Rice – That’s Nice!

Sometimes it seems as if my blog posts swerve from the sublime to the ridiculous. Last month we explored dinosaurs who could grow to the size of a football field, this month we’re considering a few grains of rice!

As we sweated through the sweltering days of summer – no it’s not all cool mountains, shady pine trees and refreshing lakes here – we started to reminisce about the three singeing summers when we hiked across Spain’s Camino to Santiago de Compostela. (See my book, Blisters and Blessings for more of our exploits.) The blisters have long-since healed, but we haven’t forgotten the blessings, some of them culinary. Paella is Spain’s iconic dish, and we tried several of its varieties. All delicious, yet the most memorable’s the one we only sampled. It was a sultry evening towards the end of the Camino, our insalubrious hostel fortunately didn’t serve dinner- instead, a meal ticket to a tourist restaurant nearby. Since we hadn’t indulged in a siesta we were unable to wait until the late hour Spaniards deem suitable for dinner. As we were comically eating our meal together with the other non-nationals before the skies achieved inky black, a restaurant employee set up his paella station on the sidewalk. This comprised a propane gas stove and a paella pan four feet in diameter. Soon enticing aromas swirled from the pan drawing more and more patrons  into the restaurant!  While I forget the perfectly pleasant meal we’d enjoyed, I’ll never forget the sample of paella the street chef presented us for dessert!  In honor of this event, Chris recently prepared smoked paella, the first of several rice dishes we’ve savored in the last few weeks.

Smoked Paella

Chris’s Smoked Paella

Rice is the staple food for almost half the world’s population, originating as far as we can tell, between 7000 and 5000 BCE in China. It’s a grass seed, that can flourish in the uplands but is generally grown on flooded plains. The plants do not require excessive water for growth, however they tolerate it well and it inhibits disease and infestation. Ninety per cent of rice is grown in Asia, the rest in the Americas, Japan, Africa and Australia. Most of the rice we consume is white rice that’s had both husk and bran removed, unfortunately this also removes some of its nutrient value. 

Chris’ smoked paella followed the paella “mista” tradition – mixed paella. It’s thought that the Moors introduced rice to Spain. The Spanish word “arroz” derives from Arabic. “Paella” refers to the Provencal name for the two handled pan used in its preparation. The first paellas are believed to have been served for lunch to agricultural laborers working on the rice fields at the port of Valencia on the Mediterranean. Most likely, the dish would have used broken rice, discarded vegetables and the least attractive fish. Nonetheless, it tasted so good, it quickly spread across Spain and new variants were developed that included “mista”, a mix of fish, seafood and meats, including smoked sausage.

Paella

Paella in traditional large pan

Our next rice recipe, Jambalaya took us to New Orleans – a city close to my heart as I helped with reparations there after Hurricane Katrina. Early records of Jambalaya date to the mid eighteenth century. It has Spanish, French and African influences and can be prepared either in the Cajun (no tomatoes) or Creole (with tomatoes) style. Tasty as it is, Jambalaya is often seen as a simple dish – its name may indicate “mish-mash,” a blend of rice and whatever’s plentiful and available. Like paella, rice is an integral part of the dish, it’s the local blend of herbs and spices that transform it to something special.

Our epicurean journey brought us next to Thailand by way of Thai Chicken Curry. Thailand was the only country in its region not to be colonized by Europeans and, although it was influenced by neighboring peoples, its cuisine remains distinctive. Curry dishes predominate in India, where the fragrant spices meld together to form curry powder. In Thailand, curry paste is generally preferred. I purchased mine (the red version). Typically it blends chilis, shrimp paste, ginger, garlic and other spices. Curries in both India and Thailand involve meat, fish and sometimes eggs enveloped in an aromatic sauce. The spices are included not only to delight the palate but to divert attention from any protein that’s past its best. Unlike Paella and Jambalaya, the long grain, flaky, rice is served as an accompaniment. There are exceptions yet it’s largely true to say that Thai curry is characterized by coconut milk, lemongrass and lime.  We didn’t leave a morsel!

New neighbors moved in across the street. Back in the UK, I’d have made them a casserole or a batch of scones to welcome them to the neighborhood, but as they are vegetarians, and I’m currently fixated on rice dishes, I think I’ll take them Vegetable Biryani.  I’ve never made it before and it’s quite involved.  Wish me luck!

News Flash!

Surprise!  
Sample another extract from A Glass Darkly, from chapter 3.
Let me know your thoughts.

End Notes

Reading

The Maid Nita Prose

The Maid
Nita Prose

Listening

Take it Easy
Madox Sematimba

Simple Swedish Folk Song
The Spooky Men’s Chorale

Recipes

Poetry

Money
Benjamiin Zephania

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