An Honorable Food: Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s ‘Seductions of Rice’

“In both cities where I live—San Francisco and Paris—robust Asian communities have seductive markets offering such enticing ingredients it’s impossible for a curious cook to remain stubbornly, foolishly Western.”

— David Tanis, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes

Prior to their 2009 divorce, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid collaborated on six cookbooks, glorious combinations of recipes, travelogues, history, and foodways. Both talented photographers, they shot on site, in markets, villages, farms, and side streets, creating exquisitely designed books. Together and apart, they had the ability to befriend total strangers and get invited into homes, where their requests to learn authentic dishes were granted. While the authors and their two sons are a presence in the texts, they opt for a narrative rather than central role. Instead, we see the peoples of Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean, their homes, their kitchens, their cookware, their food.

With divorce came the dissolution of their collaboration. Happily, Naomi Duguid maintains a blog and has written a cookbook on Burmese food, due in September 2012.

To read 2003’s Seductions of Rice is to gain a deep understanding of rice and the role it plays in many of the world’s cuisines, their cultures, in their very survival. Never again will you blithely pass bags of rice, be they propped in the supermarket alongside the pastas, in the “ethnic” food aisle, or your local Asian grocery. Rice becomes profound, an ancient foodstuff. More than sustenance, rice is a way of life, what the Japanese call gohan: an honorable food.

Seductions of Rice is divided into sections by region, beginning in China and ending on the North American continent. Emphasis is on Eastern cultures, where rice is a staple food, eaten at every meal. For many non-Asian Westerners, accustomed to a central dish, often a protein, accompanied by a carbohydrate, one vegetable, and a dessert, “rice meals” present a radically different notion of eating. Animal protein is a condiment rather than the main event. And the main event, in countless permutations, is rice. In China, Japan, India, and Thailand, a meal means a large serving of rice accompanied by a range of vegetable preparations, soups, pickled vegetables, dried fish, a bit of pork, lamb, or chicken, and a countless array of dipping sauces.

The Chinese Way

“Chinese cookery can involve some of the most elaborate and sophisticated techniques and some of the most obscure and rare ingredients…but what we have always found most compelling about Chinese food are its simplest dishes.”

Before trying the Chinese Way, Alford and Duguid suggest investing in a wok, light cleaver, and a spatula. For supplies, see The Wok Shop, famous for its quality cookware and low prices.

Plain Chinese rice, fan is medium or long grain rice. It’s accompanied by cai, a word meaning both vegetables or anything eaten with rice. At a Chinese meal, various platters of cai are set out. Each diner is given a bowl of rice and chopsticks, and selects morsels from the platters to eat with the rice. At meal’s end, one has an amalgamation of tastes in her rice bowl to polish off.

As Duguid and Alford consume little meat, vegetarian readers will find a wealth of meatless dishes in Seductions of Rice, while those recipes calling for animal protein are easily prepared without. When animal proteins do appear, in recipes like “Soupy Chicken with Mushrooms” and “Snow Peas with a Hint of Pork”, they demonstrate the minimal role of meat in this cuisine. The chicken dish calls for six ounces of chicken to feed four, while “Snow Peas with a Hint of Pork”, a side dish, calls for a quarter pound of pork to feed four. “Yunnanese Spicy Ground Pork Sauce”, intended to top rice, calls for one pound of ground pork for six to eight diners.

Interestingly, neither Chinese nor Thai cookery has a dessert tradition. Seductions of Rice offers numerous recipes for rice pudding, a dessert with worldwide appeal, and a few sticky rice treats made with palm sugar. These few sweets are not intended to conclude meals; rather, they are snacks.

The Thai Way

Thais use Thai Sticky or Jasmine rices. Both require soaking and steaming, preparations unfamiliar to those of us accustomed to the absorption method. You’ll need some way to steam the rice, or a rice cooker. In terms of ingredients, the authors call for “garlic, limes or lemons, shallots, Thai fish sauce” to get the desired balance of hot, sour, salty, sweet, and bitter flavors.

