That the Portuguese love rice – Portugal is, in fact, Europe’s largest consumer of rice – comes as a surprise for many. Unlike Spanish paella or Italian risotto, the country’s rice dishes are barely known beyond its borders.
Yet a glance at the menu of any tasca or traditional restaurant in Lisbon will reveal the wealth of Portuguese rice dishes. It’s mostly served soupy, as in arroz de marisco, a stew of seafood and rice, but there are exceptions, such as arroz de pato, almost like a pilaf of duck and rice. You’ll also find it in blood-thickened meat stews such as cabidela and sarrabulho, and soups, from canja, made with chicken and rice, to bean soup. It’s also a staple side dish, usually paired with vegetables or legumes.
From morcela de arroz, blood sausage with rice, to bolo de arroz, a sweet rice cake, the uses for this grain are many in Portugal. Perhaps most emblematic, however, are the country’s soupy rice dishes, which are at their creamiest (and thus their best) when made with the starchy Carolino variety of rice. “Our grain is different from risotto, it has to be vitreo [i.e. opaque and starchy in appearance],” says Ana Sofia Almeida, a scientist at INIAV (Instituto Nacional de Investigação Agrária e Veterinária, or the National Institute of Agricultural and Veterinary Research). “The Italians like it al dente but we like the creaminess [of Carolino], which has strong connections with many of the dishes from our childhood, even the ones we would eat when we were sick, from canja to arroz de manteiga [plain rice with butter].”
Carolino is a type of Oryza sativa, or Japonica rice, which “adopted well to Europe and North America,” says Pedro Monteiro, the vice-president of COTArroz – Centro Operativo e Tecnológico do Arroz (Rice Operational and Technological Center), which connects producers with scientific institutes and researchers. The various Carolino subtypes are well suited for the Portuguese climate. “It grows well in Mondego, which is colder and more humid, and in Tejo/Sorraia, the biggest production region in the country,” Monteiro explains. “But they also like the sun and light in the Sado, the southernmost region.”
This traditional variety has been, for the most part, replaced by Agulha rice, also a type of long-grain rice but not nearly as starchy – it doesn’t absorb the flavors as well. Imported rice varieties like basmati are also gaining in popularity. Yet a team of scientists, farmers and chefs are working to raise the stature of Carolino rice once again.
Rice first made an appearance in Europe in Greece, when Alexander the Great and his army returned from India with some grains to plant. In Portugal and Spain, it was the Moors who introduced first it, in the 8th century. We find the first written references to Portuguese rice in the Middle Ages, at which time it was a rare ingredient used only by the wealthy. Later down the line, references to Portuguese-style rice pudding were made in European cookery books such as Francisco Martinez Moutiño’s Arte de Cocina, published in Madrid in 1611, and Francesco Gaudencio’s Il Panunto Toscano, published in Tuscany in the 18th century. According to the food writer Virgilio Nogueira Gomes, this was the first time a recipe was designated as “Portuguese-style” in another country.
In the 18th century, during the reign of King José, rice production was incentivized. Following the precedent set by her father, Queen D. Maria I made it illegal to import rice, so as to ensure continued cultivation of the Portuguese fields; her subjects, meanwhile, protested the decision, on account of the fields being breeding sites for the mosquitoes that were spreading malaria.
Portugal’s trade contacts with Asia, particularly its colonies in Goa and Macao, also played a role in popularizing rice, but it wasn’t until 1909 that the country’s rice crops gained more importance, following a national plan of land and water management. Soon after, in 1921, the country was also flooded with rice from abroad: large imports from the Asian colonies, Brazil (where rice had been introduced by the Portuguese) and Africa led to rice playing a more prominent role on the Portuguese table, particularly in northern Portugal.
Antonio de Oliveira Bello, the founder of the Portuguese Society of Gastronomy, featured 25 rice recipes, including some from Macau and India, in his book Culinária Portuguesa, published in 1935. For comparison, João da Mata’s Arte da Cozinha, published in 1876, and Bento da Maia’s Tratado Completo de Cozinha e de Copa, published in 1903, each featured 15 recipes.
