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Rice: A Most Important Grain
Rice, Noodles, and Other Grain Foods
Fall Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(3) page(s): 15, 18, and 26
Cereal grains in China were developed through selective breeding from a plethora of wild grasses; they are spoken of as the “hundred grains.” It is believed that the best tasting varieties were bred and retained. Early literature frequently mentions five, not always the same, nor are all true cereals. Those most often mentioned are two types of millet, rice, wheat, beans, hemp, sesame, and kudzu.
Rice, never mentioned first, is nonetheless critically important, especially to those living in southern areas. It is used to enhance meals and is often the largest part of them, is abundant, a symbol of prosperity, a source of happiness, and a cause for celebration. It is important in weddings, religious offerings, birthdays, Chinese New Year, and other holidays, and is even used roasted to make tea.
In early times, there are writings of simple meals including but two items, a ladle of water and a bowl of rice. An ancient ideograph of the words 'to eat' looks like food and perhaps is rice steaming. Other visuals, circa 5,000 BCE, show grains that appear to be cooked rice in a basin with holes in the bottom lined with hemp and set over a another basin containing water. Yet another picture depicts Taiwanese aborigines using a hollow green bamboo tube, with water and rice in it and ends sealed with leaves, sitting over a fire; probably to cook the contents.
Rice has been excavated from many prehistoric sites in China and appears on thousands of pieces of oracle bones. At these Neolithic sites, both glutinous and non-glutinous varieties were found. The latter variety is heat-resistant and has long and thin grains; it is directly related to wild rice. Glutinous grains, or seeds as they are also called, are short and thick and believed to be the result of selective breeding.
Originally, rice grew in wet and hot places until a variety was developed that could flourish under dry conditions. We know this based upon an early site, on top of a small hill in Hunan where they must have grown a dry-land variety. Other areas were nearer water and on more level land.
Rice sustained life and quickly became popular. It was so highly praised that Confucius compared it to wearing brocade. It is also mentioned in the Book of Rites. One dish written about during pre-Confucian times contained rice, broom corn, early wheat, and yellow millet. Another use during those times is of fried honey cakes made with rice flour and malt sugar, and a third uses rice to make fermented beverages.
Rice, a cereal grass related to wheat, barley, and oats, is botanically known as Oryza sativa. Scientists think there are more than one hundred thousand varieties, the most common cultivars known as indica (mostly with medium and long grains) and japonica (whose grains are short and medium grain). The Chinese refer to these varieties as xian and geng, respectively. They prefer their rice raised wet-land or paddy style. That is, they like rice raised in fields flooded during part of the growing process; and they prefer their rice milled and very white.
There are two main starches in rice and the proportion of each can differentiate it by type. O. Japonica varieties, known as sticky or sweet rice though they do not have to be either, have high levels of the starch called amylopectin and low levels of amylose, another starch in rice. This variety cooks up moist with its grains clumping together. O. ndica cooks drier, and if left to sit some minutes after cooking, its individual grains do not stick together. The outside of the seed of these cultivars is most often brown, and when milled and the seed coat removed, a white grain is left. Less common are varieties with black and red seed coats that, when milled, do not have white interiors. Who and when rice was first consumed is not known. While millet was believed to be the earliest grain, recent excavations at more than thirty archeologic sites in China are challenging this. Most grains at the above sites were at least four thousand years old. Archeologists think the findings conservative and believe rice began in China as early as 5,000 BCE along the Yangtze River in central China, near the site of the oldest civilization found thus far.
Syuichi Toyama, an archeologist at Kogakukan University in Japan, reports radiocarbon dated rice samples ten thousand years of age. He believes the oldest site, Longmagucheng, is about three dozen kilometers southwest of Chengdu in Sichuan where, at a walled area, artifacts and other food items were located.
Overall, Chinese divide their foodstuffs into general categories. The most basic of these is fan which is cooked rice and other staple grains (to be discussed in the next issue). The other group is cai, which you may have seen spelled as tsai. This is the cooked meat and vegetables that accompany and flavor the fan. This division dates back to earliest recorded history with little clear evidence of which vegetables or meats were used. We know that pork and dog are early domesticated animals and were probably people’s sources of animal protein then. We believe that boiling, steaming, roasting, stewing, pickling, and drying were how they prepared their foods.
Rice, a most versatile cereal grain, has sustained the Chinese in a wide variety of ways. It is consumed plain and used to make other foods. It is also milled into flour and fashioned into a variety of items. In addition, it is used to make vinegars and wines, and used in other ways such as for rice wine.
Check out our website, www.flavorandfortune.com for its article--ID=111, which is Volume 2(2)'s pages 8 and 14. Rice, beyond sustenance, is used for its healing properties both as a grain and in its sprouted form. Considered neutral, that is neither yin nor yang, when prescribed therapeutically it is used for weak digestion, poor appetite, to help tone blood, for nourishment, and because it is easily digestible. One way used for healing is to cook it with lots of water and with other healing ingredients.
Traditionally, this healing form is known as hsi-fan, it is also called congee, juk, or just 'rice-water.' In this plain form it is eaten throughout China as a breakfast food and as a food for the elderly. Simmered with five to six times the amount of water and cooked for hours on a very low flame, southern Chinese people like it smooth and without visible rice grains. In other parts of China, they like it less smooth so they reduce the cooking time. For one source of many such preparations, consult The Book of Jook (reviewed in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 4(4) on pages 13 and beyond). There and in cookbooks, learn that to make this short-grain rice, also known as glutinous or sweet rice, mixed with a larger amount of long grain rice. It is common to include the preceding day’s leftover rice, as well.
