Taste the Crown Jewel of the Grain World: Hand-Harvested Wild Rice

This ancient Native American staple crop provides economic and environmental benefits on tribal lands.

Following methods of their ancestors, Chippewa men harvest wild rice in the Wisconsin River. (Photo: Volkmar K. Wentzel/Getty Images)

Nov 11, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Wild rice is one of America’s great regional ingredients, and this is a terrific time of year to celebrate it in all its glory. Earthy and elegant, wild rice makes a superb side dish for the holiday turkey, as well as for game and roast chicken, and it can even be the main course—in these vegetarian Scallion Wild Rice Crepes With Mushroom Filling and Red Pepper Sauce, for example. To make them vegan, simply use eggless crepes and a butter substitute in the filling.

I didn’t mention wild rice in my recent column on rice varieties because it’s such a different kettle of fish, taxonomically speaking. Yes, it is the seed of a tall aquatic grass plant, like common rices, and yes, it is considered a grain, like common rices. It is also gluten-free, like common rices. But wild rice is four species in a different genus, Zizania. One species, Manchurian wild rice, is native to Asia; the others are all native to North America.

Zizania texana, or Texas wild rice, is a rare, endangered perennial forage grass found only in the upper 1.5 miles of the San Marcos River in Central Texas. According to the Texas State Historical Association, “Modern man’s impact upon the natural habitat of Texas wild rice began about 1831, when settlers arrived in the area.” It’s gone downhill from there. “Texas wild rice is threatened with extinction as a direct result of human encroachment. There is concern that much of the genetic diversity once available in it may have already been irretrievably lost.” Research efforts on habitat requirements, as well as the breeding of Texas wild rice with commercially successful species, are in the works.

When it comes to the wild rice sold for human consumption in the United States, those would be Zizania aquatica (southern wild rice) and Z. palustris (northern wild rice), annuals that are sometimes lumped together in a single species, Z. aquatica. They grow in lakes, marshes, and rivers mostly west and north of the Great Lakes as well as in small, isolated wild stands along the Atlantic coastal plain.

Over millennia, wild rice has evolved in some interesting ways to survive and propagate. The reason it is higher in protein than common rices, for instance, is that it requires lots of energy in the spring to germinate from the cold bottom mud in a lake bed or a wetland. (According to the USDA, one cup of cooked wild rice contains 6.5 grams of protein, whereas one cup of cooked medium-grain brown rice has 4.5 grams.) The mature plants must cope with two threats—migrating birds with voracious appetites and an early frost—by producing seeds that ripen at different rates. Some seeds ripen early to avoid the frost; others ripen late to avoid migrating ducks and other waterfowl.

Wild rice has been commercially cultivated since the 1960s and ’70s. Much of what you’ll find at the supermarket is bred for hardiness, grown in diked flooded fields similar to cranberry bogs, mechanically harvested by high-flotation combines, and mechanically parched (dry-toasted) and winnowed. California and Minnesota are the largest producers.

But what we all think of as the real deal is the wild rice harvested by the Anishinaabe (also known as the Ojibwa or Chippewa) in the traditional manner, done by two sets of hands: one poling a canoe through the rice beds like a gondolier, the other using “knocking sticks” to gently sweep grasses over the boat and knock the ripened seeds—pale green and encased in a long, thin, inedible hull—into the boat. Immature seeds stay on the plant, so they can continue to ripen for a subsequent harvest, and any seeds knocked loose by the wind will settle back into the lake bed until the following spring, when the age-old cycle will repeat itself.

After harvesting, the rice is spread out in the sun to dry; then it’s parched, or dry-toasted, in a deep pan set over a fire or in large wood-fired ovens. It must be taken off the heat at precisely the right moment: If it gets too hot, it will pop, like popcorn, and if it doesn’t parch long enough, it will spoil. Parching grains, which turns them dry and hard, is one of the earliest-known methods for preserving them; it also makes the inedible outer hulls easier to remove during winnowing and, incidentally, is what gives wild rice its characteristic rich, nutty, smoky flavor.

Like corn for the Hopi and buffalo for the Lakota, the cultural importance of wild rice, or manoomin (pronounced “ma-no-min”), to the Anishinaabe can’t be overestimated. Ricing has always been central to the Anishinaabe; it stars in their founding myth, in which prophets told the people to travel westward until they found the place where “food grows on water.”

It’s also critical to the ecological well-being of the Great Lakes region. According to the Native Wild Rice Coalition, “the dense stalks provide roosting and brood cover for a variety of waterfowl species and nesting habitat for other bird species. The long, nutritious grains are a large part of the diet of many migratory birds. Mammals such as the muskrat utilize the tender stalks of wild rice both for food and in the creation of their lodges. The rice beds provide habitat for many other species, from invertebrates to large mammals such as the moose.” Other wildlife depend on the plants too. “More than 30 species of waterfowl use the Great Lakes and adjacent coastal wetlands during at least one season of their lifecycle, with the greatest species diversity occurring during the spring and fall migration periods,” the coalition continues. “An estimated three million swans, geese, and ducks travel along migration corridors that cross the Great Lakes region.” The stands of rice also help to improve water quality by holding soil in place and providing a buffer against winds that can disturb wetland habitat.

In economic terms, ricing is a matter of survival in a place where people struggle to get by. Take the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, which is in an area of especially severe continuous unemployment. The White Earth Land Recovery Project, founded by political activist and tribe member Winona LaDuke in 1989, operates a mill on the reservation and sells Native Harvest wild rice to specialty stores around the country. (It can also be ordered online through the Native Harvest website.) You’ll also find a list of sources for hand-harvested wild rice at the Native Wild Rice Coalition’s site. When buying wild rice, avoid packages that contain lots of broken pieces.

Because wild rice is arguably the crown jewel of the grain world, it’s a real shame to ruin it by undercooking or overcooking. Depending on the variety and how long it’s been on the shelf, the cooking time can vary from about 40 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes, so you’ll want to keep an eye on it. When it just starts to splay open, it’s done.