When someone says rice, you generally think of Chinese rice fields or perhaps Mexican rice dishes. I like rice, but I guess you could say I am picky about it. You would think plain white rice is a simple thing, but it is not. So many cultures make rice in their own way; Japan has sushi, Mexico has horchata, Italians have risotto. I am picky about rice because I have seen it done great justice and great injustice, so my thought process is something like this: Rice is simple. Rice can be amazing when used properly. Don’t settle for mediocre rice.
I was excited to learn about rices from different cultural perspectives in The Traditional Rices of Asia workshop. No sooner had I placed my tush in my seat, when I was approached by a cute Korean girl and a Korean gentleman who looked like he worked in the agricultural sector. They inquired as to why I was in the workshop. In a flurry of cultural exchange translations were made, photographs were snapped, my commentary was recorded on video and I received a rice sample, invitation to visit a rice harvest and a business card in Korean!
The Traditional Rices of Asia workshop at Salone del Gusto showcased rices from Sri Lanka, Phillipines, South Korea and Indonesia. Many of the rices were heirloom varieties, which means that they are are old varieties rarely used today that people are trying to reclaim. Heirloom varieties are the culinary equivalent of endangered species. I would like to highlight each country’s contribution to the workshop:
Their representative, Dineli Jayasekera, was beautifully eloquent and she talked extensively about the 2000 plus indigenous varieties of rice in her country. She presented a heirloom variety named Kuruluthuda. The dish served was the rice with pandan, spring onion and leeks. It had a very fresh and unique flavor.
The woman from Jakarta was not only beautiful, but also elegant. Her clothing was exquisite and something about her mannerisms reminded me of the glamour that enamored me as a child in the classic movie, The King of Siam (later modernized into The King and I). The dish, Nasi Kebuli, was a cone-shaped rice stuffed with meat, ginger, galangal, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, torch ginger flower and coconut. The cone is meant to symbolize the relationship between nature, humans and God.
Margarita Fores spoke of the Philippine culture and how in many ways they are almost Latin Asians, a reference I understood and agreed with. She spoke of how rice is a revered ingredient due to is presence within their cuisine and how it tends to be the ingredient of choice for many celebrations. A wonderfully shy but charming young girl accompanied her to speak of her tribe in the Philippines and her voice trembled in such an endearing way, I just wanted to get up and hug her. Her brave desire to represent her people and cuisine was moving. They served us pandan scented purple Ominio sticky rice wrapped in a plantain leaf and served with coconut milk, vanilla and muscovado sugar. They felt that this dish best represented them, because sticky rice in their culture symbolizes unity and the workshop brought together many countries on a common topic.
As if I did not want to visit Korea badly enough already, Chef Tony Yoo, gave me an entire basket of new reasons! He brought us Go-Dae-Mi rice. This particular variety is beautiful to look at due its multicolored grains that are red, green and black. The numerous products obtained from it include: rice flakes, cereals, flour, cakes, noodles, paper, milk, bran oil, vinegar, syrup and wine. Chef Tony Yoo knows his rice. His charismatic personality was humble and magnetic. He is on the list of chefs I want to work with in the future. He offered us Sik-hye, a delicious beverage made with rice and rice malt oil. We also sampled Yeot, a traditional Korean sweet made with Jocheong (brown rice syrup). Chef Tony Yoo graced us with a slideshow complete with colorful photographs, recipes, history and interesting facts. He was phenomenal.
The workshop was fantastic. Among all the interesting aspects it showcased, I believe it can be summarized like this: Rice is a universal ingredient, but not all rice is created equal. Next time you stop at your grocery store, pick out a new rice and let me know what you do with it.