Rice, to most American cooks, is just rice, one of myriad foods. But for roughly half the people on Earth, rice is the most significant food in their diet, and its preparation and presentation






RICE, TO MOST American cooks, is just rice, one of myriad foods. But for roughly half the people on Earth, rice is the most significant food in their diet, and its preparation and presentation are matters of great import. In “The Oxford Companion to Food,” Alan Davidson puts it this way: “Attitudes toward the proper way to cook and eat it seem to depend on the role rice plays in the lives of the people who eat it.” In many communities, he writes, “it is revered as divine and it is cooked and served in the plainest possible way.”

My friend Zhu Xiaogong, who grew up in Beijing, once shared with me his discomfort at throwing away leftover rice. “When I was a boy,” he said, “we sang a little song: Every Grain of Rice Is Sacred.”

Growing up in this country, even on the Gulf Coast where rice is more of a staple than it is in most regions of North America, I never gave it that much thought. Most of the rice we ate was the par-boiled grain known as “converted rice,” stuff that some of my more food-savvy friends would eventually dismiss as “perverted rice.” But after almost three decades in the Pacific Northwest, my taste in rice has changed considerably.

A turning point was the seven years I spent cooking at Seattle’s Canlis restaurant, where a large percentage of the staff was of Asian descent. There, I grew fond of the simply prepared short-grain rice that was served every day as part of the staff meal. I came to appreciate the comforting smell and the soothing simplicity of it. This prompted me to start looking at rice differently and exploring its myriad varieties.

My explorations eventually led me to Tamaki Haiga rice. Produced by Williams Rice Milling Co. in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California, the rice is pretty widely distributed to Asian markets and better Japanese restaurants all over the West Coast.

“Haiga” has a double meaning in Japanese. It literally means “rice bran,” but it is also the word for a traditional Japanese brush work, characterized by the juxtaposition of rustic simplicity and ethereal refinement. Haiga may be thought of as the visual form of Haiku. The rice named for the art form is less than fully refined, too; lingering traces of the rough outer bran give it more flavor and texture than white rice, but it is quicker and easier to cook than truly brown rice. It has become my favorite rice.

And one of my favorite ways to enjoy this rice is in Chirashizushi or mixed sushi (chirashi means scattered). It’s interesting enough for company but easy enough for a casual family supper. Cooked vegetables or seafood are scattered over the surface or tossed with the finished rice before serving. The secret to this dish is selecting harmonious colors, textures and flavors of ingredients. Opt for grilled shiitake mushrooms, barely cooked snow peas, thin strips of cooked omelet, smoked salmon or just a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.

Greg Atkinson is author of “Entertaining in the Northwest Style.” He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at barrywongphoto@earthlink.net.