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food / travel

Is Europe Finally Ready To Give Rice The Respect It Deserves?

Rice has long been held in great esteem in Asia. Not so in Europe, where it is often dismissed as "food for the poor." Little by little, however, Europeans are starting to clue in to the fact that rice is far more than just filler food.

Worldwide there are some 170,000 varieties of rice (Mr. Kris)
Worldwide there are some 170,000 varieties of rice (Mr. Kris)
Clark Parkin

BERLIN -- "Have you had some rice already?" It's a polite question Thais use much the same way the English use "How do you do?" Neither is meant to be answered with anything more than a short, hopefully positive reply. In Thailand, so the reasoning goes, things can't be too bad if you've eaten a bowl of rice.

In myth, but also culturally, rice is held in great esteem in Asia – which makes sense given that worldwide there are some 170,000 varieties of the grain. What's odd, in contrast, is how little attention rice receives in Europe

Europeans, who have Mesopotamia to thank for the cereal grain, prepare rice is three main ways: as risotto, paella or rice pudding -- which, with sugar and cinnamon, has traditionally been considered a home remedy. Indeed, in over 2,000 years, not much more has occurred to us except of course that popular favorite since the 1950s: the rice ring (with or without canned fruit added) surrounding something like chicken fricassee.

As far as the rice in sushi is concerned, we still haven't learned the proper way to approach it: first mistake, we dip the rice side of the sushi into wasabi-laced (second mistake) soy sauce (third mistake) so that it pretty much disintegrates. The proper way to eat sushi is to dip the fish side only, very lightly, in a mixture of mirin, soy sauce, dashi and sake. Pickled wasabi is enjoyed – separately – afterwards.

In gastronomic restaurants in Europe, while potatoes now get the royal treatment right down to having their variety listed -- Bamberger Hörnla, Belle de Noirmoutier, La Ratte – rice is once again the poor relation. A rare exception is black "Riso Venere," a variety grown in Piedmont, Italy and used for risotto. It takes 50 minutes to cook and never loses its bite. Otherwise, rice is usually used as a filling from the stuffed peppers of our childhood to rarefied specialties like truffled chicken served in a pig's bladder with rice mixed with tiny cubes of goose liver and peas. The rice is there as a filler (in both senses of the word), for texture, and importantly, to support other flavors.

And yet, says Michelin-starred Berlin chef Tim Raue (who doesn't serve rice at all in his restaurant), "in Japan you find unbelievable differences in the textures and aromas of rice, which is prepared with the same ceremonial seriousness as fugu puffer fish or beef. There are even blends of different varieties and years that are marketed like Burgundy!"

New profession: "risolier"

Berlin rice merchant Stefan Fak has made it his mission to give rice, in all its different facets, some respect. The world-traveled former tourism expert has created a rice business called Lotao (The Forgotten Secret) that seeks to inculcate a culture of rice in Europe. And he has invented the term "risolier" to describe his professional occupation. Like a sommelier, Fak tastes hundreds of different varieties of rice from all over Asia, and selects the best, the most expressive, to sell.

Every variety has its own story: "Oriental Sensation" is a smoked basmati, "Spirit of Bamboo" is green because bamboo extract is added to it, protein-rich "Royal Black Pearl," to which the Chinese have traditionally ascribed special properties, is a black rice that has been a luxury product for over two millennia.

As with wine, differences in climate and soil also play a role in the way rice tastes – rice too, like "Sparkling Volcano," grown in the volcanic soil on the Tasikmalaja region of western Java, has its terroir.

Fak has developed spice blends and aromatized oils that go with the many types of rice he sells, enhancing their specific flavors. His "Perfectioners' are mixtures of spices, blossoms, and fruit meant to be added shortly before the rice has finished cooking. The Lotao "Elixirs' have a rice oil base mixed with flavors that compliment each variety – for "Sparkling Volcano" it's ginger and lemon grass. The oils are spritzed onto the rice after cooking. The result is a genuine happy surprise.

Not just "food for the poor"

Stefan Fak's rice doesn't need anything to give it taste, however: it stands on its own as an accompaniment, and is not mere "filler" but something that adds a new dimension to a dish. As far as the West goes – where there is still a tendency to write rice off as a food of the poor -- this is tantamount to a culinary revolution. The development may also add to a better understanding the culture of rice. Without rice, after all, Asia's kingdoms would never have existed.

Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Army: it took an estimated 700,000 people to create these, and without rice to feed them it would not have been possible. Rice began to be cultivated 8,000 years ago. What began as a type of wild grass that grew on the Steppes of Asia was developed into a major source of food energy that grew in water and yielded three harvests a year.

With the ingenious irrigation systems and picturesque terraces and paddies needed to grow it, rice formed the face of Asia. In Europe -- just as with salt, which within a very short period of time has gone from a routine to a noble lifestyle product with the most varied origins -- interest in rice is on its way to becoming a trend helped by the new attention to provenance, fair trade, organic cultivation – and specialist businesses like Stefan Fak's Lotao. Rice has huge culinary potential. It won't be long before we associate it with gourmet delight.

Read the original story in German

Photo - Mr. Kris

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