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A Rice Renaissance—The Refinement of Rice Culture

Lin Mao-sheng (right) and Wu Liangkuan (left) have joined hands to produce premium products for consumers who are particular about their rice. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

Lin Mao-sheng (right) and Wu Liangkuan (left) have joined hands to produce premium products for consumers who are particular about their rice. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
 

The amount of rice eaten by Taiwanese has again hit a new low. It has fallen by nearly half from the level of 80-90 kilograms per person per year back in the 1960s and 1970s, and will soon be outstripped by the rising consumption of wheat.

Looking at the big picture, rice consumption is declining. But when you look at the details, many rice farmers, rice experts, and restaurateurs are forming alliances from field to dining table in hopes of finding a better future for Taiwan rice. They are making a brilliant contribution to the transition from “eating your fill” to “eating smart.”

 

Back in 2002, Taiwan formally joined the World Trade Organization and announced it was opening its market to imports of rice, a move which was met by intense protests by farmers. Domestically produced rice has since faced both domestic challenges and external threats. Domestically, demand for rice has been continually falling as citizens’ dietary habits have changed. Externally, foreign rice has been knocking hard on the door to get in. But crisis is also opportunity, and many courageous farmers have begun to dedicate themselves to upgrading the quality of Taiwan’s domestic rice.

Following decades of transition, and with the advent of the Internet and social media, barriers to brand ­marketing have been lowered, and channels for purchasing rice have grown increasingly diverse. Alongside large rice firms that produce enough to supply chain stores, many small brands have appeared that promote buying direct from the farmer or rely on online sales. No matter whether consumers are focused on price or are aiming to support environmentally friendly or organic farming methods, all the options are there to choose from. Taiwan rice has really entered a period of intense competition in which “a hundred flowers bloom.”

Taiwanese or Japanese?

Taiwanese have long had a strong affection for Japanese rice, but there are differences despite this shared preference. Looking back into agricultural history, the rice produced in Taiwan before the era of Japanese colonial rule was fluffy long-grained Indica rice. The Japanese introduced short-grained Japonica rice into Taiwan, fundamentally changing the eating habits of the Taiwanese. As a result, Taiwanese and Japanese are unanimous in their preference for rice that is plump, slightly firm to the bite, aromatic, and sweet.

But strictly speaking, when Japanese eat rice, they follow their perfectionist instincts and seek out a pure flavor. Uncooked rice must be pure white and crystalline, without chalkiness, and once cooked it must be clean with no extraneous tastes. Only then is it fit to accompany Japan’s delicate, elegant cuisine. Taiwanese, on the other hand, are accustomed to eating rice with heavier foods. In particular, given that Taiwanese food is mainly stir-fried, only rice with a rich aroma can balance the strong flavor of the dishes.

Within this context, Taiwanese rice is valued for its rich fragrance. The rices currently sold in the market can be roughly divided into two main types: the common varieties with the aromas of pandan leaves or jasmine, and the “fragrant rice” varieties that are famous for having the scent of taro. Both have their adherents.

Furthermore, while the Japanese market is domin­ated by polished white rice, in Taiwan, as a result of health trends, not only is brown rice quite popular, but one can often see colored rices such as black, purple, and red rice, exemplifying the great diversity of Taiwan’s agricultural produce.

Rice matchmakers

Having clarified our preferences and standards, the next question is, “What shall we eat?” Taiwan has outstanding selective breeding technology, and both private-sector firms and the government’s agricultural research and extension stations have actively devoted themselves to breeding new varieties of rice. It is estim­ated that there are at least 200 varieties circulating in Taiwan. How can consumers choose the right rice for themselves?

Although the government has not set up a certification system for rice experts similar to that for tea tasters, there are still many people for whom promoting Taiwan rice has become a vocation, and who have specialist knowledge and extensive experience. They taste-test a wide range of rice varieties, and go to production areas on behalf of consumers where they interact with farmers and gain an in-depth understanding of the climate, terroir, and cultivation techniques used. Finally, with expert judgment, they choose suitable varieties for consumers. They are like “rice matchmakers” linking up farmers with consumers.

Outlining a picture of Taiwan rice

Several years ago there was a public outcry when it was revealed that a big rice company was selling Taiwanese rice with cheap Vietnamese rice mixed in. Whether they do it to reduce production costs or to compensate for a shortage in production volume, “mixed rice” has already become an open secret in the industry. But some prefer to steer in the opposite direction, clearly indicating the production area and cooperating farmers on their product labels, and even advertising their product as a “single variety.”

We arrive in Xihu Township in Miaoli County in glorious autumn weather, and the rice planted out in the preceding month is growing tall and green. “What I want to do is very simple: I want to let everybody know what variety of rice they are eating,” says “Mao Rice” founder Lin Mao-sheng resolutely, standing in the midst of a verdant checkerboard of paddy fields.