Rice, wheat, sorghum, barley, millet, and sweet potatoes are Chinese staple foods. Rice, the mainstay of the southern diet, yields a large number of calories produced on a small amount of land. The others listed above are more commonly eaten by Northern Chinese. Together, these staple foods provide seventy to eighty percent of a typical day’s caloric intake. Ninety percent of the world’s rice crop is raised and eaten in Asia, a third of it consumed in China.
Outside of China, people in almost every country eat rice though not always the same varieties and certainly not in the same amounts. Nor, outside of China, is rice consumed at as many meals in a given day or week as do the Chinese. Many people study how much is consumed and the varieties themselves. In the Zhejiang Province near Hangzhou, the Chinese National Rice Institute collects various samples and evaluates them for color, aroma, appearance, taste, and usage. In the United States, similar information is collected and available from The Rice Council, PO Box 740121, Houston Texas 77274. There are many popular Chinese myths that indicate the affection rice inspires. One such tale takes place when people hunted and gathered and life was both hard and uncertain. Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, known to hear the cries of world and people who suffer or die of starvation, was moved to help them. She squeezed her breasts so that milk flowed and thus she filled the ears of the rice plant to help it grow. However, for her to produce enough rice, much squeezing was required. Near the end of the task, her milk became mixed with blood and that is why there is lots of white rice and even some red rice.
Another myth gives credit to a dog who after a flood, ran out into a waterlogged field where four ears of rice got caught in his tail. Later, these very grains were planted and they grew, ripened, and produced much rice. The people were so grateful, that they shared and still share the first meal after a rice harvest with their dogs.
One unusual kind of short grain rice grown in China is xiang dao or 'fragrant rice.' The seeds of this rice contain a lot of coumarin, a chemical constituent that provides a strong sweet aroma. This rice is loved plain and when mixed with other kinds of rice. It can be boiled with sugar, lotus seeds, and peanuts, and it can be used to make candies.
Recently, when visiting a huge Chinese Mall outside of Toronto in the suburb of Markham at the crossroads of Kennedy and Steele, a young vendor named Jimmy Poon was making pulled rice and rolling these fine hair-like threads around a very sweet nut mixture (his photograph is in the hard copy of this issue). He advised that his was an ancient art, several hundred years old in fact, and that he learned how to make these rare and regal 'Dragon’s Beard Candy' as it is called, from a master in Hong Kong. His brochure says that 'this unusual candy was once made only for the Emperors of China during state banquets.' If you can not get there to taste them and must have some, try calling. The brochure he gives out lists his telephone number as 922-3798.
Some sweet, sticky or glutinous rice has a black hull or seed coat. Of the fifty or so black varieties found worldwide, forty percent are found in China. It should be noted that although called glutinous rice, all rice is gluten-free and that black rice varieties are not grown in the United States. The closest American dark seed-coated rice is grown by Lundburg Farms Exotic Grains in Richvale, California. Imported black rice can be found in some Chinese markets, and if you can’t locate any, contact Joan Gerland at Cheiftain Wild Rice Company in Spooner, Wisconsin (800) 262-6368. They often have some; or contact Mr. Lee at Lotus Foods in Berkely, California (510) 525-3137.
Sweet and colored rice can be mixed in candies, in various dishes, and mixed with various fruits such as the Chinese date. The latter mixture is often prepared with design considerations and eaten on special occasions such as at banquets. Called ba bao fan or 'Eight Precious Pudding,' one Chinese book notes that this rice preparation was known at least two thousand years ago in the Hunan Province. A more recent recipe of this wonderful dessert appears at the end of this article; no recipe could be located for the candy.
Rice represents food and it represents China. One hears of it in recipes, even in expressions such as: To the people, food is all important but to a country, grains are its treasures. The most common way one hears the word rice spoken is: Have you eaten rice yet? This statement is used when one might say hello.
Rice represents holidays. At Lunar New Year, one eats glutinous rice cakes. At Dragon Boat Festival, one delights in triangular-shaped rice packets wrapped in bamboo leaves. At religious and other festivals rice cakes colored red and called ang gu guei are enjoyed. Even for dim sum which is commonly eaten each day, rice cakes along with turnip cakes and sweet potato cakes are popular.
Rice represents daily meals. Now and in ancient times, one of the most common ways to cook rice was to steam it alone or with other foods. Earthenware steamers were in use in Neolithic times, steamers made of bronze were used in Shang and later dynasties, and today, steamers made of ceramic, bronze, and bamboo are popular. Rice is used alone and with other foods. Once rice was paired with fish. Artifacts found in Han Dynasty tombs, circa 25 - 200 CE, show a model of a rice field flooded and filled with many sea animals. This practice fell into disuse but the pairing was reintroduced in the 1970's. Agriculturally, fish in rice paddies help loosen the soil, eat worms, feed on weeds, and provide adequate food for table use. Modern Chinese homemakers cook rice and fish together in their rice cookers and their woks.
Rice is adaptable. The recipes below, important components of the Chinese dietary, show its versatility and are but a small sampling of ways to use it. None use rice noodles because the next issue of Flavor and Fortune will feature wheat and other staple grains. That issue will include recipes for rice noodle dishes.
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