Despite being misnamed, it remains a precious holiday ingredient

“It has a pleasant, tealike smell,” says Don Kuiken, operations manager for Indian Harvest Specialtifoods near Colusa, describing the aroma wafting through his processing plant. It’s the wild rice roasting.

Back in the days when wild rice was, well, wild, it grew in streams and lakes. Today, all wild rice grown in the West is cultivated: Farmers drop the seed from airplanes into flooded fields that mimic the natural habitat. (Given that the plant isn’t even a member of the rice family ― it’s an annual aquatic grass ― the moniker wild rice is a bit of a misnomer.)

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After growing for four months, the grain is harvested and trucked to processors. There it’s cured and then either parched with dry heat or parboiled under pressure, depending on the processor’s preferred technique, to gelatinize the starch. Finally, the rice is dry-roasted, cleaned, hulled, and sorted according to its intended use, in rice blends or even products like wild rice tortilla chips. The wild may have disappeared from the rice (just as it has from the West), but the spirit remains in this cultivated grain.

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