Thai cooking makes extensive use of bird chiles, which are very hot—I tried searching for a more definitive explication, but even The Joy of Cooking’s 1997 edition, which devotes seven pages to pepper classification, merely notes bird chilis are “intensely hot.” If you are a hesitant hot pepper eater, or keep company with timid consumers, scale down to a blander pepper or remove before serving.

One of Thailand’s most popular dipping sauces Nam Pla Prik, or Fish Sauce with Hot Chiles, is based on bird chiles, which you mince and place in jar of nam pla. Nam pla prik keeps indefinitely, and is completely addictive. Nam Pla is itself addictive; to many a Western palate, it might sound disgusting: anchovy extract, salt, and sugar. Open-minded readers will be rewarded, for nam pla is wonderful stuff, with a subtle taste and mild kick that keeps you dipping your rice in it.

Besides nam pla prik, the Thai section is full of compelling dipping sauces: “Tangy Lime Sauce”, “Hot-and-Sweet Dipping Sauce”, and a chile salsa calling for “4-5 Banana Chiles.” Capsaicin junkies unite!

Yam, loosely translated as salads, are no fey mixtures of baby arugula and leaf lettuce. Instead, they powerful combinations bursting with chiles, herbs, and lime. They are commonly served with lettuce leaves and cucumber, which may be used as utensils. Yams may be served alone, or, of course, with rice.

The Japanese Way

Alford and Duguid typify a Japanese meal as one requiring soup, “perhaps a tofu dish, a stir-fried vegetable, a simmered dish, and pickles. In lieu of dessert, more pickles and rice are consumed.”

Japanese white rice is prepared by rinsing and soaking rice for half an hour, than cooking by absorption method: put the rice in the pot, add enough water to reach the first joint of your index finger, bring to a boil, cover, turn down the heat, and in twenty minutes you have a snowy mound of short grain rice. One can then turn to donburi, or food over rice. Or, if you add rice vinegar, sugar, and salt to your Japanese rice, you have the base for sushi. Now all you need is very fresh raw fish and an appetite.

Countless Japanese recipes begin with dashi, an instant fish broth made from bonito flakes. Dashi can be purchased in a multitude of forms, from flakes to pastes to large boxes. All call for adding water, stirring, and that’s it. Kombu, or kelp, is invariably added to dashi and numerous other dishes.

All of Alford and Duguid’s books contain asides describing individuals they’ve met during their travels. In “The Japanese Way”, Duguid describes time spent with a young couple, the Kandas, who left lucrative city jobs to move to the rural village of Miyama, where they farm rice by hand. Their classic Japanese farmhouse has a central hallway where they stack their harvested rice. In 1994 they harvested fifteen hundred pounds of rice. Nine hundred pounds was kept for family use—two adults and two children—while the rest was sold. Unfortunately, the Kandas are rare. Many young Japanese prefer city jobs, far from backbreaking labor and weather extremes.

I was amazed to learn that tofu may be frozen. During the frigid Japanese winter, the Kandas slice tofu and leave it outdoors to freeze dry. Those in warmer climates can emulate the Kandas by slicing your tofu, putting it on a plate, and placing it in your freezer overnight. The next day, unstick the tofu from the plate (this can be tricky), stash the slices in a freezer bag, and voila!, a highly perishable food suddenly has a lifespan.

The Indian Way

Of all the cuisines presented in Seductions of Rice, the Indian Way offers the most elaborate cookery. A cuisine of many spices, Indian cookery relies on “tempering:” additional spicing, often quite fiery, added to a cooked dish. The meals are not necessarily difficult to prepare, but many involve numerous ingredients in several steps, and if you live far from an Indian community, the internet will be your only resource for items like nigella, or black onion seeds, and mustard oil. The authors admit they prepare Indian meals when a feast is called for: even “Simple Dal” requires 14 ingredients.

Indians take their rice seriously, citing aged Basmati as the very finest. Alford and Duguid note there are over seven hundred rice varieties consumed in India, which is the world’s third largest rice producer.

