Forbidden rice

The focus of the piece was on wine – specifically a Northern Rhone Viognier – but what drew me in, perhaps naturally, was the dish suggested to accompany it. Butter- poached lobster with black forbidden rice, papaya and madras curry simply dazzled me with its exotic, luxurious ingredients in a way that so few menus manage to do.

Forbidden rice is only one type of black rice, an heirloom variety grown at earlier times in history and certainly not on a large scale in modern agriculture. One source suggests its name was acquired because only emperors in ancient China were allowed to eat it due to its rarity and high nutritional value. Once cooked, its blackness turns to deep purple as does the water in which it has simmered. Its flavour is rich and nutty, its colour owing to the outer coating of black bran. And to be sure – thanks to the glorious contrast of colours – it is often served alongside white fish : I can well imagine how sublime the match with lobster (and naturally Viognier) would be.

There are, apparently, about 40,000 varieties of rice, although most of us are really only familiar with a handful of those (and wild rice, being a seed, does not count). Basmati and jasmine, short-, medium- and long-grain, arborio and brown seem to be the ones we in the western world largely cook with, the specific types determining how they should all be cooked. Together with wheat, rice is one of the world’s two most important food crops, nourishing exclusively about a third of its population, especially in Asian countries. Waverley Root says, ‘Asians have become so accustomed to the obligatory presence of rice that however much they stuff themselves with other foods, they still feel hungry if they have had no rice’. In Japan the very word for rice, gohan, also means the full meal.

With my vigorous Euro predilections I have often heard myself make comments along the lines of: I would eat much more Asian food if it featured bread and cheese. And then circumstances may fling in my direction an Asian meal which utterly transports me and obliterates all thoughts of wheat and dairy. With, moreover, the creamy sauce-absorbing rice being one of the rapturous components. In short, I simply forget how much I enjoy rice – and all types of rice too.

Brown rice is wonderful in its texture and nuttiness. In a long-ago column I waxed nostalgically about the brown-rice dinners my younger sister and I lived on the time our parents went overseas. The house to ourselves, we would nightly prepare a stir-fry of cooked brown rice, cubed capsicums, cashews, celery and cabanossi (all those inadvertent C ingredients), shower it generously with shredded cheese then place it under the grill until molten and gooey. Lubricated with cask Stanley white burgundy, we devoured that dish with shameful greed, night after night after night. Our having been brought up on regular Rice-A-Riso – for all my mother’s otherwise sophisticated culinary forays – it was clearly, or so we believed, the pinnacle of epicureanism.

The butter-poached lobster brought to mind a rice dish I made recently, to accompany spice- rubbed lamb shoulder I baked endlessly in a very slow oven. First of all I softened chopped leeks in a lusty amount of butter. Then I cooked jasmine rice in chicken stock and after ten minutes I tipped in the buttery leeks, replaced the saucepan lid and continued cooking it all until the rice was done. Heaven.

Now I must track down some black forbidden rice – and a lobster.

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