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Rice: A Most Important Grain

by Jacqueline M. Newman

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.
Beef and Egg Congee
1 cup long-grain rice
1/4 cup sweet rice
4 ounces flank steak, slivered
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
8 cups chicken broth
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1 teaspoon water
1 scallion, minced
1. Soak both rice varieties in a cup of cold water for twenty minutes, then drain. Then add three to six cups cold water and cook them for two hours (more water if you like your congee thinner, less if you like it thicker).
2. Mix flank steak with soy sauce, wine, and sesame oil.
3. Heat the broth, but do not boil it. Then add the beef mixture and simmer for two minutes. Add this to the rice, stir well and bring it to the boil. Slowly add the egg, stirring continuously.
4. Add the cornstarch mixture and stir well. Remove from the heat, add the scallion, and serve.
Pork Balls with Preserved Vegetables
1 pound ground pork
1 Tablespoon rice flour
4 Tablespoons preserved mustard greens, minced
2 scallions, minced
2 slices ginger, minced
2 Tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry
dash of salt and white pepper
1/4 cup rice flour
3 leaves of lettuce or other green
soy sauce, plum sauce or another dipping sauce, optional
1.Mix all the ingredients except the last amount of rice flour and the lettuce. Wet your hands and roll into one inch balls.
2. Roll the balls in rice flour and set them aside for half an hour.
3. Put lettuce leaves on bottom of a steamer tray and add one cup of cold water. Put pork balls on the lettuce and steam until the switch turns off. Remove the balls and serve them, with a dipping sauce of soy or a plum sauce or any other dip.
Yangzhou Fried Rice I
2 Tablespoons chopped cooked shrimp
1 Tablespoon minced Smithfield ham
1 teaspoon rice flour
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1 scallion, minced
1 slice fresh ginger, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups cooked rice, that is at room temperature or cold
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Mix shrimp, ham, and rice flour.
2. Heat oil in a wok and stir-fry scallion, ginger, and garlic just until fragrant. Then add the shrimp-ham mixture and stir-fry it one minute.
3. Add the rice to this and stir-fry until heated through' then add the sesame oil, toss and serve.
Crispy Egg Yolk Pastries
Ingredients for the pastry:
1 and 1/3 cups glutinous (sweet) rice flour
1/3 cup lard
1/3 cup water
Preparation for the Pastry:
1. Cut the lard into the flour using chop sticks or two knives. Then add water and knead with the tips of your fingers. Cover and let rest for half an hour.
2. Roll the dough into a cylinder and cut it into twelve pieces, then roll each of them into the desired size. Can be used for the recipe below or as crust in a small tart or muffin tin for other purposes.
Ingredients for the Egg Yolk Filling:
1 cup red bean paste
12 salted egg yolks
1 teaspoon rice flour
1 teaspoon rice wine
1 teaspoon black sesame seeds
1 fresh egg, beaten
Putting It All Together:
1. Using the pastry dough above, divide it into twelve segments and roll each into a small circle.
2. Heat the oven to 425 degrees F, and while it is heating, divide red bean paste into twelve parts.
3. Put the egg yolks on a baking dish, dust with the rice flour and sprinkle drops of the rice wine over each of them. Bake for three minutes, then remove from oven.
4. Using one piece of dough, rolled one inch larger than the yolk, put a spoon of red bean paste on it and a baked yolk on top of that. Then wrap the dough around both and seal with a little dab of egg. Put the sealed side down on a baking sheet. Continue until all dough and filling are used.
5. Brush the rest of the egg on the top of the pastries, then sprinkle each of them with a few sesame seeds. Bake for twenty minutes in the same oven as the egg yolks. Cool, then serve.
Boiled Chicken with Pork and Rice Stuffing
1/2 pound lean pork, diced fine
1 cup glutinous rice
3 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked for 15 minutes in warm water, then diced
1/4 cup canned bamboo shoots, drained and diced
1 Tablespoon rice wine
2 Tablespoons light soy sauce
1 Tablespoon oil
1 three pound chicken
piece of cheesecloth and some skewers
1. Fry the pork for one minute in a hot dry pan.
2. Boil the rice in a like amount of water for five minutes, then drain.
3. Mix the mushrooms, bamboo shoots, wine, soy sauce, and pork. Heat a pan, add the oil and fry them for a minute. Allow to cool somewhat and add the rice. Stuff it into the chicken and fasten ends with skewers. Wrap it in the cheesecloth.
4. Bring a large pot of water to the simmering point and set the chicken in it. Simmer for forty minutes, remove from the water and unwrap it.
5. It can be carved at the table or carved beforehand; and if the latter, put the chicken pieces around the outside of a platter and mound the stuffing in the center.
Steamed Pork Chops
8 thin boneless pork chops
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1 Tablespoon light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup rice flour or rice cereal such as Cream of Rice
2 scallions, diced
2 slices fresh ginger, minced
1. Trim excess fat from each chop, then marinate the meat in the sherry, soy sauce, and salt for ten minutes. The add the rice cereal, scallions, and the ginger and place into a shallow dish.
2. Put the dish into a steamer and steam for forty-five minutes. Remove and serve.
Eight Precious Pudding
1 and 1/2 cups sweet (glutinous) rice
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon corn oil
12 preserved Chinese dates
6 preserved Chinese plums
36 raisons
6 pieces preserved or canned red cherries
6 candied lotus nuts
1 cup walnuts, blanched
12 dried watermelon seeds
12 dragon longans, seeded
1. Wash rice, them put into a pot with six cups of cold water. Boil until soft, about sixty minutes, then mix in the sugar.
2. Rub a steamer-proof bowl with butter or oil. Arrange the fruit in an attractive pattern and cover with the cooked rice in such as way as not to disturb the pattern.
3. Steam for ninety minutes, then remove bowl from the steamer and immediately invert it on to a platter.
Note: One can add a sauce before or after inverting the pudding. To make one: Bring one half cup sugar, one teaspoon of cornstarch, and one cup of water to the boil. Boil it for one minute then pour over the rice before or after inverting it on to a platter.
Crispy Rice-paper Tofu Rolls
1 pound firm tofu
1/4 pound shrimp, peeled and minced
1/4 pound roast pork, minced
5 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked, stems removed, and minced fine
1 scallion, minced fine
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon powdered chicken or beef stock
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
10 pieces round thin rice-paper sheets
4 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 to 3 cups corn or another vegetable oil
1. Mix the first ten ingredients (tofu though white pepper). Grease a heat-proof plate and place this mixture thinly in a square or a rectangular shape on the greased plate.
2. Steam for eight minutes, then remove from the steamer, and cut into ten equal-size strips. Next, coat each strip with two tablespoons of the cornstarch.
3. Roll each strip into a piece of rice paper and wet lightly to seal. When all are rolled, dust both sides with the remaining cornstarch.
4. Heat oil, and deep fry each one until crispy, two at a time. Drain and serve.

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