Book review by Kristina Sepetys
Whenever I’m asked if I want brown or white rice at restaurants, I always choose brown. I like the chewy, even sticky, texture and the fact that brown rice has more nutrients because the hull and bran remains intact.
I’ve never been asked if I want black rice (aka purple or forbidden rice), but given that choice, I’d definitely choose black. It’s even higher in nutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber than brown rice. The deep rich color—more blue-ish-purple than black—is produced by an antioxidant called anthocyanin also found in blueberries, red cabbage, and blackberries. Antioxidants can reduce inflammation, helping to combat diseases like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. It tastes nutty and slightly sweet and smells earthy and fragrant. With three times as much iron as brown rice, black rice has been eaten (and prized) in China and Asia for thousands of years, but for far less time in North America.
Caryl Levine and Ken Lee were traveling through Asia in the early 1990s when they first encountered black rice. They were so taken with its beauty and taste that they shipped a bag to themselves in the Bay Area. They shared samples with chefs like Gary Danko, Alice Waters, and others, and the response was so enthusiastic that they decided to create their own business so they could import heirloom rice varieties from small family farms around the world. They established Lotus Food in Richmond, California, in 1994 and trademarked their popular black rice as Forbidden Rice™ to differentiate their non-sticky heirloom variety.
Levine and Lee found support for their fledgling business in the local East Bay food community. Their first bag of rice was sold to Monterey Market in Berkeley. Chefs like Chris Rossi at Citron and Erik Tuck at the vegan restaurant Millenium cooked with their rice, and three decades later, Lotus Foods products can still be found on the shelves at Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, El Cerrito Natural, GB Ratto, Market Hall Foods, Andronico’s, Whole Foods, and other shops and restaurants around town. At one time, Linden St Brewery made a beer with Lotus Foods Forbidden Rice that Hawker Fare served as a house beer and called Superfly.
A recent addition to their work is their new cookbook, Rice is Life: Recipes and Stories Celebrating the World’s Most Essential Grain, with 65 recipes for rice and rice noodle dishes. It documents their journey and provides background on fair trade and organic agriculture, principles to which Lotus Foods has been committed from its inception. The book also explores the many varieties of rice and shares resources and tips for preparing them.
To write the cookbook, Levine and Lee called on Kristin Donnelly, author of Modern Potluck (Clarkson Potter, 2016) and Cauliflower (Short Stack Editions, 2018), co-author of The Chef’s Garden (Avery, 2021), and a food editor at Food & Wine. Donnelly’s recipes are creative and appealing. I particularly liked the many combinations of rice and eggs, like Spiced Lentil and Rice Shakshuka and Black Rice with Brussel Sprouts and Fried Eggs, as well as the recipes that used rice varieties that I was less familiar with like Spring Minestrone with White Beans, Black Rice and Cauliflower, and Red Rice Salad with Pistachios (which includes a mix of herbs like dill, mint, and cilantro).
In a nutshell, Rice Is Life provides a great introduction to cooking with lesser-known rice varieties from the founders of an East Bay food company with a long commitment to biodiversity and sustainable farming.
Rice Is Life: Recipes and Stories Celebrating the World’s Most Essential Grain
By Caryl Levine and Ken Lee (Chronicle Books, 2022)
Try these two recipes from Rice is Life:
BLACK RICE PORRIDGE WITH SEVEN-MINUTE EGGS AND CHILI CRISP
Reprinted with permission from Rice Is Life by Caryl Levine and Ken Lee (Chronicle Books, 2022)
Savory porridges are eaten throughout much of the world. Congee, which is usually made with white rice cooked with enough liquid so that it breaks down to form a silky, nearly smooth texture, is probably the most well known. There are endless variations on these porridges—sometimes they include meat, seafood, or vegetables. Other times, as in this recipe, they’re left plain and then served with a few deeply flavorful toppings. Because this version is so plain, use the best chicken stock you can. (The stock left over from the Hainanese Chicken and Rice on page 198 works especially well.)
Black rice brings an incredible flavor and intriguing color to this porridge. Because the bran layer of the rice is left intact, the texture is a little bit chewier than you’ll usually find with congee, but we find it to be incredibly satisfying.
Chili crisp is a spicy, crunchy sauce made by frying red chiles, garlic, shallots, Sichuan peppercorns, and other ingredients in oil so they become flavorful and crispy. Because of the Sichuan peppercorns, it has an enjoyable tongue-numbing quality that makes it hard to stop eating. While you can make your own, we like to use jarred versions we find at many Asian and specialty markets. We’re particularly enamored with the chili crisp by Fly by Jing (flybyjing.com).
- 1 cup (200 g) Forbidden Rice® or other non-sticky black rice
- 8 cups (2 liters) chicken stock (or a combination of chicken stock and water)
- 4 large eggs
- Sliced green onions and Sichuan chili crisp, for serving
In a heavy saucepan over high heat, cover the rice with the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Stir the rice to make sure it’s not sticking to the bottom, lower the heat to medium-low, and cover the pot. Cook, stirring every 20 to 30 minutes, until the grains of rice have burst and turned inside out, about 1 hour.
Uncover the pot and increase the heat to medium. Simmer the rice, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat as necessary to stay under a boil, until the rice has a very loose porridge-like texture, 35 to 40 minutes. Season the porridge with salt.
Meanwhile, bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to medium to maintain a simmer and carefully add the eggs, making sure they are covered with the water. Simmer the eggs for 7 minutes, then drain. Return the eggs to the saucepan and cover with cold water to stop the cooking. When you’re ready to peel, feel the eggs. If they are not warm to the touch, cover them with warm water and let stand for 5 minutes to warm them up. Carefully peel the eggs, cut them in half, and sprinkle with salt.
Spoon the porridge into bowls, arrange the egg halves on top, and garnish with green onions. Drizzle as much chili crisp over the bowls as you like and serve more at the table.
NOTE: If you prefer, you can make this porridge in an electric pressure cooker, such as an Instant Pot. In the pot, combine 1 cup (200 grams) Forbidden Rice® or other nonsticky black rice with 5 cups stock or water and cook on high pressure for 1 hour. Let the pressure release naturally and stir. Add more liquid if you prefer a looser porridge.
SPRING MINESTRONE WITH WHITE BEANS AND BLACK RICE
This easy soup is just the thing to make when the first asparagus pokes through the earth and the nights are still cool. Because it’s so simple, use the best-quality broth you can find. The soup is fairly chunky; if you’d like more broth, by all means, add some. If you’d like a little more richness, drizzle with more olive oil and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
- ¼ cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 leek, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced into rings and rinsed well (save the leek tops for stock)
- 1 quart (960 ml) low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
- ½ cup (100 g) Forbidden Rice® or other non-sticky black rice
- 1 (15-ounce or 430 g) can white beans with liquid
- 1 pound (455 g) asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces
- 1 cup (120 g) frozen peas
- Torn basil or mint, for garnish
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the leek, season with salt, and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the broth and rice, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium and simmer until the rice is al dente, about 20 minutes. Add the white beans with their liquid and stir to heat through. Add the asparagus and peas and cook until bright green and heated through, about 1 minute. Season the soup with more salt as desired.
Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with basil or mint, and serve.