Diverse and indigenous cuisine brought by the many ethnic people to St. Maarten from all over the world piques our interest. To this end, we are on a quest to find where it comes from, if it is used for celebrations, if it is exotic to some but normal food to others. Anything to do with keeping the body and soul nourished with what is produced from good old terra firma is what makes the world go around.

It was a fun evening cooking with friends recently. I think many people have thoroughly enjoyed this sort of get together. Each person brings ingredients and puts their dish together in the kitchen of the venue, mixing and stirring, popping it into the oven or steaming, frying, chilling – whatever the dish calls for is basically done when all together – so much fun.

One of the dishes we had at a recent gathering was a baked rice dish we had not tasted before. Rice, a simple and sometimes rather bland grain, absorbs flavours and is eaten by most of the world not just as a side dish, but as a main dish in many cultures around the globe. Rice, a staple grain we take for granted, has a long history. It has many colours and flavours and goes with almost every flavour / cuisine you can think of.

Brief history

“Oryza sativa was domesticated from the wild grass Oryza rufipogon roughly 10,000 to 14,000 years ago. The two main subspecies of rice – indica (prevalent in tropical regions) and japonica (prevalent in the subtropical and temperate regions of East Asia) – are not believed to have been derived from independent domestication events. Another cultivated species was domesticated much later in West Africa.”

Recent research tells us that all forms of Asian rice come from a single domestication event that occurred 8,200 to 13,500 years ago in the Pearl River valley region of China. Rice and farming implements dating back at least 8,000 years have been found. Cultivation spread through China from the rivers Yangtze and upper Huai over 2,000 years.

The Chinese thought up the idea of “puddling the soil” – this means ploughing the fields in summer to expose the eggs of harmful insects, pests and rhizomes of weeds; then flood the fields, keeping them saturated with water for about two weeks before transplanting the rice seedlings. “Puddling” helps in the decomposition of chaff and straw from previous crops. With the development of puddling and transplanting seedlings, rice became a domesticated crop grown all over China.

In 2003, Korean archaeologists claimed to have discovered the world’s oldest domesticated rice. Their 15,000-year-old age challenges the accepted view that rice cultivation originated in China about 12,000 years ago.

Rice was a major crop in Sri Lanka as early as 1000 B.C. Interestingly, research shows that rice may well have been introduced to Greece and the neighbouring areas of the Mediterranean by returning members of Alexander the Great’s expedition to India around 344-324 B.C. This new crop was first grown in Greece and Sicily and then gradually spread throughout southern Europe and across the sea to North Africa.

Rice was grown in some areas of southern Iraq. With the rise of Islam, it moved north to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea and then beyond the Muslim world into the valley of Volga. In Egypt, rice is mainly grown in the Nile Delta. In Palestine, rice came to be grown in the Jordan Valley. Rice is also grown in Yemen.

Perennial wild rice still grows in Assam and Nepal. It seems to have appeared around 1400 BC in southern India after its domestication in the northern plains. Rice cultivation was introduced to the New World by early European settlers. The Portuguese took it to Brazil and the Spanish took it to Central and South America. Spanish colonizers introduced Asian rice to Mexico in the 1520s.

Rice, it is recorded, was first grown in North America from 1685 on the coastal lowlands and islands of what is now South Carolina. It is thought that West African slaves in the Carolinas mid-18th century were instrumental in getting the flourishing rice industry going. The Native Americans, of what is now the Eastern United States, may have practiced extensive agriculture with forms of wild rice.

By the 20th century, rice growing in California’s Sacramenta Valley and in Australia’s New South Wales began.

“Today, the majority of all rice produced comes from China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines and Japan. Asian farmers still account for 92% of the world’s total rice production.”

The rice gene has been tampered with – is this a good thing or not? Depends on your ideas about genetic modification, of course, but the plants have been greatly improved over the last three decades. The improvements include rice plants that mature in 110 days instead 160.

This means in warm climates, a field can produce crops three times instead of twice. The height of the average plant has been reduced from five feet to three feet; the plant nutrient goes into the grains of rice and is not "wasted" on the stalks. Rice plants have been bred and bio-engineered to be resistant to bacterial blight, plant hoppers and stem borders.

By the year 2020, it is believed the world's rice crop will increase by an additional 60%. New strains will have fewer, stronger and thicker stalks that will yield 200 or more grains each. These new plants are expected to account for most of the increased productivity.

The IRRI Genetics Research Center houses samples from over 80,000 varieties of rice, which are crossbred to produce new strains. Strains with desirable characteristics are saved and bred again. Usually, it takes at least six generations for these characteristics to actually become a reproducible trait of the plant.

Once all tests have been done on new strains, the Taste Test is done! Graded by a dozen evaluators and judged in terms of smell, appearance and taste, on a one to five scale, this test often fails a new modified crop.

Two new crops called Super Rice and Golden Rice are being introduced when all tests are done and passed. Golden rice has been modified with a daffodil gene to produce beta-carotene that gives normally white grains a pale-yellow colour. It has been marketed as a way to reduce blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency among children in the Third World. Not everyone agrees with the logic behind this new grain being offered on the market.

A new deep-water variety of rice called Nerica (New Rice for Africa) is a “miracle rice” developed for Africa by combining hardy African strains with productive Asian strains. Created in 1994, it produces 50% larger crops that are rich in protein; doesn't require much fertilizer or pesticides; grows well in acidic soils; resists disease, pests, weeds and drought; and matures in 30 to 50 days. It has been touted as a solution for Africa's food problems.

How do you like to cook/eat your rice and, most importantly, which rice is your favourite? The Passionate Foodie’s favourite rice is Basmati. The flavour of this rice goes with everything including Asian cuisine. However, there is a place for all rice varieties on the table. Sticky, Red, Jasmin, plain ol’ Uncle Ben’s style white, Arborio, Carnaroli (the king of Italian rice) – there are so many varieties out there. Have you tried cooking them?

This brings up the subject of cooking rice to perfection. Every cook has their way of cooking rice. In my case, a very good, heavy bottomed waterless cooking pot works for me. I add just the right amount of water and salt, bring it to the boil for the count of five, then turn off the heat and set the pot aside with its tight fitting lid on; rice will be done by the time we eat! We also use a favourite Chinese clay pot.

There are plenty of electrical no-fail rice cooking pots on the market to choose from too.

 

RECIPES

Baked Rice – whether you use leftover rice or freshly cooked, this side dish is good. Serve as a main dish (add protein: flaked poached chicken or fish). Add some chopped spinach if you want to “hide” the veg from picky eaters!

Ingredients

3 cups cooked rice (use a chicken stock cube)

1 cup minced fresh parsley

1 cup grated cheddar cheese (or use a mix of cheddar and parmesan)

1/3 cup chopped spring onion

¼ cup chopped green pepper

1 garlic clove, minced

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 x 12oz can evaporated milk

½ cup canola oil

3 TBL preserved finely chopped lemon rind (sub - lemon juice)

1 tsp salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste (we slip in some red pepper flakes too sometimes)

Method

Pre-heat oven 350 °F.

Mix rice, parsley, 1/3 cup cheese, onion, green pepper, preserved lemon and garlic together.

Combine eggs, milk, oil, salt, and pepper in a second bowl.

Stir into the rice.

Transfer to a greased 2-qt. baking dish.

Sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Bake uncovered 40-45 minutes until golden brown.