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As American as Rice

Irene Sax - June 2007

Exotic as it may sometimes seem, nearly every grain of rice consumed here is grown domestically, and there's still more left for export. Irene Sax reports on the astonishing variety and quantity of rice used by chefs in the United States in everything from jambalaya to sushi.

At Walt Disney World, chef Joel Schaefer lays a grilled fish fillet over brown rice/quinoa pilaf. At the Hominy Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, Robert Stehling plates pork ribs with pinto beans and red rice. And at the Palace Café in New Orleans, Darin Nesbit fries oysters that he first dredges in ground popcorn rice.

It's all rice. And it's all American rice.

Chances are, whether you're making sushi or risotto, stuffed grape leaves or paella, the grain that you use was grown right here. Almost 90 percent of the rice consumed in this country is American grown, and we raise so much that we export nearly half of it, making the United States the world's fifth-largest rice exporter.

Corn, yes. Wheat, of course. But rice? Absolutely.

Think of pulau, the signature pilaf-like dish of the Carolina kitchen. Think of calas, golden rice cakes eaten hot with confectioners' sugar, or hoppin' john, which brings good luck when you eat it on New Year's Day. Think of dirty rice, "stained" with chicken livers and giblets, and jambalaya, tossed with shrimp, chicken, and andouille sausage. All are deeply rooted in the food history of North America, where rice has been cultivated intensively for almost 325 years.

The story goes that in 1685 a ship in need of repairs limped into Charleston harbor. When it was mended, the captain presented a packet of "Golden Seede" rice from Madagascar to a local planter. That rice was to become the famous Carolina Gold, a chalky white long-grain variety that came to dominate the American export trade. And although the story may or may not be true, records show that, in 1700, South Carolina shipped 300 tons of "Carolina Gold Rice" to England.

Shorter-grain rice arrived by an equally colorful route. When Thomas Jefferson was ambassador to France, he noticed that the French preferred short-grain rice from Italy's Po valley to America's Carolina Gold. Because the Italians, protecting their farmers, wouldn't let the seeds out of the country, Jefferson, risking a death sentence, either had them smuggled out or, so the story goes, stuffed his own jacket pockets full and smuggled them out himself. Whoever actually carried the seeds, this ancestor of arborio rice was sent to growers in the Carolinas, where it flourished.

With its warm, wet climate and cheap slave labor, the Lowcountry of coastal South Carolina dominated American rice production until the Civil War. After that, production gradually moved westward to areas with a less boggy soil, where machines could replace the human labor that had been provided by slaves. Now Arkansas is our biggest rice-growing state, followed by California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Missouri.

What do they grow? At least 40,000 varieties of rice are cultivated worldwide, but most can be categorized as long grain, medium grain, and short grain.

Long-grain rice, whether plain, jasmine, basmati, or red, has slender kernels four or five times as long as they are wide. When cooked, the grains remain firm and separate, which makes them ideal for dishes like rice salads, pilafs, and jambalayas.

Medium-grain rice, which includes arborio, has plump kernels measuring two to three times longer than their width. When cooked, they are plump, moist, and slightly sticky and thus suitable for risotto, paella, rice pudding, and, of course, sushi. At New Orleans' Cochon, chef/co-owner Stephen Stryjewski uses medium-grain rice when he makes boudin, a pork/liver/rice sausage, which he serves with homemade mustard and pickled peppers. Because the rice is a little sticky, it helps hold the sausage together when it's fried.

And short-grain rice, being even plumper, rounder, and stickier than medium grain, is a natural choice for rice puddings, croquettes, and sushi. It was introduced to California during the gold rush, when large numbers of Chinese came to work in the gold fields and railroads. Whether prepared in a high-end Japanese restaurant or a supermarket, the sushi sold here today is made with rice that is almost certainly American grown.

That's not the whole story. Aromatic rice, with its naturally nutty or perfumey fragrance, has become increasingly popular because of the growing interest in Asian cooking. You may think basmati and jasmine come from Southeast Asia, but they're almost definitely our own native products. In Louisiana, many chefs like popcorn rice, an aromatic type with a faintly toasty aroma. "It has a nice flavor and enough starch to hold up and not get mushy in the pot," says chef Darin Nesbit at the Palace Café in New Orleans. "But mainly we use it because it's a locally grown product that brings out the best in dishes like shrimp jambalaya and crawfish rice cakes."

As for brown rice, it's simply long-, medium-, or short-grain rice that has had the husk, but not the bran, removed in milling. Once mainly bought by health food lovers, brown rice is big news these days because of the recent interest in whole grains. While rich in fiber and nutrients, it takes about twice as long as milled rice to cook.

That's also true of specialty rices such as black and red japonica, whose nutty, chewy qualities and stunningly dark hues derive from the fact that the bran layer is still in place. Toni Sakaguchi, an instructor at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, California, who used to work at the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, produces a healthful paella with a combination of red, black, and white rices with some beans and vegetables in place of the usual medium-grain arroz. She reports she's also making sushi using medium-grain red rice even though her more tradition-bound mother told her that it wasn't really sushi.

"Parboiled" is the term for rice that is pressure steamed before it's milled, in a process that forces some of the nutrients back into the starchy endosperm. ("Converted" is the Uncle Ben company's trademarked name for rice that has undergone the process.) This treatment gives the rice a creamier color and a firmer texture that holds up well on steam tables and in stews, so it is the choice of many in foodservice. Stehling of Hominy Grill uses it in Low Country purloo because the grains stay firm and separate even after they're simmered with chicken and vegetables.

While the story of American rice production is inevitably one of increased mechanization, one man is working to bring back the hand-raised rice that started the whole epic. Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina, has revived the production of Carolina Gold.

Earlier, Roberts was an architect who specialized in renovating old houses, many for use as inns and restaurants. When the owners wanted to celebrate their buildings' history by serving period foods, they found they couldn't get the right ingredients. Roberts closed his architecture office and went into the business of growing and milling heritage grains. Starting with corn for grits, he soon added heritage wheat and in 2001 started growing Carolina Gold. He sells it whole, as middlin's or grits (that is, grains broken in hand milling) and as the kind of flour that was used by old-time Carolina bakers in breads and biscuits. The rice is temperamental—Anson Mills's Web site calls it "fussy"—and must be handled and cooked carefully, but that hasn't kept chefs like Thomas Keller of The French Laundry (Yountville, CA) and Per Se (New York City), Adam Fuller of Great Bay in Boston, and Ann Quatrano of Bacchanalia in Atlanta from using it.

"It's a beautiful old rice with a new sensibility," says Roberts. "It's all organic, it's not aged, and it's milled, selected, and finished by hand. Chefs love it because of its nutty, floral, green-almond flavor and because they're touching history."

U.S. Rice Sampler

"Irene Sax"

Aborio
A medium-grain rice, with a white dot at its center, that absorbs fats such as butter or oil without breakage. When cooked, its chewy core and creamy texture make it ideal for risottos.

Aromatic
Rices such as jasmine, basmati, della, and popcorn characteristically emit a nutty or toasted fragrance and are central to Asian and New Orleans cooking.

Sweet
Short and chalky white, sweet rice becomes glutinous when cooked. Used in pro­cessed frozen foods as a binder for sauces and gravies.

Jasmine
A high-quality aromatic rice with a distinctive scent. The long slender grains, which cook up separately, are central to Thai and other South­east Asian cuisines.

Parboiled (or "converted")
Steamed in the husk before mill­ing, a process that drives some of the nutrients into the grain. Once dried, the grains remain creamy and firm, particularly well suited to dishes that must be held.