curry houses, from Brighton to John O’Groats, to the saffron-infused Valencian rice, rabbit and chicken-laden masterpiece?

Disclaimer: Without wanting to cause any paella-related arguments, I have been told - in no uncertain terms - that paella most definitely should be made with rabbit and chicken - and possibly even snails (take this up with the city of Valencia, not me).

It turns out that pilau is indeed the link! Indian pulao - rice, boiled and seasoned - travelled to Persia, where it remained pulao. This then became pilau in Turkey and pilaff in Europe. The Moors then introduced this preparatory method to Spain, where paella was born.

Not content with having one of the world’s tastiest dishes, the Spaniards even blessed the Caribbean with this food, which helped inspire the Creole jambalaya (and henceforth an abundance of fantastic country and blues music).

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The list of rice dishes around the world could make up an encyclopaedia.

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Un Po’ più di risotto.

Excusing the hilarious Italian pun, rice was cultivated in the Po Valley of Italy from the fourteenth century onwards.

From humble beginnings, this dish has become a staple of Italian food (up there with the best in the world outside of Lancashire) - and can even be recycled into delectable arancini with the leftovers.

A pleasure to both cook and eat, this dish can be made up with all manner of ingredients - finished off with ample servings of pecorino.

We can only assume that the Italian cultivation of rice, and therefore risotto, fuelled Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Galileo and company to their inspired renaissance glories. I have thus far found no incontrovertible proof to the contrary.

Sushi rice cake.

Who’d have thought that rice wrapped in seaweed would become so popular a dish worldwide?

It’s hard to imagine life without sushi bars, wasabi and soy sauce. Nor do I want to.

Rice is a fabled staple in Japan. In fact, one of the country’s largest shrines is dedicated to a legend involving a mound of mochi (a pounded rice cake).

A wealthy man, apparently, used this as an archery target. Once the arrow struck the mochi it turned into a white bird, which then flew away. At this point rice started growing, meaning the man bestowed upon the bird the embodiment of the rice spirit and built a shrine - which is still visited by millions each new year’s eve.

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Did you know that rice, really, is only a staple for those living in the south of China?

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Made in China.

As well as being a sacred “gift from God” in many traditional Southeast Asian cultures, rice is also a way of life for billions.

From the alluvial soils of the Mekong delta in Vietnam to the steeping valleys of the Yangtze in China, rice has played a central role in the development of some of the world’s most fascinating and diverse cultures.

Although - did you know that rice, really, is only a staple for those living in the south of China? In the north, wheat is much more common. It turns out that most of the Chinese takeaways are run by people who emigrated from the south of China - hence the rice association.

In the north, it’s all about noodles - but that’s for another blog post.

Still, the rice of the south of China supported populations in the north for centuries - and now China is a net exporter of rice. So, from the very lands where rice was domesticated, the harvests are still abundant and helping to nourish the planet.

It’s not just for eating though. Rice starch has been used in the very foundations of Chinese buildings as a constituent of mortar. The leaves can be made into edible rice paper, and the grains themselves can be fermented to rice wine.

Rice world.

We’ve barely even scratched the surface. The list of rice dishes around the world could make up an encyclopaedia, or keep you occupied in the kitchen every day for at least two years.

There are obviously plentiful dishes to be found in Asia - classics such as Indian biryani and Chinese fried rice, as well as breakfast items including plentiful varieties of Juk - a Korean rice-based porridge.

I recall my meals while in Ecuador - midday and teatime desayunos - which, without fail, contained a large serving of rice laden with coriander. (Every time coriander - Ecuador needs to seriously branch out with the herb options).

No middle-eastern fare is complete without some stuffed vine leaves, or dolma, which are stuffed with rice along with other ingredients.

No burrito would be sufficient without a healthy amount of beans and rice packed into a tortilla wrap.

In fact, just about anything goes with rice, it turns out.

And then you can wash it down with a nice shot (or three) of sake.

The proof is in the pudding.

A clearly very versatile grain, rice isn’t just a stodgy, neutral-tasting addition to more heartier bits of a meal. It’s also used in desserts.

One such delicacy is khao lam, a Thai pudding choice of rice and sugar in bamboo. Another Thai dessert is khao tom mat - which combines sticky rice with coconut milk and banana. Sounds delicious!

Finally, there is possibly the greatest rice dish of them all.

Rice pudding. I’ll say no more, but no British kitchen cupboard is complete without a tin of Ambrosia.

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I am willing to share some of my (delicious) recipes with you. Though better known as a gourmet insect chef, worry not, there’ll be no creepy crawlies in here, just a delicious risotto!

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Pete's essential risotto recipe.

Now that we must mourn the loss of BBC Food’s fabulous range of recipes - don’t fear!

I can’t promise we’ll permanently step into the breach, but I am willing to share some of my (delicious) recipes with you. Though better known as a gourmet insect chef, worry not, there’ll be no creepy crawlies in here.

Ingredients:

  • Celery: 1 - 3 sticks, or as many as you can truthfully be bothered to chop into tiny, tiny pieces
  • Onion: 1, preferably red as they’re bound to be healthier (anthocyanins are great for not getting gout)
  • Garlic: 2 or 3 juicy cloves
  • Arborio rice / paella rice / pearl barley: Depends on how many you’re feeding, but don’t be stingy, use the whole packet
  • Vegetable stock: Enough to make about 2L, a couple of Oxo cubes should suffice
  • White wine: Use liberally as part of your stock suspension
  • Pepper: Depends on your addiction level as to how much you decide to use
  • Pecorino: A substantial portion, let’s go for 150-200g, live a little
  • Parmesan: A similarly substantial portion
  • Alternative cheese - goats cheese: An underappreciated risotto-making cheese
  • Asparagus: A good 12 chunky stems - chopped into reasonably sized chunks
  • Porcini mushrooms: One bag of dried mushrooms should suffice. Other earthy mushrooms such as shiitake are also very much welcomed.
  • Herbs: Completely optional, though choose wisely. There’s no point trying to overpower the cheese, or indeed the porcini mushrooms.

Method:

  • Soak your porcini mushrooms 20 minutes ahead of time, step back and appreciate their musky smell
  • Chop your celery into the tiniest possible fragments (entirely dependent on you maintaining the will to live, but you’ll be glad you did)
  • Chop your onion and garlic into similarly tiny fragments
  • Heat some olive oil in a pan along with your tiny vegetable fragments and sweat them all gently for around ten minutes (this requires a lid) - taking care not to burn them. They should become a nice mushy mess.
  • While your base vegetables are merrily sweating, drink some of the white wine and heat some water in a pan ready to slightly boil your asparagus stalks
  • Slightly boil your asparagus stalks - 6 minutes should do
  • Make up your stock with water and white wine
  • Once your vegetables have become a nice mushy mess, add your rice and turn the heat up a little
  • Once your mush has soaked into the rice, start adding the stock suspension a little bit at a time, so that the rice absorbs the liquid
  • Keep repeating this with 150ml additions
  • Keep trying your rice - you want it to be al dente - which means your teeth should know there’s something there. No-one wants a smushy risotto. No-one.
  • After about 10/15 minutes, go ahead and add your asparagus and porcini mushrooms
  • Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the pan and your choice of rice, but once you are almost certain that your rice is veering towards the borderline of becoming perfectly al dente, go ahead and sprinkle in pepper and add the cheese
  • Stir plentifully, remove from the heat (final tooth test)
  • Enjoy, with more white wine.

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications Officer (Part time)

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