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Fusion: A Culinary Journey

Fusion

By Peter Gordon

Published 2010

As a child growing up in Wanganui, New Zealand, rice was rarely eaten. Potatoes, kumara and bread were the carbohydrates of choice for my mother Timmy and step-mum Rose. The times I can remember eating rice in a savoury dish were when mum would cook an occasional Chinese-inspired fried rice, or Rose would make a minced beef or sausage curry and we’d eat it with boiled rice. Rose’s father Vic would also make the most delicious hot rice pudding by slowly baking pudding rice with lots of milk, butter, sugar and a little nutmeg - he said slow cooking was the secret to the smoothest pudding and he seemed to always get it right. When I moved to Melbourne, aged 18, I began to eat at Thai and Cantonese restaurants and suddenly realised that rice wasn’t just an adjunct to a meal, it was often the main part of a meal. I also discovered Italian risottos and Spanish paellas, Turks and Greeks were stuffing vegetables with rice, vegetarians were making nut and rice loaves. Chinese congee and Indonesian lontong (compressed rice) were both made by overcooking rice in various ways. To this day I am a huge fan of rice in its many forms, colours, textures and varieties - and there are many varieties.

What we know as rice is actually the grain, or edible seed, from an arable plant, also known as rice, that is a cereal. The word cereal derives from the pre-Roman goddess Ceres, who it is believed looked after the harvest. Whilst rice appears in many cuisines around the world, for many people it is their main source of carbohydrate and as such is a staple food for tens of millions, providing more than 20 per cent of the kilojoules consumed worldwide. The rice we have made part of our diets globally comes from two different species: one from West Africa (lesser known outside of Africa) and the other originating in sub-tropical Asia, most likely China and its environs. When I first went to Bali in 1985, I was mesmerised by the rice paddy field terraces that littered parts of the island. The artistic town of Ubud, my favourite spot in Bali, is surrounded by rice fields that really do contribute to the character and soothing soul of the area.

It was also in Bali that I ate black rice pudding for the first time. This was made by cooking black glutinous (sticky) rice in water, then finishing it with fresh coconut cream, banana and gula melaka - palm sugar? I was hooked on this unusual dessert and have cooked it often myself. As I headed up through South-East Asia I came across many variations of rice, from the Sumatran lemang (mixed with coconut milk and cooke inside bamboo stalks over a fire), to sweet green ‘cakes’ in Malaysia made from rice flour and pandan, to the wonderful sticky rice from Northern Thailand, mostly steamed but occasionally cooked in the same manner as the lemang. Also I came across what I call Thai rice puffs - resembling Rice Bubbles®. Funnily enough, I also ate this style of puffed rice on the streets of Mumbai 2 (or Bombay as it was in 1986) mixed with diced mango, chillies, mint, tamarind and served with bel poori. Japanese sake, a much undervalued drink in my opinion, owes its very existence to rice, as does mirin, and where would Japanese cuisine be without either of these? In India, basmati rice might rightly be thought king of the crops for its aromatic and distinctive flavour, but the jasmine rice of Thailand is a personal close second.

Of course, rice didn’t stop in Asia or Africa. It was introduced into Europe, the Middle East and Americas, as so many foods have been, by traders and settlers, invading hoards and missionaries. The Moors brought it to Spain in the 10th century and from there it slowly introduced itself to Italy and France. Rice is versatile and a quick way to extend a meal, and there are numerous varieties, so look out for some different ones next time you go shopping, from Southern France’s red Carmargue, or India’s unhulled brown basmati through to lovely sticky black glutinous rice from Thailand.

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