Feeding The Nation
It’s no secret that rice plays an important, even integral, part in every Indonesian meal. While white jasmine rice is found most abundantly across the archipelago, that’s just the tip of the rice paddy.
Words by Will Goldfarb
Rice is basically just the seed of an old grass, oryza sativa, but this special cereal has become the principal form of sustenance for a large part of the world. Rice was likely domesticated about 8,000 to 12,000 years ago in China’s Pearl River Valley. Although many of the world’s best-known rice dishes are Italian or Spanish, oryza sativa wasn’t likely in either of those places until at least the 10th century and didn’t take hold until almost 500 years later. So, no paella for the Crusaders, but maybe risotto for the Renaissance.
In Southeast Asia and other tropical zones, rice can be a perennial plant, or a plant that completes its life cycle each year, even though it is normally considered an annual in many other places around the world. As anyone who has tried it can testify, rice cultivation is backbreaking work and requires massive quantities of fresh water. After harvesting, the seeds are milled to remove the husks and may be further processed to remove the germ. The commonly found white rice is sorely lacking in basic nutrients, and regrettably, despite providing nearly 20 per cent of the world’s calories, requires the addition of lots of vitamins to make it really healthy for you.
Rice was introduced relatively recently to Indonesia, but has really taken over as the carbohydrate of choice. As the world’s third largest rice producer, Indonesia depends on this magical crop to sustain its population (now the world’s fourth largest) across the thousands of miles of glorious archipelago. Nearly half of all Indonesia’s consumed food is rice, so much so that the government has encouraged people to learn how to prepare potatoes and cassava! Rice remains critical to the agricultural community despite a challenging supply chain, with three out of four farms dedicated to this magical white grain.
There are three principal types of rice grains found in Indonesia: japonica, indica and javanica. Rice grows differently depending on many different factors including climate, altitude, terroir, being grown in a paddy or marsh, and also sun intensity. Bali is home to Indonesia’s most unique varieties of rice and growing methods with rice crops dependent largely on the lunar cycle. Bali boasts a sophisticated network of irrigation, called subak, whose formations can be seen in the large terraces that dot the island.
Two noticeable rice variations that are making a comeback to Indonesia’s fine-dining menus are Jatiluwih heirloom
rice from Tabanan, Bali, and Adan Krayan rice from East Kalimantan. Jatiluwih heirloom rice boasts a sultry, soft texture and mild fragrance, and can pair nicely with traditional full-flavoured Balinese dishes like babi guling
(Balinese-style roast pork), while the Adan Krayan rice comes in three colours (white, red and black) and is known for its sweet taste.
Rice is a great way to connect with Indonesian history and heritage, so drop in for a bowl sometime.
Will Goldfarb is the founder of Room4Dessert in Ubud and has an international reputation for mastery and innovation with stints in award-winning kitchens such as elBulli, Cibreo and Tetsuya. Will has been nominated for the James Beard Award and was named one of Pastry Art & Design’s ‘10 Best Pastry Chefs in America’.