Rice Is Everything

A celebration of the world’s most popular food: How to cook it and why it’s so important to so many people.

In January 2020, before the world shut down, I took a train, a ferry, and a bus to the Staten Island Museum to go to a rice tasting. Rice might not sound like something you would want to take three modes of public transportation to try, but this tasting was led by Chef BJ Dennis, a Charleston, South Carolina, native and Gullah Geechee culinary expert. Dennis has dedicated years to tracing the lineage of strains of rice that enslaved people brought to the United States.

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Credit: Photo by Antonis Achilleos / Prop Styling by Christina Daley / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey

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Enslaved West Africans, forced from their homes in rice-growing regions, applied their knowledge to planting and tending rice for their enslavers and for themselves. By 1800, in Charleston and its surrounding communities, there were more than a hundred kinds of rice, Dennis told us, as he served us dishes made with different variations of the grain. The ingenuity of enslaved people fueled a rice boom centered on a particular long-grain varietal called Carolina Gold, prized for its flavor and versatility. Carolina Gold's dominance ended with the Civil War and soon became difficult to find. It was the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of the original West Africans, who kept its memory alive. Rice was a transfer food, another way that generations of Black cooks have shaped American cuisine.

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Lowcountry red rice and fried shrimp from Chanel's Gullah Cuisine in Charleston, South Carolina. | Credit: Peter Frank Edwards
Credit: Photo by Antonis Achilleos / Prop Styling by Christina Daley / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey

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Once you start thinking about rice, it's difficult to stop. It's basically impossible to overstate how important rice is to the ways people around the globe eat. Rice is the source of one-fifth of all the calories consumed by the world's population. Rice forms the backbone of millions of people's diets. Rice has been a key player in historical events and a vital element of too many food cultures to name.

The United States alone grows 20 billion pounds of rice annually, a number that is dwarfed by the output of China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries. It can be simple comfort food, a crispy treat, or an elaborate, special-occasion dish. Without it we wouldn't have plov, sticky rice, paella, biryani, jollof rice, sushi, bibimbap, broken rice, tahdig, fried rice, nasi goreng, arroz con pollo, rice and beans, risotto, dirty rice, or the simple pleasure of a bowl of rice mixed with yogurt and dotted with curry leaves. A 50-pound bag of jasmine rice that I bought in the early, grocery shortage-fueled days of the pandemic has provided steady nourishment and succor for more than a year. The more our staff talked about it, the more it became clear: Rice is everything, and it touches everyone.

Credit: Photo by Antonis Achilleos / Prop Styling by Christina Daley / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey

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The collection of rice stories and recipes here isn't comprehensive—how could it be? We could have a whole separate magazine solely dedicated to rice, Rice & Wine, if you will, and never run out of topics. But we hoped in this series would give some idea of just how vast, varied, and complex the world of rice is. We cover the practical side of how best to cook it, and if you want a rice cooker, which one to get. Among rice cooker fanatics, you'll also run into the cult of Zojirushi, an expensive but excellent device that reliably produces perfect pots of rice and keeps them gently warm for hours.

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Credit: Photo by Antonis Achilleos / Prop Styling by Christina Daley / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey

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Credit: Photo by Antonis Achilleos / Prop Styling by Christina Daley / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey

There are also stories about what rice means on a personal level, and how it shapes and enriches the conversations we have about our identities and families. We reached out to writers, chefs, and other rice obsessives to share their own personal rice journeys. Courtney Sprewer explores the oft-overlooked Minute Rice and what it means to Black Midwestern families, and Amethyst Ganaway explains red rice and its connection to Gullah Geechee culture. Leah Koenig looks at the world of Plov, and Lenore Adkins writes about chef Peter Prime's Trinidadian Pelau. Mari Uyehara dives into the state of furikake, the classic Japanese rice seasoning. Valerie Erwin, the brains behind Geechee Girl Rice Cafe in Philadelphia, talks about being on the vanguard of the rice renaissance. It's enough to get anyone excited about rice, or at least add a bag or two to their next grocery list. —Margaret Eby, Senior Editor

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Credit: Photo by Rachel Vanni / Food Styling by Judy Haubert

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