Versatile, cheap and able to carry an infinite variety of flavours, rice and pasta are the basic foundations of many a different meal, says Angela Frewin
Our boundless appetite for new-world flavours is not the only trend breathing new life into rice, pasta and noodle dishes. The focus on healthier eating and the burgeoning armies of gluten-intolerant, vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian diners all play to the strengths of these hearty carbohydrates.
"Rice, pasta and noodles are all-natural, unprocessed vegetarian or vegan staple foods that are the foundation for most world cuisines, so it's little surprise that they are popular with diners," says Gordon Lauder, managing director at Central Foods.
Travel has already popularised Indian and Chinese, Thai and Mexican flavours and now, says Owen: "Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and Eastern Mediterranean are hot trends and strong influencers. Southeast Asian, Eastern European, Sri Lankan and contemporary Indian are emerging trends also seeing significant growth."
Chefs are enticing healthy eaters by "using rice and pasta in a fresh, clean way" says Oliver Lloyd, development chef at Brakes. Fresh herbs, fruit, vegetables, seeds and raw foods all add colour, flavour, texture and extra nutrition to these staple carbs. "Thin and delicate pasta is very much on-trend', he adds, with lighter, raw sauces an increasingly popular option.
Globe-trotting diners now expect a broader range of rice and pastas on menus - not a problem when there are more than 400 different dried pasta shapes across Italy and in excess of 100,000 types of rice to choose from. Craig Dillon, head of foodservice at Tilda UK, suggests simply swapping a plain for a speciality rice, such as Tilda's Basmati & Wild, Fragrant Jasmine or Arborio Risotto, to premiumise a dish and add new flavours.
Go with the grain
There's a variety of rice for every need - shortgrain for sushi and desserts, isotto- and dessert-friendly medium-grain, and popular long-grain variants, such as brown, aromatic Indian basmati, fragrant Thai jasmine and black wild rice (which is actually a seed).
The National Rice Week website recommends nutty brown, black venere or red Carmargue variants that hold their shape and bite for the now ubiquitous rice salad.
Consumer favourite basmati has an earthy taste and a soft texture that works well with on-trend Vietnamese street foods, such as seared fish and coconut rice and veggie hotpots, advises Matt Cutts, product director at Mars Foods Europe. As many Vietnamese dishes are served buffet-style, the rice must hold well and Mars' Uncle Ben's basmati,
whole and long-grain rices are parboiled to cook in less than 15 minutes and hold for up to two hours without clumping.
Latin American chain Las Iguanas, which uses 75,000 kilos of rice each year across its 55 outlets, plumped for Tilda's easy-cook and superior-hold rice, which head of food development Glenn Evans values for its ability to absorb and lock in the flavours of the scratch-made sauces in its signature chipotle, garlic and spring onion rice dishes. The impact of good flavour cannot be overemphasised. Las Iguanas boosted sales of its best-selling rice dish, chilli con carne, after offering diners the choice of customising their meal with a choice of stir-in spiced butters (a mild cocao and chilli, a medium smoky chipotle and a hot habanero and pequin chilli).
With risotto and arancini (rice balls) enjoying a resurgence, Italian and speciality rice supplier Riso Gallo has devised a versatile frozen risotto base that is cooked in five rather than the traditional 20 minutes. The Carnaroli rice is frozen grain by grain, enabling chefs to whip up single portions of risotto and widen their risotto offer. The base (free from gluten, dairy, alcohol or nuts to suit all diets) is precooked in vegetable stock, ready for reheating with the chef's chosen ingredients.
"The most important aspect is that it produces a risotto that is creamy but al dente - an issue in many Italian restaurants across the UK, where the rice tends to be overcooked," says UK managing director Jason Morrison.
"Filled pastas are still on the rise, with some interesting examples: ham hock and pea; chicken and kale; and aubergine, mozzarella and tomato," says Duncan Parsonage, head of food development at Fresh Direct.
"There is more attention to quality and new, different flavours," agrees Matteo Polgrossi, marketing project manager at artisan pasta supplier La Tua Pasta, which has scooped 56 Great Taste Awards since 2007. This year's winners include burrata (mozzarella and cream), a black truffle tortellini and a crayfish and prawn tortellini with ricotta and robiola cheese. Other lines cater for kids, with a train-shaped plain pasta, for vegans (artichoke ravioli) and those with a sweet tooth (a chocolate and Nutella ravioli).
