Wild rice from harvest to table

by Marisa Romano

The author tapping the wild rice panicle to collect the mature seeds. Photos: Jim Louter

I push the paddle against the shore and the canoe glides on the water lightly, silently. Past the large patch of blooming water lilies, it reaches the thick tall grass, alive with a multitude of insects. I reach for two long cedar sticks. I use one of them to bend the grass over the boat, the other to tap the mature panicles. The seeds fall into the canoe, piling up on the bottom. This is the first step of the process that for centuries has provided precious nourishing wild rice (manoomin in Ojibwe) to First Nations.

Wild rice is native of the Great Lakes region of North America and is not related to the Asian rice. It is an annual, self-seeding grass that grows in shallow waters. Its seeds are packed with fibre, vitamins and minerals and contain more proteins than brown rice or wheat. Many traditional wild-rice harvesting areas were lost when earlier settlers built dams and canals to facilitate navigation, depriving indigenous peoples of a staple in their traditional diet.

“Dancing the rice” to detach the husks from the seeds

James Whetung and his daughter Daemin are my hosts for the day. They welcome me on the shores of Curve Lake – one of the many bodies of water of the Kawarthas – with a smudging ceremony and the offer of tobacco. Proud Curve Lake First Nations Anishenaabe, they run a wild-rice gathering and processing business built by Whetung over the last 35 years.

When Whetung reintroduced wild rice in some of the areas where it once thrived, the shores of nearby lakes were changed from what cottagers saw as pristine open waters to swamp, and from what First Nations saw as “unceded land” to a place where a sacred gift from the earth grew again. The two cultures collided and the resulting debate continues to this day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack on shore after the harvest, we roast dry seeds in a cast-iron cauldron on a wood fire. The constant mixing with a wooden paddle ensures the even roasting that loosens the husks and gives the seeds their characteristic toasty nutty flavour. Once the rice is ready, we slip into soft leather moccasins, step into the caldron and “dance the rice” by rubbing the freshly roasted seeds against the rough sides of the cauldron with our feet. The detached husks are then separated by winnowing: tossing the danced rice into the August breeze from a sheet held at the four corners and catching the clean rice in the sheet again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“What are you going to do with your rice?” Whetung asks, pointing to the pail of wet seeds collected that morning. With no intention to bring home raw seeds, I decide to give them back to the lake to lodge in the muddy bottom until ready to germinate and grow into tall plants. Later, Whetung will spread the seeds in unharvested tall grass where muskrats and waterfowl thrive: the sacred plant is there to nurture all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI ask my hosts for a traditional recipe and I receive the last gift of the day.

James and Daemin Whetung love to share their culture and their stories and welcome everyone to live this eye-opening experience. Their website: www.blackduckwildrice.org/Services.php


How to cook wild rice

Rinse the rice and place it in a saucepan with water and salt: 4 cups of water and ½ tsp salt for 1 cup of rice. Bring it to a boil, reduce the heat to medium low, cover and simmer until the rice is soft and the kernels split open, about 45 minutes. Strain to remove excess liquid. One cup of dry rice yields about 3 cups of cooked rice.

Wild rice pancakes

Add cooked wild rice to your favourite pancake batter recipe. How much is up to you, up to ½ cup cooked rice for 1 cup of flour or pancake mix.

Wild rice and blueberries

In a saucepan, combine 1 cup of rice, 1 cup of blueberries, a hint of cinnamon and 2 tbsp of sugar (optional). Cook until the rice is tender. This Ojibwe warm side dish can also be served cool and topped with whipped cream for dessert.

Marisa Romano is a foodie and scientist with a sense of adventure who hunts for interesting and nutritious foods.

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