Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Rice shortage looming: Alternatives to rice

With a rice shortage looming, we may be forced to look at alternatives to our staple food. We’re in a predicament. Climate change has forced the world to look at biofuel as an alternative energy resource, which has resulted in an increased demand for food crops. Yet, global warming has also led to a fall in the yield of some of the most important food crops in the world. Both have caused a food shortage.

Food prices as a whole have spiralled, but in Asia, it is rice that has caused the most anxiety. Prices have risen by as much as 70% in the past year. Three billion people depend on this grain for their survival. It is the symbol of Asia and we consume it out of habit as much as to line our stomachs.

To reduce our dependence on rice, we could also look at grains and seeds. They are commonly referred to as gourmet foods and this only serves to justify their high price, but in many parts of the world, they are basic everyday food and could be alternatives to rice.

The health benefits of grains are well documented; they are certainly more nutritious than white rice. Often thought of as side dishes, they readily absorb other flavours, so work especially well with rich sauces and casseroles, making them excellent main dishes. And while they are also associated mostly with vegetarians and vegans, they lend themselves well to a combination with meats.

The following grains and seeds can be found in health food stores and larger supermarkets. If you’re used to white rice, they may seem odd at first, but don’t be reluctant to try them. The recipes featured here will give you some idea on how to use the grains. They each make two servings.

Barley – We know barley as a base for a refreshing drink, but it’s also great in soups, casseroles, stir-fries and as a stuffing. Its rich nut-like flavour and appealing chewy, pasta-like consistency make it a welcome addition to salads.

Bulgur – This nutty grain is often confused with cracked wheat, but is actually pre-cooked. It can be used as a substitute for rice, in soups, baked goods, casseroles or as a stuffing and is an excellent meat extender.
Buckwheat – This is actually a fruit seed and is a good substitute for those with gluten intolerance. It is often served as a rice alternative or porridge, and as flour it is made into noodles such as Japanese soba. Once cooked, buckwheat can be prepared like fried rice.

Couscous – This coarsely ground semolina is the instant noodle of the grain world as it cooks in minutes simply by rehydrating it in an equal volume of boiling water. Add flavour by using stock instead of water. Fluff it up with a fork and toss butter through it for a silky result. Couscous is similar in texture to the Indian dish called uppuma. It goes well with saucy dishes and even curries.

Millet – This tasty grain with a mildly sweet, nut-like flavour contains a host of beneficial nutrients, and is high in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. It is the sixth most important grain in the world, sustains a third of the world’s population and is a significant part of the diet in northern China, Japan, Manchuria and various areas of the former Soviet Union, Africa, India and Egypt. It is used as a cereal, in soups, and for making bread. In India, it is often made into chapatti.

Polenta – This ground corn, popular in northern Italy, is often cooked with milk and cheese into a paste, allowed to set, then cut into slabs and pan fried. It is used as a substitute for bread.

Quinoa – Has the highest protein content of any grain. Touted as the new superfood, quinoa has the unusual characteristic in that when cooked, it is soft and delicate but still has a bit of bite to it due to the outer germ. It has a mild, slightly nutty flavour but soaks up flavours well. Quinoa is good in hot casseroles and soups, stews and stir-fries, or cold in salads.

Quinoa flour is used in making pasta and a variety of baked goods such as pancakes, bread, muffins, and crackers. The seeds can even be sprouted and eaten raw, or “popped” in a dry skillet and eaten as a dry cereal.


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