When is rice not really rice? When you buy it from one of the dozens of food companies out there marketing “wild rice” that isn’t, in fact, wild at all. A majority of what is marketed as wild rice today comes from California, where it’s grown in paddies from hybrid seed derived from the truly wild rice that grows in the Great Lakes region. Aside from the fact that you’re buying “wild” rice that isn’t really wild, the resulting product, sold at cheaper prices than truly wild rice, is undercutting the market for honest-to-goodness wild rice hand-harvested using traditional means by Native Americans.
True wild rice grains, high in protein, fiber, folic acid and B vitamins (and naturally gluten-free), are the noncultivated seeds of the marsh grass Zizania aquatica, indigenous to the Great Lakes in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and parts of Canada. For over a thousand years, Ojibwe (Anishinaabeg) and other Native American and Canadian tribes have been harvesting wild rice, or manoomin, using sticks, a canoe, and a pushing pole in the months of August and September. The grains are then dried and roasted, or “parched,” often over wood fires. In a good year, they can harvest over 50,000 pounds, providing income and employment to native tribes in desperate need of both.
“The rice of the Anishinaabeg comes truly from our people, and half of our people live in economic poverty,” says Ojibwe environmentalist Winona LaDuke, the executive director of Honor the Earth and Native Harvest, and the founding director for the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which is working to protect indigenous wild rice stocks. Unemployment on the White Earth Indian Reservation has reached as high as 50 percent. “This is a food and a crop which provides for us, allowing us to purchase fuel oil, chainsaws, propane, new cars and winter coats,” says LaDuke. “Wild rice is critical to our economy and way of life.”
In addition to the glut of cheaper, domesticated wild rice, true wild rice is also under threat from genetic engineering (attempts to genetically modify rice with higher vitamin A levels would wipe out wild versions), as well as proposed mining projects that would disrupt the lake and river ecosystems that house wild rice beds. “Our wild rice is our most sacred food,” she adds. “This is the only place in the world where it grows, and it is an incredible gift from the creator. This gift requires our diligence and protection.” There’s a distinct flavor difference, she adds, between the hand-harvested grass knocked into canoes the traditional way and the commercially produce wild rice grown in paddies using chemicals, fertilizers and a combine.
Not only do Native tribes benefit when you buy truly wild rice, but you do, too. True wild rice is softer, and thus takes less time to cook, than the harder domesticated kind. LaDuke likes to use a ratio of two parts water to one part rice, and she simmers the rice for around 20 minutes. Test a grain to ensure that it’s tender, and then drain off any excess water. (Domesticated wild rice takes approximately 45 minutes to soften sufficiently.) She then sautés cashews, red onions, and sometimes meat in olive oil or butter and stirs them into the cooked rice, adding salt and pepper to taste. “I also like to use bergamot, which is one of our most prized herbs, and sometimes I add dried cranberries.”
You can use chewy, nutty wild rice as a stuffing for squash, in pilafs or to make grain-based salads. Wild rice partners well with both sweet and sour fruits. It’s also great for adding heft and nutrition to soups; wild rice has fewer calories but more protein and fiber than brown rice. Try LaDuke’s recipe for comforting chicken wild rice soup, below, or for an unexpectedly delicious side dish, serve her wild rice with hazelnuts and blueberries alongside your choice of protein. You can order genuine wild rice from Native Harvest or Eden Foods.
Chicken Wild Rice Soup (Manoomin Baaka’akwe nabob)
1 ½ cup Native Harvest wild rice
1 large onion, thinly sliced
5 carrots, thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 green pepper, diced
6 cups water
1 whole stewing chicken or chicken pieces
Mix together wild rice, onion, carrots, celery, pepper and water. Pour ingredients into stew pot, place chicken on top and cook for one hour on stove. Turn off heat, remove chicken and carefully de-bone. Return chicken to pot, then add salt and pepper to taste, and sautéed garlic, fresh basil, dill and Dijon mustard to taste; cook until tender.
Wild Rice with Hazelnuts and Blueberries
2 cups Native Harvest wild rice
5 cups water
1 cup hazelnuts
1 cup dried blueberries
Wash wild rice and combine with water and onions in a large kettle. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for approximately 20 minutes, or until most of the water is absorbed. Add the hazelnuts and dried blueberries, mixing thoroughly. Steam, covered, for an additional 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve hot.