From comforting congee to flavour-packed paella, rice deserves more than ‘side dish’ status. In cultures across the world, this ancient grain is the main attraction.
By
Siobhan Hegarty

4 Sep 2018 - 4:52 PM  UPDATED 5 Sep 2018 - 9:53 AM

You've probably - like me - consumed plenty of Oprah episodes, but there’s one celebrity interview that stays with me to this day. Weirdly, it involves rice. 

Australian actor Cate Blanchett was sitting beside Brad Pitt – her co-star in the Hollywood flick The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – when Ms Oprah Winfrey asked the big question:

“If you had one last meal, what would it be?”

Cate’s answer: A bowl of white rice. 

For years I was incensed by this unexpectedly bland response. Had Cate no passion for culinary delights? Was she an incredibly picky eater? Or was she oblivious to the scrumptious sauces, meats or vegetables that could accompany said rice? It still remains a mystery. 

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The Cate conundrum resurfaced while watching last season of The Chefs’ Line when Chinese week kicked off with a doozy – char sui (barbecued pork) – and what I like to call The Curious Case of Fanning Fried Rice. Although the meat was the main challenge for the home cooks and competing professional – China Doll’s apprentice chef Wing – rice was also treated with the utmost respect. While making her boss’s recipe for barbecue pork with prawn fried rice, Wing even grabbed a desk fan to do the grain justice.  

As apprentice chef Wing knew all too well, moist rice does not maketh good fried rice. Dry, day-old cooked rice works far better, as the firmer grains keep their shape with cooking. In his 2014 book Adam’s Big Pot, SBS presenter Adam Liaw wrote, “Fried rice is easiest when made with leftover rice that has been cooked and refrigerated. The refrigerated rice is firmer and will soften as it reheats in the wok. You can use freshly cooked rice but you need to use a lighter touch in the wok to keep from mashing it.” (Find his recipe here.)  

The point is, maybe Cate was onto something in her last meal selection. After all, rice has been farmed and enjoyed by humans for almost 7,000 years. Particularly in Asian countries, it is revered as a source of sustenance and a giver of life. Back in 2800 BC, rice was honoured by Chinese emperor Shen Nung with annual ceremonies around sowing time. For both the Japanese and Chinese, new years are ushered in with auspicious mochi (glutinous rice cakes). And in India to this day, parents will mark their baby’s transition from liquids to solids is marked with a rice-eating ceremony known as annaprashan.

But it’s not just Asia that enjoys the gifts of this ancient grain. Rice in Europe dates back to the 10th century when the travelling Moors introduced Asiatic varieties to the Iberian Peninsula. Later, in the 1400s, Muslims brought the grain to Italy and France, while Spanish and European colonisers transported it to the Americas and Africa.

Barbecue pork with prawn fried rice

Thanks to all of this cross-cultural pollination, rice has become a staple grain in many European and South American dishes, from the famous Spanish paella and Italian risotto to Brazilian feijoada and Cuban mojo chicken. More than 40,000 varieties of cultivated rice are said to exist, and these can be divided into indica (long-grained), japonica (short-grain), aromatic – such as jasmine and basmati – and glutinous categories.

Living in a multicultural country, such as Australia, we are blessed to have a plethora of rice varieties and recipes at our fingertips. Brown, red, black and wild rice grains can be found in health food aisles, while European grocers offer us valone nano (for risotto) and calasparra (for paella). These days, we'll breakfast Thai-style with brown rice larb congee, lunch at the local Korean on a hot pot of bibimbap, bake a comforting slab of Greek chicken and rice pie, or whip up fennel and pea risotto as a quick weeknight dinner. We'll happily dive into a bowl of Vietnamese black sticky rice, too. 

Rice, you've brought joy to the world, and, perhaps, have earned "last bite" status. 

Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? The Chefs’ Line airs every weeknight at 6pm on SBS followed by an encore screening at 9.30pm on SBS Food Network. Episodes will be available after broadcast via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #TheChefsLine on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBS_Food. Check out sbs.com.au/thechefsline for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more! 

Check out our rice recipe collection here.

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Jollof rice (Senegalese ceebu jen)

Jollof rice, or ceebu jen as it's known in Senegal, is perhaps the best-known West African dish because it's delicious, colourful and easy to prepare. Think of it like an African paella. It uses "parboiled" rice, which has a different texture to regular white rice.

Peanut mochi

Mochi, delightfully chewy, mellow little pillows of rice-based dough often filled with nut, seed or sweet bean mixtures, get their name from mochigome, a particular strain of glutinous rice. Traditionally, the cooked rice is pounded to make the dough but glutinous rice flour (easily purchased from Asian grocers) mixed with water can be used instead. 

Strawberry risotto (risotto alle fragole)

This tart risotto has a surprisingly savoury flavour, similar to tomato, and is served for lunch or dinner rather than as a dessert.

Chorizo and seafood paella

Originating in Valencia, paella is one of the most traditional dishes in Spain. Recipes and flavours have been adapted over time to suit different regions. This classic version teams chorizo with calamari, prawns and mussels.