Having grown up in India, rice has been the center of my culinary experience for as long as I can remember. But as I discovered world cuisine, I also came to marvel at the universality and diversity symbolized by this grain!
Universal as it is, rice is simultaneously intensely personal as well. Every rice based cuisine in the world has its own indigenous rice, its own traditional manner of cooking it, celebrating it and eating it. From the better known Italian risotti, Thai Jasmine and Japanese Sushi rice, to rarer Senegalese Ceebu Jën (red rice) and Bhutanese Black rice, each is cooked and eaten differently. Join me as I travel the rice bowls of the world.
The next time you dig into a plate of Berry Polov at Britania you will be happy to recall that rice is an integral part of Iranian culture, rice dishes or Polows play an important role in marriage ceremonies and parties (Zereshk Polow), funerals (Kishmish Polow) and New Year celebrations (Sabzi Polow, with fried fish). Iran is home to the fragrant, aromatic Sadri rice that is unique to that part of the world and in high demand among Iranians, who give great importance to the quality of their cooked rice.
But the rice dish that has made the biggest mark on India's menus comes from China. Fried rice. Legend has it Fried rice originated in China some 4000 years ago as a means to use up leftover rice. Finely diced vegetables and meat were stirfried with cooked rice and served for breakfast. It is still a means of using up leftovers that is made all over the world but who would have thought that the same Fried rice would one day be a dish in its own right, here in India? Fried rice is to be found in every South East Asian cuisine but the most famous version of it is the Indonesian Nasi Goreng.
While rice based cuisines have a lot of dishes in common there are a many distinct indigenous rice preparations awaiting sampling as well. Indonesian cuisine is home to another particularly noteworthy meal as well, The Rijsttafel or "rice table". A legacy of the Dutch plantation owners - who liked to sample selectively from Indonesian cuisine - a practice that evolved into a traditional meal in which a rice dish and numerous side dishes are laid out to pick from at will. The Dutch carried it back to the Netherlands with them and it is today enjoyed in both Indonesia, and the Netherlands.
Rice is also used as an ingredient in many forms. Perhaps as widespread as steamed rice is the home-style rice gruel, best known as the Chinese Conjee. This dish in which rice is cooked down to a porridge is found under various guises in many world cuisines. Most Asian countries also use rice flour to make a staggering variety of dishes; noodles, translucent skins for dumplings and steaming hot stuffed buns.
Perhaps the most famous Japanese offerings to world menus from are Sushi and Sake. Considered one of the healthiest dishes in the world, Sushi are rice cakes flavored with rice vinegar, combined with a variety of ingredients - raw fish and fresh or pickled vegetables and are served with Japanese Wasabi. Sake is Japanese rice wine, an acquired taste.
Outside Asia, Africa, was the other place where rice was domesticated. A number of rice dishes hail from this part of the world Senegalese Cebbu Jen - or rice-fish - is the most popular. Many rice dishes have also been perfected by the Egyptians. The Ruzz mu'ammar bi-I-tuyur, or baked rice with milk and pigeon, is regularly served in restaurants in major cities such as Alexandria.
Rice is not as prevalent in wheat eating Europe but there are a few regions where rice is celebrated. The Lombardy and Piedmont regions comprise Italy's rice bowl and while the Italians do not eat too much rice, Italy is famous for its aromatic, slow cooked risottos. The other hub for rice in Europe is the French Camargue region where rice cultivation began in the 18th Century. Taking advantage of the rich French cuisine, farmers in Camargue have turned to producing high quality rice for special dishes and the Roulé de Feuilles de riz au thon, or "rolled rice with tuna fish", is an example of Camargue's specialty cuisine.
One thing is for sure, wherever you go in the world; you can find comfort in a bowl of rice and as the Chinese philosopher Confucious said "In the eating of coarse rice and the drinking of water, the using of one's elbow for a pillow, joy is to be found."