What is Wild Rice?

By Staff Writer  •   3 minute read

Wild Rice
Contrary to what the name implies, wild rice isn't rice at all. Technically speaking, true wild rice is the kernel found inside a species of semi-aquatic grass native to the Great Lakes of the United States. Cultivated wild rice, on the other hand, is grown by farmers. When purchasing wild rice, check the package to see if it says the grains were cultivated, or farmed; it may also be labeled as “paddy rice”. The packaging of true wild rice, or lake grass, will list that the rice was harvested from the Great Lakes region. Interestingly enough, three of the four types of rice that exist in the world are native to this specific area within the U.S.

Unlike the white or brown rice found at your local grocery store, lake and paddy rice varies in color from violet to brown to black and has a much earthier, woodsy flavor profile; the grain can have a grass-like smokiness to it. These grains are slightly firmer than other types of “rice”, with lake rice varying in grain size and the grains of paddy rice being more consistently uniform.

A serving of wild rice will yield fewer calories and twice the protein content of white or brown rice. Brown and wild rice have similar fiber content, in contrast to white rice that contains very little. According to Healthline, a study of wild rice samples concluded that the antioxidant density of wild rice is nearly thirty times that of white rice. Antioxidants help prevent damage to cells from free radicals in the body and have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Also packed with vitamins and minerals, this whole grain is undoubtedly healthier than white or brown rice.

The large, feathery stalks of this grass could once be found in abundance along lakes and rivers in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and parts of Canada, where Native Americans and First Nations Peoples still participate in a fall harvest of wild lake rice. Historically and even today, many Indigenous people participate in an annual ricing trip, where they canoe along the tall grasses and harvest the grains by hand. A “knocker” stick is used to tap the stalk, which loosens the grains and allows them to be scraped into the bed of the canoe. Once the canoe is full, it is taken to shore and the rice is bagged before the canoe sets out to repeat the process.

The biggest threat to the longevity of wild rice as a food source is the purity and quality of available water. Whether wild or cultivated, this grain grows in two to four feet of water and is susceptible to site runoff pollution and drought. Because wild rice needs to grow in an aquatic environment, farmers of commercially grown, or cultivated, wild rice must flood their fields as it grows to ensure the water is neither too low or too high for the crop to prosper.

Wild rice is culturally significant to Indigenous people because of this long-standing traditions as well as the grain’s history of being an integral nutritionally dense food source. In fact, a license is required to harvest wild lake grass in Minnesota, which must be done in the traditional Native American way described above. Unfortunately, recent ricing expeditions have reported fewer and fewer harvestable rice beds as climate change, anthropogenic influences, and even backlash against the practice from the community have threatened this way of life for Indigenous people. In Minnesota, twenty thousand acres of cultivated rice fields encircle sixty thousand acres of wild-grown aquatic grassland. Many Indigenous people in the region are wary of the cross pollination of commercially grown rice with the native grass that has been a staple in their culture for centuries.

The firmness and unique color of this grain will give an earthy feel to soups, casseroles, or even simply served as a side. When you fill your pantry with Native American food staples you're supporting the sustainability of Indigenous food sources. Even better, when you buy from Tocabe Marketplace, you're directly supporting Indigenous communities because for every two products sold, we donate one to a local community!

Not a cook? Try our Harvest Meals™ featuring wild rice!
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