When I'm shamelessly in pursuit of exotic edibles, I admit it is sometimes easy to overlook the less flashy members of the culinary collective. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to taste-test my way through four different breeds of foie gras, but the truth is that neither I nor anyone else I know can actually be eating like that, multiple meals a week.
What we should really be appreciating is the humble grain that surrounds us on a daily basis. Whether fried in a wok, simmered into congee, or stuffed into bamboo leaves, rice is the true workhorse of the global culinary scene and it's high time it got it's moment in the limelight.
Many of us, especially living out here in Shanghai, associate rice primarily with Asian cuisine and the iconic bowl of white rice. The reality is, however, that rice occupies a powerful position in many cultures' diet. The Spanish paella, the Italian risotto and the jambalaya of Creole fame, all are utterly unique and representative of rice's role in the planetary food pyramid. In fact, a quick search for rice on the Internet tells us that rice accounts for 20 percent of the world's caloric intake.
Whether your preference is for the aromatic long grains of India and Southeast Asia, or the stickier short grains more common here in China, the appeal of rice is readily apparent. It's fluffy yet substantial and chewy. That, coupled with its delicate flavor and ever-so-slight sweetness, makes it the perfect foil for all variety of stronger flavors and sauces.
But I encourage you not to stop there. Rice right out of the rice cooker is certainly delicious, but you can be doing so much more with the grain than just adding water. It can be cooked and added to herbs and spices to make a filling with other vegetables and meats, like an American rice stuffing or the stuffed grape leaves of the Middle East. It can be ground into flour and made into all manner of good eats, and steamed, baked, or boiled from there. If you cook certain types of rice and then dry them out, you can even make a popcorn variation called puffed rice that is all sorts of tasty. Let's not forget that rice is a key contributor to much of modern industrial beer production as well. I like to imagine it's easy to see how this seemingly simple grain, with it's roots right here in the Yangtze River Delta, truly offers options that would satisfy even the most discriminating of diners.
I wish I could be leaving you with a recipe for the perfect zongzi in honor of the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival. I wish that there was some secret little trick to ensure a perfect package of glutinous rice goodness. But anyone who's ever tried to make them, myself included, will tell you that the only secret involved here is experience. Wrapping zongzi is hard work and is unfortunately something of a dying art, as more and more people are forgoing the tradition of making them at home, preferring to buy them outside at a store.
As I may have mentioned before, I am a poor practitioner of the Chinese culinary arts. The one time I attempted to make zongzi I ended up with rope burn all over my fingers and a pot of salty pork congee as my bundles of bamboo leaves burst open upon cooking. It didn't taste altogether horrible but it was a pretty far cry from what I was hoping for.
No, I can't make zongzi, I'm sorry, but I can give you a fun recipe that utilizes some of the ingredients that comprise a good Shanghai-style zongzi: glutinous rice, fatty pork and bamboo. I like to imagine the poet Qu Yuan (who figures in dragon boat legend) would approve.
Bacon risotto with bamboo shoots (serves four)
200g bacon, small dice
Half a white onion, small dice
200g glutinous rice
150ml white wine, something dry
1.5l chicken stock
50g grated Parmesan cheese
2 sprigs thyme
100g cleaned bamboo shoot, cooked and diced
Salt and pepper
1. To cook bamboo, place in a pot, cover with water. Season with a pinch of salt and 15 grains of rice. Simmer until completely cooked through, about 20 minutes, cut into 1cm dice when cool enough to handle.
2. In a large shallow pan, cook bacon dice over medium heat, tossing occasionally to prevent burning, about 4 minutes.
3. Scoop out crispy bacon and place aside, save both oil and meat.
4. In the same pan, saute onions and bamboo shoot dice over medium heat with a bit of salt until cooked but there is no color, about 3 minutes.
5. Add rice and cook with onions until outsides of rice are translucent, stir frequently, about 5 minutes.
6. Add wine and cook until completely evaporated, the rice should stick to the pan a little bit.
7. Add stock, two ladles at a time. I have never found it necessary to continually stir, but when you do, stir the mixture with some force, you want to force some starch out of the rice grains. Again, make sure to cook until completely dry before adding more liquid.
8. Taste as you add, a glutinous rice risotto will not be as al dente as one with an Italian short grain rice but should still retain some chew. Feel free to use water if you run out of stock. Total time, about 17 minutes
9. When just about ready, mix in Parmesan cheese, bacon, and season with salt and pepper.
10. Serve and enjoy, maybe with a few celery leaves sprinkled on top.