Offering fresh pasta will create a buzz and allows chefs to introduce innovative flavours and adapt them to dietary needs, says Heather Beattie, Vogue brand manager at Nisbets. She suggests using the S635 Vogue Pasta Machine and Ravioli Cutter combo to whip up treats such as a ravioli of Cheddar and sweet crab in a lemon cream sauce, or a vegan bean, asparagus and fennel open ravioli.
Wave goodbye to wheat
Rice - easily digested and naturally gluten-free - is among myriad ingredients making pasta and noodles palatable to the growing army of gluten-avoiders. Central Foods mixes rice and maize flour in its new individual portions of ready-cooked gluten- and dairy-free penne pasta, which microwaves from frozen in two minutes.
Owen lists "buckwheat, peppers, yams, sweet potatoes, soybeans, pulses such as
lentils, pinto and black beans, carrots, potatoes and mushrooms" as credible wheat replacements in pasta and noodles, and Parsonage points to the rise of spiralised veggies and butternut squash 'lasagne' sheets and Squaffles (butternut squash waffles).
Travel, health and free-from trends are also popularising alternative grains, seeds, beans, pulses and legumes in their own right. They are, says Lauder, abundant, low-cost and mostly gluten-free providers of vitamins, minerals, protein and other nutrients, and Owen sees them cropping up across all day parts: "For example, pearl barley risotto is a fantastic substitute to traditional risotto and chia seed porridge makes for a great breakfast alternative."
Hot tickets such as edamame beans, quinoa, chia, flaxseed, millet, buckwheat, faro, Middle Eastern freekeh, African teff and spelt (which Owen reckons makes a great wholewheat pasta) are all ingredients you might find in a Buddha bowl, the current darling of the health food scene that mixes greens, raw or roasted veggies, beans and healthy grains topped with dressings, nuts and seeds.
They are also perfect partners to rice - 70% of consumers would choose a blended over a plain rice, according to research by Tilda, which launched its Pulses & Rice range last year. Riso Gallo, too, has a six-strong range of Gallo Nature Italian whole and super-grains, which includes brown and red rice with quinoa; and rice, spelt and barley (a combo that's paired with porcini mushrooms in the new Gallo Pronto quartet of quick-cook risottos).
As globalisation encourages cross-fertilisation, rice and noodles are also
finding new applications, says Parsonage: "Rice and even noodle 'nests', are replacing burger buns and becoming the carrier for numerous innovative
dishes. Fortunately, I've not yet witnessed any bizarre pasta and Asian flavour combinations!"
Have a rice day
Mains such as risotto, paella, Oriental special fried rice, South Asian biryanis and Arabic kabsas prove rice is more than just a sidekick to a curry or Chinese. The UK's second National Rice Week (18-24 September) celebrated the versatility of a grain that provides 20% of the world's dietary energy and is the staple food for more than half the Earth's population.
A rice start to the day could involve a basmati rice pudding with seeds, berries and spices, a rice-bulked morning smoothie, an Oriental congee rice porridge,
Indian dahi rice (with spices and yogurt) or a kedgeree of rice, boiled egg and smoked fish. For lunch, consider a baby spinach, date, feta and black venere rice salad; rice and sweetcorn pancakes with seabass ceviche; rice and quinoa veggie burgers; or beet-leaf dolmades with beetroot and walnut tzatziki.
And to top off the day, there's Indian (kheer) rice pudding, a baked Moroccan version with quince rosewater jam and pistachios, or an indulgent, gluten-free torta di riso with chocolate and orange.
The boffins at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab have engineered flat pasta pieces that transform into different shapes in water - from macaroni and rigatoni to flowers and horse saddles.
They are built from strips of materials that absorb water at different rates - either layers of gelatine of differing densities or gelatine paired with less-absorbent cellulose patterned with holes to control the unfurling. This 'edible origami' or 'culinary performance art' was designed to slash packaging and transport costs (up to 67% of a pasta package is air) but could also democratise pasta design, allowing suppliers to copy or devise their own shapes via an online pattern database, using either a 3D printer (as the researchers did) or screen printingtechniques to create the perforated cellulose.
But what about taste and texture? Pretty good, according to trials at high-end Boston restaurant L'Espalier, which served transparent flat discs, flavoured with plankton and squid ink, that wrapped around caviar beads and long fettuccini-like strips that divided into smaller sections.
Aimia Foods (Mars and Uncle Ben's) www.aimiafoods.co.uk
Central Foods www.centralfoods.co.uk
Creed Foodservice www.creedfoodservice.co.uk
Fresh Direct Group www.freshdirect.co.uk
La Tua Pasta www.latuapasta.com
National Rice Week www.loverice.org
Riso Gallo UK www.risogallo.co.uk