The creamy rice pudding of my childhood, with its bubbly golden skin, was my first introduction to rice; sweet rice is still a favourite but that was only the beginning. I can't quite remember when I first tasted rice as an accompaniment to a savoury dish; certainly, I was in my teens. Our meals at home would always have included the much-loved potato.
Rice is grown not just in Asia but also in the US, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, Guyana, Surinam, Spain, Italy, Iran, Madagascar, Egypt, several African countries and Australia. There are thousands of varieties but, as with many other plants, the number in commercial cultivation is quite small. However, farmers in many countries still continue to grow low yielding varieties for their flavour and texture. Seed banks around the world are also doing their utmost to save endangered varieties for posterity. They may well be needed in the future if the main crops become diseased.
Monoculture is always a risky business as was clearly demonstrated by the Irish potato famine. Rice grows in flooded fields called paddies. I particularly remember an image of rice workers with their conical hats working in the rice paddies on the way in from the airport in Vietnam some years ago.
Water buffalo wallowed in a pond, ducks swam and fed, children chased frogs and collected tadpoles. Why all the water? Well, our interpreter explained that it acted as a kind of thermal blanket which insulated the crop against excessive heat or cold; others said it was mainly to drown the weeds.
The fields are never flooded for more than a few weeks at a time, otherwise the water would become stagnant. Fish and shellfish and other creatures also live and pass through the paddies and provide a farmer's family with some extra protein. When the rice is ready to harvest, the crop is cut and threshed, dried and milled. The old-fashioned, non-mechanical way to thresh rice and indeed most other grains is to raise a handful aloft and bring it down forcefully on a hard surface. In Vietnam and many other countries in Asia the women then shake the rice through in a slatted bamboo sieve. The straw is trapped in the sieve or simply blows away.
Rice is an integral part of the culture in all these countries; part of the folklore, literature and architecture. There are beautiful rice barns, often intricately carved and decorated, where the rice spirit lives many customs and superstitions are attached to rice.
On a more practical level it is important to know the different types of rice by physical appearance and to understand which is best for different dishes. Rice can be long, medium or short grain, patna, rose pearl, red or black. Broadly speaking, long and medium grain rices are used in or eaten with savoury and main course dishes. Japanese short grain rice, which is sticky in texture, is essential for sushi. Some European rices are short grain and are used in savoury dishes like calasparra which is used for paella.
Arboria, carnaroli or vilano nano are the varieties to seek for risotto. Red rice is, in fact, a brown colour, considered by many to be inferior in quality, but in the Camargue in France a red variety is a regional speciality and is sought after by chefs and gourmets. Black rice, which is actually a deep blackberry purple, is also highly regarded. Brown rice still includes the bran layer and is therefore more nutritious than white rice. It has a wonderfully nutty flavour but takes considerably longer to cook. Don't use par-cooked or boil in the bag rice it's so easy to cook rice; just use lots of water and a little salt.