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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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