Gone are the days when rice on a menu meant American long-grain rice and nothing else. Slowly but surely, most sectors of the food service industry are introducing more varieties of rice and cooking adventurous rice-based dishes.
"The food service rice pot is growing, as more and more operators offer ethnic dishes on their menus and rice migrates from being a side-of-plate staple to centre-plate status," says Trish Smith, marketing manager for Masterfoods, which supplies the Uncle Ben's brand. "Dishes such as risotto, paella, rice salads and biryani are encroaching on the traditional meat-and-two-veg options."
Growth in wholesale Major suppliers such as Masterfoods and Tilda are attempting to push speciality rice to the wholesale sector, using point-of-sale material to promote the use of rice varieties such as Thai Jasmine and wild rice. Such activity, and growing consumer awareness, has created a good environment for experimentation. The availability of frozen, microwaveable rice products is also encouraging this trend.
"Long-grain rice is still by far the biggest seller for Uncle Ben's, but the sales of our frozen speciality range have shown double-digit growth for the past three years," Smith says. "Until recently it was surprisingly common for pub buyers to tell our sales force that their customers would not accept foreign-sounding rice varieties on the menu. Now, both frozen Uncle Ben's pilau rice and Thai coconut rice are big sellers in the pub sector."
Mark Lyddy, national account controller for Tilda, has also noted the growth of speciality rice. "Risotto used to be the domain of the specialist Italian restaurant, but we now sell a lot more risotto rice through mainstream wholesalers."
However, Lyddy says, the cost sector is lagging behind and has a tendency to shun the trend - a move he thinks could prove a false economy. "A lot of caterers in this sector are not responding to consumer demand. Hospitals, for example, will always use long-grain because there is a perception that it is better value for money."
But while cheap long-grain varieties may appear to offer the best value for caterers operating under strict budgets, many could benefit by switching to basmati, Lyddy believes. "Rice is a good value-for-money product. There is no wastage. Basmati has a premium over long-grain, but if you compare the cost to that of other carbohydrates, such as pasta and jacket potatoes, it can work out cheaper."
Smith agrees that the major challenge remains the cost sector. "In parts of food service, especially in the cost sector, rice has become a commodity market where price rules and competition is intense. We are now seeing increased price competition right across food service and consequently a growth in own-label lines, some of which have improved markedly in quality."
However, some caterers in the cost sector have switched to speciality rice. Susan Ousley, food service manager at Oxford Brookes University, provides meals for both students and staff and is aware she has to offer variety.
"We get through large quantities of rice," she says. "I buy Uncle Ben's ambient rice in 25kg bags and we routinely get through one-and-a-half of these per week. For me, the most important attributes are quality, consistency and ease of cooking. While I mainly buy long-grain, we also use wild rice and Arborio varieties.
"Much of our rice is sold through the Mexican bar, one of the busiest of the six different areas that make up our food court, where many of the main dishes are served with rice-based accompaniments."
Outside term time, the independent, co-educational Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire opens its doors for conferences and events. A large influx of overseas students coupled with conference-goers of all ages and cultural backgrounds means Andrew Hailes, director of catering at the college, needs to appeal to a wide cross-section of diners. For this he makes good use of Tilda Easy Cook Basmati rice (he orders 100 sacks at a time) and wild rice. Some of the college's most popular recipes are paella, chilli con carne and creole jambalaya.
"We have to cater for as many tastes as possible," Hailes says. "We have a lot of Chinese students here who have rice as part of a staple diet, so having rice dishes is a must. But it's not just overseas students who ask for it. Tastes are continually changing - especially among youngsters."
Masterfoods has launched Uncle Ben's QuickServe rice, an ambient pre-cooked rice for food service. The rice, available in long-grain and basmati pilau varieties, is presented in a tear-open pouch and can be prepared in the microwave in 45 seconds. It can also be prepared by boiling, steaming or frying.
Real Basmati Basmati has been the rice market's star performer over the past decade, moving from speciality status to mainstream player.
"In 1993 basmati was considered a speciality rice, but consumers and caterers have become increasingly aware of its versatility," says Tilda's Mark Lyddy. "The industry has realised that it is a good rice to serve with everything."
And from a value-for-money point of view, basmati offers caterers a higher yield (cooked volume versus dry) than many cheaper long-grain rice products, Lyddy claims.
But the war of words over the right for rice to be classified as basmati goes on, and a number of suppliers are unhappy with current legislation
The guidelines produced by the Food Standards Agency, in consultation with the Indian and Pakistani governments, allow 11 Indian and five Pakistani rices to be labelled as basmati. This is a classification welcomed by those producers of pure basmati, such as Tilda, which believes only pure basmati with the correct genetic heritage should bear the name.
Kishor Pagarani, managing director of Nacto Foods, a major UK supplier of premium rice, has a different point of view: "We recognise that there has been a problem in the trade for years and that the Food Standards Agency had everyone's best interests at heart. The problem is that governments have the interests of their own growers to protect. In our opinion, the waters have been muddied by the inclusion of certain varieties which the consumer and trade would not generally have considered true basmatis. By adopting a classification process based on genetics rather than quality, inferior grade rices can now be called basmati."
Italian Trade Commission 020 7734 2412
Masterfoods 0800 952 0011
Tilda 0116 238 8166
USA Rice Federation 020 8767 7818
Westmill Foods 01279 715295