Rice Politics & Food Evangelism


Posted by in September's Magazine

A while back, I was attempting to write an article while listening to 6 Music, the soundtrack of choice for procrastinating freelancers everywhere. And as you might expect from a serious and dedicated music radio station, discussion quickly turned to the topic of risotto.

Presenter Stuart Maconie grumbled in passing about the repetitive, cramp-inducing task of stirring risotto constantly while it cooks – presuming this to be an absolute necessity. Within minutes, a listener emailed to say that risotto didn’t need to be stirred at all during cooking: the much-trumpeted requirement to give the rice constant attention was nothing more than a myth. A further listener, who may or may not have come from Italy, entered the debate on the side of the stirrers: the notion that the need for stirring was a myth, was itself a myth. It’s fair to say that it was something of a circular discussion.

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So, who was right? Well, everybody. And nobody. To take the pro-stirring argument first, there are good reasons why most Italians insist that risotto should be stirred throughout, with the hot stock added a ladleful at a time. Moving the grains constantly in the pan encourages a more consistent distribution of heat, enabling the rice to cook more evenly. The physical action of the spoon helps to break down the surface starch of the rice, giving the risotto that creamy texture while allowing each grain to retain just a touch of bite at its centre.

The counter-argument is this: stirring rice for twenty minutes or more is a right pain in the arse. And despite the purists’ protestations, it’s perfectly possible to cook a more than acceptable risotto-like thing in a much lazier way, adding the stock all at once and leaving the risotto to putter away, entirely unmolested by spoon, until most of the liquid has evaporated. The method may be less authentic, and the finished dish a little less special than the ‘proper’ version. But how much less? Enough to justify the twenty-minute stirfest?

How you choose to answer that question will, or at least should, determine which of these approaches you take – or whether you position yourself somewhere between the two extremes. My own level of commitment to stirring can vary quite a bit; though if I had to lean one way or the other, I’d politely suggest that a shedload of butter and Parmesan, beaten enthusiastically into the risotto at the last minute, can hide a multitude of sins – if indeed ‘sins’ is the right word, which it isn’t.

But perhaps the religious metaphor isn’t a bad one when it comes to risotto, or indeed to cooking more generally: you’ll always find evangelists on either side. One person’s revelatory life hack is another’s unspeakable sacrilege. And if you wouldn’t listen to evangelists in other areas of life, there doesn’t seem much reason to do it here. But there’s something about food preachers that makes them harder to dismiss than flat-earthers, religious cultists or other wild-eyed ‘my way or the highway’ types.

No two regions, towns or individuals will ever agree on the ‘right’ way to produce the local speciality; but you can be sure that every cook will be convinced that their version is the proper one and all others are filthy imposters. Paella should always contain seafood; no it shouldn’t, but it absolutely must include rabbit. A good cassoulet will never and always include tomato, and needless to say it will or won’t be topped with breadcrumbs.

All this vehemence can be unnerving, but really it should be a source of reassurance. The yeasayers and naysayers might be equally adamant, but logically they can’t all be right. So you’d be as well to abandon the endlessly futile quest to find out how things are supposed to be done, and concentrate instead on what you feel like doing. At worst, you might stand accused of gross inauthenticity – a potential problem if you’re selling fake Rolexes or mislabelled horse burgers, but unlikely to attract severe sanctions if all you’re doing is feeding rice to your mates.

A couple of caveats though. Firstly, none of this is to decry the value of experience and expertise. If someone worth listening to is urging you to cook your risotto – or anything else – in a particular way, there’s no harm in finding out why they’ve come to that view. You might even want to give their approach a go and see what you reckon. Just don’t let them convince you that their method is the only legitimate one, or that it’s somehow impervious to adaptation or improvement.

And secondly, while I’d never discourage anyone from expressing themselves through cooking, do bear in mind that if something has never been done before, there might be very good reasons for that. To my knowledge, jelly tots have never been used to garnish a beef stroganoff; but I don’t feel the need to sample the combination to find out why. There will always be infinite ways to get food wrong. But whatever you might hear to the contrary, there’s always more than one way to get it right.

Twitter: @norecipeman

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