The need for regulation of both rice production and imports led to the creation of the CRCA (Comissão Reguladora do Comércio de Arroz, or the Committee of Rice Trade). Part of the CRCA’s work involved a rice genetic improvement program, which focused on breeding and promoting the best of Portugal’s rice varieties. It began in 1950s and lasted until the 1980s, at which point it was abandoned for almost 20 years. During this time the Portuguese varieties began to fade away, overshadowed by foreign counterparts.
The rice improvement program was eventually restarted by INIAV (Instituto Nacional de Investigação Agrária e Veterinária, or the National Institute of Agricultural and Veterinary Research). Almeida, the scientist and researcher at INIAV, now coordinates the initiative, in addition to studying the effects of climate change on cereal crops and leading a project researching new varieties of Portuguese rice.
“The Carolino is perfect for our beloved soupy rice dishes, something that is quite specific to our taste,” Almeida tells us. “However the Carolino varieties mostly used nowadays are from Italy and Spain.” Part of her work involves identifying new high-quality varieties of Portuguese rice – three new subtypes of Carolino and one Agulha variety were registered in 2017 in the National Catalogue, although the full process from registration to general consumption takes roughly 10 to 12 years. “We will have improved varieties,” she adds, “for our climate and taste, within a sustainable production process.”
According to João Rodrigues, the chef at Michelin-starred Feitoria and founder of Projecto Matéria, Portugal’s rice dishes don’t have the global cache of risotto or paella in part because of a failure to showcase the incredible diversity in the rice fields along the Mondego and Sado rivers and in the Tejo/Sorraia valley, the country’s three main rice productions areas.
“The Italians like it al dente but we like the creaminess [of Carolino rice], which has strong connections with many of the dishes from our childhood.”
As part of his work for Projecto Matéria, an online database that promotes Portuguese farmers and celebrates them as fundamental elements of Portuguese culture, Rodrigues has recognized Carolino rice producers in Mondego, the northernmost rice area in Portugal, and mapped Aparroz, a rice producers’ association in the Sado valley, a region that has been producing rice since 1760. “What’s different here,” Rodrigues points out, referring to Aparroz, “is that they only produce mono-varietals, such as Ariete or Ronaldo [both subvarities of Carolino rice]. People have been consuming less and less Carolino because they were disappointed when cooking it, as some companies mix different varieties in the same package. But each variety has different cooking times. So consumers started buying Agulha or basmati rice.”
The chef regrets that the connection with superlative produce such as Carolino rice is fading: “It’s such a shame, and it comes down to a lack of information,” he says. “Even in restaurants people are using parboiled rice [partially steamed in the husk, making it firmer and less sticky] instead.”
But Rodrigues is determined to make a difference. He always includes a rice dish in his tasting menu at Feitoria. “We put rice in everything and we make it as side dish for everything, but it’s curious that we haven’t left a print in the rice culinary world. We have to go deep in the knowledge we have,” he adds.
Portugal imports 180,000 tons of rice in the shell, which is more or less what the country produces. “We’re also exporting a lot of Carolino since we’re producing more than we consume,” explains Monteiro, the vice-president of COTArroz – Centro Operativo e Tecnológico do Arroz. “It has a fantastic quality, and we’re exporting a lot to the Middle East, around 80-90,000 tons a year.”
Interestingly, the high-quality Carolino is often the cheapest rice on Portugal’s supermarket shelves – a consequence of consumers adopting different (often easier-to-cook) varieties. Monteiro, like Rodrigues, bemoans the use of other varieties in the country’s signature soupy rice dishes. “It’s annoying to see restaurants cooking arroz de marisco with parboiled rice, it spoils the dish,” he says. “It loses the flavor and creamy texture that you get with Carolino, and the softness of the grain.”
Monteiro has big dreams for spreading the gospel of Portuguese rice across Europe. “We won a campaign within the EU, with Italy and France, called ‘Sustainable European Rice, Don’t Think Twice,’” he says. As part of the three-year-long project, his organization will promote rice in countries such as Germany. “Post-lockdown, we hope to start in Portugal, explaining more about Carolino to consumers in shops and supermarkets,” he adds. It’s a rice worth knowing.
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