Before there was bread or pasta, much less meat or fish, there was rice. Growing up in Hawaii, Texas and Maryland, I ate rice three times a day: with fish for breakfast; with Spam and nori for lunch; with hamburger or more fish or tofu for dinner. In my childhood, Thanksgiving turkey was served not with mashed potatoes but rice; steak not with frites but rice; scrambled eggs not with toast but rice. (It wasn’t until I went to college on the East Coast that I finally experienced classic American dishes accompanied by their traditional starches.) And it was always the same kind: white, short-grain Japanese rice, polished and glossy, pleasantly clumpy and quick to yield between the teeth, clinging to the chopstick, sticking to the spoon. In adulthood, when rice became a kind of decadence, sacrificed in adherence to a supposedly healthier, definitely less satisfying low-carb diet, the mere scent of it made me wistful — how much easier life seemed before rice became so complicated.
A trip around the world through the lens of a vital grain.
– Tracing Mexico’s history through its ambivalent relationship to rice, a staple inextricable from colonialism.
– When scorched on the bottom of the pot by a skilled cook, rice transforms from bland supporting actor to rich, complex protagonist.
– Mansaf, a Bedouin dish of lamb and rice, is both a national symbol in Jordan and a talisman of home for suburban Detroit’s Arab American diaspora.
– Senegal, which consumes more rice per capita, most of it imported, than almost any other African nation, is attempting to resuscitate homegrown varieties.
Over the past few years, however, I’ve returned to rice, eating it as I once did (if not as often as I once did), with everything from meatloaf to poached salmon. And why not? Much of the rest of the world never abandoned it. After wheat, rice is our most, and most widely consumed, grain and, although it has origins in both Asia and Africa, it’s today difficult to find a culture that hasn’t made it its own, often in recipes that have become synonymous with a regional or national cuisine: risotto in Italy, horchata in Mexico, rice and beans in the Dominican Republic. The fact that, as Aatish Taseer learns on his trip to Oaxaca, rice remains in some places a 500-year-old interloper, its introduction the result of conquest and colonization, fails to diminish our species’ gift for culinary interpretation and resourcefulness.