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Against the grain

Rice farmer in Cambodia
The global rice shortage has prompted one leading supermarket to ration sales to shoppers. But there are plenty of alternatives, says Daniel Cook.

Rice is as much a staple of the modern British diet as bread and potatoes.

So the news that supermarket chain Lidl has decided to ration sales to 20kg per family has sent ominous rumblings through the nation's stomachs.

The global rice shortage has been caused by poor harvests, increased demand in growing economies, and hoarding in the expectation of further price rises.

So, should the shortage reach crisis point, what are the alternatives to rice?

QUINOA

Unlike white rice, which needs its vitamins added artificially, quinoa is packed full of good things - just ask the UN, which declared it a "supercrop" some years ago and has been encouraging cultivation of this South American staple, which is rich in protein, minerals and vitamins.

It's popular with healthy-eating obsessives, and you'll need to cough up as much as 4 for a kilogramme in your local whole-food market.

And don't forget that it's pronounced "keen-wah", unless you want to be ridiculed and pelted with granola bars.

Paul Morgan from the vegetarian restaurant Terre Terre in Brighton knows a thing or two about creative eating.

"Quinoa is hard work, it can be quite bitter," he says. "It works well as dumplings, or you could make a tight dough out of it and fry it with a filling.

"As in all grains, the less you do to it, other than process it, the better."

POLENTA

Rarely can a food have attracted such gross-sounding names. Made from boiled maize, varieties of this pale yellow mush are known as "grits" and "farina" in the US and "gruel" elsewhere.

Consistently popular in Italy, it has enjoyed a renaissance in the last couple of decades, with its bland taste pepped up by spicy meats and cheeses.

Don't go too mad for it though - it's short on vitamins and until modern times over-reliance on polenta led to outbreaks of vitamin deficiency in Europe and the US.

"Polenta's lovely, it's very versatile," says Morgan. "We make it in two consistencies: the first one's drier, which we fashion into a sort of cannelloni.

"When that sets, we breadcrumb it and fill it with mushroom ragu. The second consistency, which is looser, we beat with parmesan and seasoning."

FUFU

Eaten in many African countries, fufu comes in countless different forms and under countless different names.

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One of the more common types is made from cassava pounded in a pestle and mortar until it reaches a thick consistency.

A Nigerian source familiar with the dish says: "It's quite smelly, and looks like mashed potatoes, but more rubbery. People eat it because it's dense.

"A small cup of fufu the size of four scoops of mashed potato will fill you up for half a day. It's full of starch and carbohydrates."

It can be eaten in many different ways but in Nigeria it is usually eaten with a bowl of meat or vegetable stew.

It might be hard to get hold of in the UK though, unless you are lucky enough to live in an area with a west African community.

BULGUR WHEAT

Popular in the Middle East, bulgur - which costs about 2.50 a kilogramme - is best known as the principal ingredient in tabbouleh salad. But its charms do not end there.

"Bulgur is very nutritious," says Morgan. "It can be slow-cooked over a tagine, so the vapour from the fish or meat steams it.

"It's similar to cous-cous, a bit less fine, but a bit more nutty, very nice, and very good for the digestive tract."

Of the five staples listed here, bulgur wheat got Morgan's backing as the best rice-replacement to consume with a curry.

"As far as the way British people eat rice, typically with Asian food, bulgur wheat and cous-cous are both very easy to cook, just as easy as rice," he says.

MILLET

Millet farmer in Nigeria
Who needs rice when you have millet?
One third of the world's population can't all be wrong - millet (pictured, right) is one of the world's most prevalent subsistence crops, used to make flour, millet beer, various local firewaters and porridge.

It has a mild taste and is also known to be good for your heart.

"Again, you could cook it like cous cous, and I suppose as a risotto or in puddings as a rice replacement," says Morgan.


Here is a selection of your comments.

Well, how about potato and sweet potato? There's also corn, cassava, durra, buckwheat and so on. Great staple foods.
Jenni, Helsinki, Finland

Excuse me? Erm what about the myriad of other grains and beans? I live quite happily with barley, oats, (both of which provide good yields in the UK), soy, chickpeas, spelt, buckwheat,and rye. There's more than just wheat and corn in this world.
Vicky Hatton, Australia

One good reason for switching to alternative grains or other alternative foods is that much of us in the Western World are dependent on certain types of foods. If there's a crisis, like with the rice shortage, those who can only rely on certain grains have less to rely on. Personally, I've tried quinoa (pretty good) and grits (not my favourite, despite living in the southern US).
Orville, Greenville, SC, USA




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