Sunday, October 30, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 28: Wild Rice

This is actually Native harvested truly wild rice

The dark nutty native is not a true rice, it is in fact the seeds of an aquatic grass.   In the wild state it is closely associated with the marshy area that part of water systems and drainage areas close to the Great Lakes, but in fact it's wild range is pretty wide spread.  True Zizania aquatica actually ranges completely along the Canadian border and down through most of what is left of the eastern Woodlands as far south as the Gulf of Mexico and part of the way down into peninsular Florida.  I even have some rather anemically seeded plants growing in my yard, as I live in a neighborhood that was at one time a marshy situation--some areas close by are still swampy.  This goes to prove that the plants will grow in relatively dry conditions, but they don't produce good seed unless they actually do grow in a marsh or lake.  The wild rice of the Great Lakes area in the US and Canada that has become such an important crop is the closely related, but larger Zinania palutris.

This is what cultivated wild rice looks like--what most of us buy from the supermarket.

Wild rice has also been called "Indian Rice," "Water Oats," and, ironically, "Canada Rice."  I say ironically, because more than 90% of the it's native range is in the US lower 48.  The important Z. palustris is still harvested by locals tribes on both sides of the border, for an important food source for their peoples; and some groups, like the White Earth Manitok Wild Rice, sell the native wild harvested seed.  Some non-natives also harvest the wild type and sell it; there are several sources for this from Canada.  Z. palustris has also been domesticated, mostly by non-natives, and is grown as far away as California, where none of the 4 types of Zinania are native too.  It is easy to tell the two apart, the wild harvested seeds are lighter in color and less dense; while the domestic type that is most common in stores, is much darker, and denser in weight, in addition to being really shinny.  For things like salads, stuffings, and side dishes the domestic stuff is fine, but for some truly traditional Native American preparations like Popped Wild Rice, only the really wild stuff will do.

In addition to the two main type of wild rice mentioned above, the family has two other members; and despite that a lot has been written on how truly native this plant is to north America, it turns out that one of member of the family is actually native to China.  Zinania latifloia is called in English "Manchurian Wild Rice" is native to China and ironically, despite it over all importance as a grain in ancient China, is now mostly grown for it's stalk, which is cut, peeled and used as a vegetable.  It seems that this particular species is given to producing very fleshy stalk, that other types are not prone to.  The four, rather sad member of the family is Zinania texana,  which highly endangered and now grows only in one small area in central Texas.

Manchurian Wild Rice stalks, freshly cut and 1 is peeled ready for cooking.  They look a lot like sweet corn stalks

The most well known native word for wild rice come from the widely distributed Anishanabeg (Ojibwe) language:  Manoomin,  which actually translates to "good berry."  There is even a Menominee tribe named for the seed, who call themselves in English "The Wild Rice People."  The rice is harvested by paddling canoes slowly through "paddies" and knocking the seeds into the boat; one person paddles, the other knocks.  After harvesting, the seeds must be dried, parched over fire, then hulled, then winnowed.  The hulling is especially an important step amongst natives, as it is done by "dancing" on the parched seeds with special moccasins and has become a sacred activity.  Traditional winnowing is done is a birch bark tray that has been heat and bent just enough to use for this task.  The rice is then ready for cooking, storing or packaging for sale.

Old time rice harvest with two knockers in birch bark canoe

Commercial cultivation of domesticated Z. palustris is not only a thing of the Americas anymore.  In addition to it being largely cultivated in the U.S. and Canada, commercial cultivation as spread to Australia.  In 1990 it was put under cultivation in the country of Hungary.  Although the Manchurian variety has never been easy to domesticate for grain, and lose of habitat in it's native China as led to the discontinuation of it's use as a grain source altogether, the plant is still cultivated in a few rural places for it's stalks as mentioned above.  These domesticated varieties are apparently not good seed producers, and put most of their energy into plant production, hence their use as a peeled starchy vegetable.  Ironically the plant was accidentally introduced to New Zealand where it is reverting to wild stage with larger seeds production, but it is considered a seriously invasive plant species. A native infection a Chinese smut fungus, is responsible for the super swelling of the stems, for this reason, this plant is strictly illegal in north America, to protect the very important native species.  Incidentally this is a fungus that is related to the corn smut fungus that is native the New World, but doesn't affect plants other than maize and is prized as food in Mexico (more about this later).

folate, magnesium, and phosphorous, and 5% or more of thiamine, riboflavin, iron, potassium.  Wild rice can be infected with ergot, which was probably imported from Europe in inflected wheat crops.  Ergot is highly dangerous in ingested and causes violent constrictions and hallucinations, and death; and it has even been suggested that ergot was partially to blame for the Salem Witch Trials.

Native use of wild rice included plain boiled to accompany any meal of wild game, fowl or fish.  The above mentioned popped rice.  It is also made into a traditional flour.  It goes in a savory patties, into stuffings, into soups and is simply combined with maple to make a two ingredient delicious "pudding" that people of sample it swear has to have more than just two ingredients in it, because the taste is so complex.  It is also a popular salad ingredient, and it makes a nice "rice salad" on it's own or mixed with vegetables, native or non-native.  The flour and broken rice is also sometimes added to frybread, cornbreads, baked goods like cookies, and as breading for fried stuff (it's really good with seafood!).  In modern times, it is also thrown into casseroles to help use up leftovers, with a popular turkey and wild rice combo popping up after Thanksgiving.

For decades it has been a popular mixed ingredient with real rice.  Because even commercial wild rice can be expensive, it was often stretched with other rices and grains.  Food companies caught on to this and began to market these mixtures in boxed form.  Wild rice pilafs became all the rage for a while.  Today pilafs, casserole, salads and other concoction have the seed mixed with all sorts of stuff, from Endamane to Asparagus.  It tastes good mixed with oranges,  mushrooms, leeks/onions, olives or pears.   In parts of Europe and north Africa it is used with saffron rice or mixed with dates and coconut; and in Africa, it has shown up as a rare and exotic ingredient in Tagines.  In Japan and Korea, it shows up in rice bowls mixed with white rice, at a ratio of roughly 10 to 1 and or in miso soup with seaweed.  It is also put into fried rice mixtures in some parts of Asia.  In Russia it is sometimes put into their traditional pastry Coulbiac of Salmon or served in some places for Russian beef (stronganoff).

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