The reason why Lin chose rice as the basis for a new business venture can be traced back several years, to a point in his life when he was ready to make a career change and friends and family introduced him to the household of farmer Wu Liangkuan. Wu, who had left his job in the county government to return home to take up farming, is a perfectionist who insists on handling everything himself, from culturing seedlings and transplanting them to harvesting, drying, milling, and packaging his rice. Despite having only about eight hectares of farmland, he even invested a great deal of money to build a processing plant. Although he devotes himself completely to growing a good product, he used to keep a very low profile, only selling his rice through the local post office and to family and friends. Having discovered this high-quality rice that was “unavailable to the world,” Lin Mao-sheng decided to put his personal reputation on the line, and founded a brand with the aim of letting more people know about fine products like this.

Mao Rice’s offering is simple: there are three product lines, each based on a single variety of rice. Taking into account the fact that most consumers don’t have a deep understanding of rice varieties, Lin stresses the different varieties’ suitability for different uses. “Tainung 77” rice, which is plump, glossy and firm to the bite, is on a par with high-end Japanese rice, and can be used instead of Japanese Koshihikari rice. The “Tainung 71” variety has a high water content and gelatinizes well, making it suitable for dishes where a softer texture is required; Lin markets this as “congee rice.” As for “Tainung Sen 22,” this variety has a high amylose content, its grains do not stick together when cooked, and it has a firm bite. It is well suited for preparing fried rice or mixed vegetables and rice, and Lin dubs it “frying rice.”

In terms of the development of dietary culture, what Lin Mao-sheng is doing is not simply commercial trade, but also education about food and farming. In an age of processed foods, he is taking a first step to building a wider public understanding of “single variety” rice. Only if one is able to distinguish among different tastes can one recognize and appreciate them.

Lin puts it this way: “When consumers learn the positives and negatives of different crop varieties and develop an autonomous viewpoint, they will know what they prefer and who to buy it from, and how to select produce; this is a virtuous circle. Once people have control over their food, industry will become more dynamic—this is at the root of everything.”

Confident rice experts

Another “spokesperson” for rice is Stone Shih, who runs the Fusing Rice shop in the Qiaozhong Market in Banqiao, New Taipei City.

Shih has taken an entirely different approach from that of Mao Rice. Inside Fusing Rice, besides the rice which is sold loose by weight, there are also high-priced niche brands of vacuum-packed rice. When you count them up, you find there are 20 different rice product lines.

Shih, who worked in a well-known concept store for 16 years, has his own ideas about criteria for selecting products. “Many people tend to think that something is good just because other people say that it’s good, or feel that it’s not so good because others say it’s bad. But in fact everyone’s experiences and standards are different, and judgments about what is good or bad are very subjective,” he says. That’s why he never uses a hard sell on customers, but instead puts the product development skills that he gained in the past to good use by seeking out premium-quality rice from various places, and when selling to customers he first gets a thorough understanding of their preferences and needs, and then makes precise recommendations.

Fusing Rice also works with dozens of restaurants. Because each has its own cuisine, Shih not only supplies them with rice, he uses his expertise to recommend the most suitable varieties. For example, Hong Kong-style restaurants have traditionally used “see mew” rice grown in China for their congee and clay-pot rice dishes; Shih recommends that they instead use Thai fragrant rice, which has a similar mouthfeel. For braised pork on rice, a classic dish served in Taiwanese-style eateries, it is crucial that after the topping is added, the rice should not turn mushy. However, many businesses have costs to consider, so Shih experimented with mixing soft, sticky Taiwanese rice from Xihu with drier Thai fragrant rice in order to get the best of both worlds.

Refining rice cuisine

As a result of larger trends, consumption of rice by Taiwanese has been steadily declining. Even though agricultural agencies are continually calling on people to “eat more Taiwanese rice,” it has proven hard to turn the tide. But when you take a different perspective, you can see that rice culinary culture has been putting down deeper roots and growing more refined, and in recent years has shown a flourishing diversity.

Besides the changing landscape of rice brands, at various points in time different rice-based edibles, such as shio kojiamazake (sweet sake), and rice crackers have become fashionable for a while, after which they have spread to ordinary households. There are also a number of rice-themed restaurants, and people stage banquets or dinner parties of various sizes with rice as the central axis. These are all characterized by using rice in novel ways, and offer fully co­ordinated menus, giving consumers a fresh image of rice.

Fortunately there are also rice experts promoting greater understanding of rice, tirelessly explaining to the public how to cook rice at its best. Even when eating at home, more and more people are increasingly particular about the rice they consume, and more restaurants, acting on the idea of “eating local,” are willing to use domestically produced rice. There are even creative chefs and culinary experts who are exploring the limitless potential of Taiwanese rice.

When we understand the skill and effort behind each bowl of rice or congee, why don’t we join together to support domestic rice? Increasing our discernment and building on our culture starts from devoting serious attention to each bowl and each mouthful of rice at our dining tables.