Friday, 27 March 2015


“Rice is born in water and must die in wine.” - Italian Proverb

Food Friday is devoted to rice as yesterday we had a lovely risotto at home (recipe later!). Rice is one of the world’s staple foods and to give you an idea of the enormous scale of its cultivation, here are some astounding figures: In the year 2003, the world produced about 589 million tonnes of paddy rice. Most of that (≈534 million tonnes) was grown in Asia. In 2002, it is estimated that rice fields covered almost 1.5 million square km of land. Again, most of those fields are in Asia - around 1.3 million square km. When all developing countries are considered together, rice provides 30% of people’s energy intake and 20% of their dietary protein. Whenever I have visited SE Asian countries I have been impressed by the enormous tracts of land that are devoted to rice cultivation. I guess that is why most people have a typical image of the Far East in their mind and this image at some point includes a flooded rice paddy…

Rice (Oryza sativa) is a grain belonging to the grass family. The plant, which needs both warmth and moisture to grow, measures about 2 metres tall and has long, flat, pointed leaves and stalks bearing clusters of flowers producing the grain. It takes between 3 and 6 months for a rice plant to reach maturity. On average, farmers need 2,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of rice, the plant needing to grow in flooded fields (rice paddies). Rice is one of the few foods that is non-allergenic and gluten-free. Scientists believe there are about 140,000 varieties of cultivated rice.

Historians believe that rice was first domesticated in the area covering the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas (north-eastern India), and stretching through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Southern China. Traces of early rice cultivation have been found in the Yangtze valley dating to about 8500 B.C. Cultivation and cooking methods are thought to have gradually spread to the West so that by medieval times, southern Europe saw the introduction of rice as a popular and nutritious grain. The rice fields of northern Italy are a picture that comes to my mind with the classic 1949 Italian film “Bitter Rice” with Vittorio Gassman and Silvana Mangano. However, rice still remains a food that is associated with an Asian way of life: For example, in Myanmar, people eat an average of half a kilogram of rice every day. The average European consumes much less, only about 3 kilogram per year! Three of the world’s four most populous nations use rice as their staple food: China, India and Indonesia. Together, these countries have 2,500 million people.

Brown rice is unpolished whole grain rice that is produced by removing only the outer husk. It becomes white rice when the bran layer is stripped off in the milling process. Compared with white rice, brown rice is more nutritious because it contains bran, which is a source of fibre, oils, B vitamins, and important minerals. Just a clarification, the black “wild rice” comes from a completely different plant (Zizania palustris) and is native to North America growing predominantly in the Great Lakes region. See this link for an erudite review of wild rice.

Today, rice is grown and harvested on every continent except Antarctica, where conditions make its growth impossible (not much is grown as a crop in Antarctica!). The majority of all rice produced comes from India, China, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and Bangladesh. Asian farmers still account for 92% of the world's total rice production. Talking with a Chinese colleague, I was told that rice in Asian countries is viewed very much as bread is viewed by the European. Just as in the Southern Mediterranean countries bread was the basis of every meal, in Asian countries boiled or steamed rice is the basis of every meal.

Rice and its by-products are used for making straw and rope, paper, wine, crackers, beer, cosmetics, packing material, and even toothpaste! Now for that risotto recipe. Risotto is a classic dish of Italy prepared with special varieties of rice rich in starch, especially the Arborio type, and there are a multitude of recipes and variations. They all have as common feature the toasting of the rice with butter or olive oil, before broth is added to cook the grains thoroughly.

(Mushroom Risotto) 

2 tablespoonfuls of butter
2 tablespoonfuls of olive oil
2 cups oyster or morel mushrooms (may substitute any other full-flavoured mushrooms), wiped clean, trimmed, and chopped
1 cup white wine
3/4 cup dairy cream
7 and 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock

2 tablespoonfuls of butter
1 tablespoonfuls of olive oil
4 medium Spanish onions, peeled and minced
1 and 3/4 cups arborio rice
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Ground mace to taste
Chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Put the butter and two tablespoonfuls of the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the wine, bring to a boil, and reduce liquid by half, about 3-4 minutes. Lower heat to medium, add cream, and simmer 5 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and set aside.

Boil the stock and then reduce to a simmer in a saucepan.
In another deep, heavy, saucepan, heat the second lot of oil and butter. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add the rice and ground mace, and stir to coat with butter and oil, toasting for two to three minutes. Add the simmering stock, stirring to keep the rice from sticking to the edges of the pan. The stock should be almost completely absorbed in about 20 minutes. The rice should be cooked and creamy, but still in separate grains.

Stir in the mushroom mixture and the Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with parsley if desired.

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  1. Mushroom Risotto is easy to make but it can be a bit weak in flavour. So I agree with you about adding grated Parmesan cheese, freshly ground black pepper and fresh parsley. The children love it.

    But who knew that rice and its by-products could used for making rope etc? Brilliant idea... two products from the one crop.

  2. Earlier this season, we had so much rain that we could've grown rice! Tom The Backroads Traveller