This section is redolent with curries, chutneys, lentil dishes, and, surprisingly, pilafs or pulaos, rice dishes incorporating spices, vegetables, fruits, and occasionally meats. Pulaos are more commonly associated with Middle Eastern cookery, particularly Persian cooking.

The Central Asian and Persian Ways

Countries like Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan do not bring great rice cultures to mind. This is a shame, for here is an ancient culture with a tremendous rice cooking heritage. Read recipes like “Special Everyday Persian Rice” or Sabzi Polo, “Spring Pilaf with Fresh Greens”, then pore over the photographs of smiling Afghans and the exquisite Shir Dar Mosque in Samarkand. Recall our shared humanity predates the need for cheap oil.

For most Central Asians, rice is celebratory fare, too expensive for daily consumption. Persian rice is unavailable in North America, so those wanting to try their hand at famed pulaos, or polos will have to make do with Basmati.

The authors write: “Many would say that the pulao-pilaf tradition reaches its height in the Persian rice dishes called polos. Polos are soaked, briefly boiled, then steamed with herbs, meats, or legumes. These dishes are served with kebabs, salads, and yogurts.”

Lamb is the meat of choice for kebab cookery, its tail fat the preferred lubricant. Lamb tail fat is unavailable in the West, but don’t let this stop you from preparing “Golden Chicken Kebabs”. Make do with rendered lamb fat, olive oil, or butter, marveling at the tenderizing effects of a yogurt marinade.

The Mediterranean Way

Readers unaccustomed to Asian rice preparations may find themselves on more familiar ground here. Mediterranean rice cookery calls for “olive oil….fresh lemons, garlic, onion, tomatoes, flat-leaf parsely, cayenne (or Spanish pimentón) saffron, and good fish and chicken stocks.”

Thus armed, you can prepare “Savory Fava Bean Stew”, “Rice-Stuffed Grape Leaves”, and enter the best-way-to-prepare-risotto fray: warm broth or cool? Stir rice constantly or allow it to rest briefly during cooking? (Alford and Duguid are old-school: warm broth, stir ceaselessly).

Two pages are devoted to paella, the Spanish preparation referring both to the pan and its contents: rice, broth, vegetables, meat, or fish. Read about rice company owner Samuel Monclus Sanchez, who describes his rice obessession as being “like a drug….”

The Senegalese Way

The section on African rice dishes is brief. The authors traveled to Senegal, where poor-quality rice comprised of broken grains is largely imported and preparation is back-breaking. They describe two women spending each morning pounding rice into edibility with an enormous mortar and pestle.

Diebou dien is an important dish in Senegalese rice cookery. Both fresh and dried fish are called for, along with onions, tomatoes, and numerous other vegetables. The rice is first steamed above the stew, then stirred in.

Yassa is another important West African dish, usually made with fish, as lamb and chicken are luxuries. Yassa calls for fresh lemon or lime, salt and pepper, peanut oil, onions, hot chiles, and thyme. It may be grilled, broiled, or fried before being served atop rice.

The North American Way

Rice farming in the United States began with the slave trade; African expertise in cultivation made Carolina Gold rice a staple crop in Carolina and Georgia. Although several other states cultivate rice, only Louisana, with its Creole influence, has a true culture of rice cookery.

There are nods to Mexican and Cuban rice cultures, a peek at South America, and finally, closing this four-hundred-page plus compendium, “Memories of Childhood Rice Pudding,” tying up a worldwide loop cast by a humble grain.

We in the wealthy first world ask so much of food. We expect it not only to nourish, but to entertain. We are ever on the prowl for the new, the exotic, the impressive. A plain bowl of rice is easy to overlook. But Alford and Duguid never let us forget that the majority of people featured in Seductions of Rice are impoverished. Their lives are defined by hard work; starvation is never far. Yet beauty and generosity are widely evidenced in the sharing not only of recipes, but meals. We may ask a great deal of food, but Alford and Duguid give us so much more than we ask for by leading us into cultures we might otherwise never glimpse.

Even the most timid cook, possessed of the most rudimentary kitchen, will benefit from Seductions of Rice. Read it and allow yourself to be enthralled. Then get cooking.

RATING 8 / 10