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26 november 2014

I first saw rice growing on any large scale last year, when I drove across Lombardy, in the north of Italy. The Po valley is an excellent region for rice-growing, and in the form of risotto, arancini, and other dishes, rice is one of the staples of Italian cuisine. Rice is pretty popular in America, too, but I have no memory of seeing it growing anywhere here. That's actually unsurprising, because most of the substantial American rice crop is grown in a few counties in the Arkansas Delta, just west of Tennessee along the Mississippi River. I drive through that part of Arkansas a couple of times a year, but it's a narrow region, I'm sometimes coming through at night or just oblivious to my surroundings, and for that matter, I often don't know what I'm looking at when I am paying attention; I'm particularly ignorant of the identities of crops, except for something like cotton that looks too dramatically like its product to be mistaken.

A hasty look at a couple of random maps on the Internet confirms one of my hypotheses: that the rice-growing regions of the United States have shrunk even over the past couple of decades, presumably becoming more intensive, monocultural, and productive at the same time. A large swath of the Texas Gulf Coast was once rice country, but it's receding. Rice production in California is being concentrated into northern parts of the Central Valley. And the Carolinas, once so famous a terroir that a deluxe type of rice was named after them, barely produce anything anymore aside from boutique, heirloom crops.

Renee Marton's Reaktion Edible book Rice is truly a global history. Rice is quintessentially Asian, dominating the cuisine of China and all the nations that surround the vast Chinese homeland. But it long ago spread across India, through Persia and the Middle East to Greece, Italy, and Iberia. A separate species forms the basis of the rice cuisines of West Africa, which brought the grain to the New World (sometimes, picturesquely and probably mythically, in the hair of captive slaves). Here, rice became a staple of colonial and Creole cooking, is deeply rooted in Brazil and Peru, and gradually complemented corn in the Mexican tradition. In California, it met Asian immigrants coming in the opposite direction.

Despite the long history of rice in America, it always seemed to me, growing up in the Midwest and the 1960s, to be the adjunct grain. (In beermaking, rice is literally an "adjunct" – barley is the one with tenure – and the thin American lagers that still dominate the U.S. beer scene command, Marton says, a large fraction of domestic production.) Most of the rice I ate as a child took the form of breakfast cereal. My mother was fond of snap, crackle, and pop, though she said it made her sneeze. I ate my way sneezelessly through many a box of puffed or chexed rice. Sometimes, to be outré, my father would steam up some Minute Rice to go with our minute steak. If he had longer than a minute to cook, it would be Sunday dinner, and at that point he wanted to fix real food, i.e. potatoes.

Rice was therefore ethnic, and global, and we encountered it more and more as we emerged from our Anglo-American parochialism into the international food cultures that Marton connects with rice. As I grew older, rice came stuffed into Chinese takeout tubs, ladled alongside refried beans, smothered with tikka masala, and eventually – a major step into the exotic that now seems hilariously banal – wrapped in seaweed with a bit of fish, usually not even raw, and called "sushi," an item I never tried till I was in my mid-20s.

Now I usually keep three or four kinds of rice around as standard kitchen staples: black, brown, arborio, valenciana, maybe even long-grain white for reverse exoticism. I learned from Marton that I might well keep some parboiled rice on hand: even though I associate it with quick-cooking expedients, that basis of Uncle Ben's and other preparations manages to combine the convenience of white rice with much of the bran that makes brown rice healthier. I make pilafs, paellas, risottos … or rather, I make domesticated versions of those dishes, which wind up suspiciously similar to one another. I generally use the wrong rice for the occasion, because I'd sort of assumed there were really only one or two kinds of rice, distinguishable by length and color; Marton taught me that there are 115,000 cultivars of rice.

Of course, a week or two might go by when I don't eat rice at all. In this respect, Marton would say, I still don't belong to a rice foodway, where "having a meal without rice … means that a 'true' meal has not taken place, but perhaps a snack" (19). That kind of devotion to rice separates the grain from a merely convenient and adaptable food – like, say, soybeans. Rice has not only spanned the culinary world, but it has made itself positively indispensable.

My test recipe from Rice was a pilaf with golden raisins and pine nuts, adapted by Marton from Claudia Roden's New Book of Middle Eastern Food. Except I adapted it further. My idea of following a recipe is seeing what I have on hand, seeing what I can conceivably substitute from what I have on hand, and only in the most unavoidable cases, actually going out to buy the indicated ingredients. I made the pilaf with a medium-grain rice, something Marton had warned against: so I was halfway to risotto before I started, yet I didn't add stock slowly and stir, I just boiled and simmered. I didn't have fenugreek, and didn't feel like buying a big bag to get ten grains of it, so I substituted turmeric and a little ginger. And apricots for golden raisins, and I left out the butter to make it vegan. It turned out quite nice, though I imagine a little chewier and stickier than was the intention. Some cooks find that rice recipes are unforgiving, but this one met one of my important criteria: adaptability.

Marton, Renee. Rice: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2014.