I bet you’ve eaten a few grains of rice this week. My odds on this bet are good because I know the average American consumes 26 pounds of dry rice annually, which works out to be about 130 cups of cooked rice. If my math is right (cups cooked rice/days in a year), then most Americans eat a cup of rice every three days, on average.

Are you, in fact, average? I am. I made my first ever tahdig, a crispy crusted rice dish, and consumed three of the four servings, happily pulling my weight as far as American rice consumption is concerned.

We run toward the back of the pack in the worldwide rice-eating race. Per capita rice consumption globally, according to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization numbers, is closer to 175 pounds per year. The folks in Bangladesh eat the most (590 pounds), and the Serbians, the least (about 2 pounds). The International Rice Research Institute, a non-profit research outfit based in the Philippines dedicated to abolishing poverty and hunger among populations dependent upon rice-based agri-food systems, says rice is a daily staple for 3.5 billion people around the globe. But rice, as a worldwide crop, the world’s third largest behind corn and wheat, is a major contributor to climate change.

Its greenhouse gas emissions are arguably through the roof. Traditional rice paddies throw off a lot of methane, a gas that is 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Rice production currently catches the blame for 10% of all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, rice, which traditionally grows up to its ankles in muddy water, uses up a whopping 40% of the water irrigated for agriculture globally.

The rice crop, though, is also way too big to fail. Farmers, scientists and financiers are working all sorts of angles to sustain it.

Mainers can always eat locally grown rice, but even the Maine Rice Project – which sows several thousand pounds of rice annually, and is actively recruiting more growers to try to sate every Mainer’s appetite for greener rice, can’t fill every bowl in the state. Taking a closer look at what rice farmers around the world are doing to balance production with environmental and social equity concerns can help guide buying decisions.

In February 2019, Japan set a new Guinness World Record for the largest sustainable food lesson and it centered on short-grained rice, a crop grown on the island for about 3,000 years. The lecture series highlighted Japanese innovations for making rice an eco-friendlier proposition, from plating to cooking to consumption. For example, as a water conservation measure, a rice manufacturer developed a technology to mill rice that doesn’t need to be washed before it is cooked. Also, rice producers developed a plan to reuse rice bran that comes off after milling as fertilizer.

The International Rice Research Institute is working with Indian agriculture officials in the Kalahandi district of Odisha to close the gender gap in rice production there. Through a new Women Producer Company initiative, officials procure seeds and fertilizer from traders at wholesale prices to sell to members. The arrangement gives over 1,300 women farmers these inputs at a cheaper rate, close to their doorstep, and on credit.

The United Nations Environment Programme has been working with scientists and crop researchers to develop strains of rice that are drought resistant and don’t need to be planted in paddies. Fifty of those varieties are being tested in Africa. Growing rice on relatively dry land could help alleviate food insecurity on that continent and reduce the pressure to open precious wetlands up to farming.

Closer to home, more sustainable rice farming techniques are cropping up in Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas, where farmers produce more rice than Americans can eat and therefore it is exported. Although the practice is not yet widespread, a growing number of farmers are flooding their paddies for shorter amounts of time. Studies have shown that the practice, depending on the frequency and duration, can reduce methane emissions by as much 90 percent.

There’s an old Chinese saying that goes, “Every grain of rice is a drop of sweat from a farmer’s brow.”

It’s typically interpreted as a food waste management ideal. It’s a hopeful prospect that scientists, financial backers and those fighting hunger and gender inequity are sharing in rice farmers’ burden worldwide.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige spoons fried spiced chickpeas onto the tahdig. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Persian-ish Rice

This recipe for Middle Eastern style rice dish is adapted from one cookbook author Tieghan Gerard posted on her visually stunning, Half Baked Harvest blog last March. Her version was adapted from one published on Food52.com, which itself was pulled from chef Samin Nosrat’s celebrated cookbook “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.” Nosrat, the daughter of Iranian immigrants, writes most Persians have a special relationship with rice, particularly with tahdig, the crispy crusted dish by which every Iranian maman’s culinary prowess is measured. Making it can take hours and perfecting it, a lifetime. So Nosrat calls her quick version, Persian-ish, thereby signaling that no recipe is ever truly original, and all recipes should give cultural credit where it is due.
Serves 4

FOR THE RICE:
2 cups basmati rice
Kosher salt
Pinch of saffron
3 tablespoons plain yogurt
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup fresh mint or cilantro

FOR THE CHICKPEAS:
¼ cup olive oil
2 cups cooked chickpeas, drained and patted dry
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups roughly torn winter greens

Bring 6 cups of water and about ¼ cup salt to a boil in a large pot. Rinse the rice under cold running water. Once the water is boiling, add the rice, and stir. Cook, stirring occasionally until al dente, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain into a sieve and rinse with cold water.

In a bowl, combine saffron with a tablespoon warm water and the yogurt. Let sit 2 minutes until the yogurt is yellow. Stir in 1½ cups of the par-cooked rice.

A mixture of par-cooked basmati rice, yogurt and saffron with oil cooks in a no-stick pan, as a crust begins to form on the tahdig. The holes allows the cook to see if she’s added enough oil to the pan. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Melt butter into oil in a 10-inch skillet set over medium heat. When the butter foams, add the yogurt-coated rice and level it out in the pan with the back of a spoon. Pile the remaining rice into the pan, mounding it toward the center. Using the handle of a wooden spoon, gently dig 5-6 holes into the rice down to the bottom of the skillet. There should be enough oil in the pan so that you can see it bubbling up the sides. Add more oil if needed.

Cook the rice over medium heat, turning the pan a quarter turn every 5 minutes to ensure even browning. Cook until you start to see a golden crust begin to form at the sides of the pan, about 15 minutes. Then reduce the heat to low and continue cooking another 15 to 20 minutes. The edges of the crust should be golden, 35-40 minutes total.

Meanwhile, to make the chickpeas, heat a large, high-sided skillet over medium heat. Add oil, chickpeas, garlic, shallots, turmeric, paprika, red pepper flakes and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally until the chickpeas are crisped all over, 8-10 minutes. Add the greens, tossing to combine. Cook 2 minutes and remove from the heat.

Run a spatula along the edges of the pan with the rice to release the tahdig. Carefully flip the tahdig onto a platter. It should come out in one piece, but if not, reassemble it with the crispy rice on top as best you can. Serve topped with chickpeas, fresh cilantro, or mint.


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