Going Wild Over Wild Rice

Wild rice (Zizania aquatica) belongs to the family Poaceae, along with bambooblack rice, lemongrass, brown ricewheat, corn, oats, barley, millet, and rye, plus many other grasses.

The Algonquin, Ojibwa, Dakota, Winnebago, Sioux, Fox, and Chippewa tribes used wild rice as a staple in their diets. They called it manomin or mahnomen, after the Menominee tribe and referred to wild rice as “good berry” and “the precious grain sent by the Great Spirit to serve as food.” It was the centerpiece of their Megwetch Manomin Feast that followed the first harvest. The stores of wild rice sustained them during the long, cold winters when the lakes were frozen. Wild rice was so valuable that tribes sometimes waged wars over harvesting territories. Chippewa people carried small pouches of wild rice with them whenever they traveled.

Indians gathered wild rice over an expansive of area North America from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi Valley. Archeologists found charred remains of wild rice in threshing pits.

The early French explorers called wild rice folles avoines, or “crazy oats.” Wild rice got its name because the explorers noticed Indians gathering it in the waters of the Great Lakes region. Jonathan Carver, an Englishman from London, came to explore North America and wrote Travels through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768. He reported that wild rice was the most important of all the native wild food plants in the country.

In those times, the annual harvesting of wild rice began a month before actually reaping the rice, when tribes gathered at their chosen harvesting lakes to stake out their favorite spots. In late August and September of each year, during the period known as “rice moon,” the ricing chief would declare the proper day for harvesting. Then pairs of women slowly roamed the grassy lakes in their birch bark canoes. One would take her place at the front of the boat and paddle with a long pole. The other used two long cedar or juniper sticks to bend the tall grass-heads and gently shake the seeds of the pale-green stalks into the bottom of the boat. Some of the grains would fall back into the water and become the seeds for next year’s crop.

Because the seed kernels do not all ripen at the same time, the women made several trips at intervals of four to six days to harvest the seeds that continued to mature. This three-centuries-old gathering method is still used today, which explains why this wild-crafted grain tends to be expensive. Today, the men of the tribe share the harvesting task.

When they are harvested, the seed colors range from tan to light green, to varying shades of brown, and to black. They are about 25% moisture and have the aroma of green tea. They were taken to the rice camp or back to the reservation and heaped into large piles to ferment by the heat of the sun for as long as two weeks. The lengthy fermentation process turns the wild rice black, and gives them an aroma like black tea. Following fermentation, the wild rice was cured or parched over smoke fires from two to four hours to dry the hulls. The drying process is essential to prevent mold.

The dried wild rice was placed into lined, shallow pits, and the young children would dance on the grains to loosen the hulls. The rice was then strained through blankets to separate the chaff from the kernels. Later, the wild rice was put into bags and hand-pounded with clubs to loosen the hulls. The women then winnowed the grains by lifting their filled birch-bark trays and tossing the seeds into the air, allowing the winds to carry off the hulls.

By the early part of the 20th century, only clear lakes and rivers of the most northern regions of Minnesota could still support the growth of wild rice and provide the Indians their staple food.

In 1972, farmers began cultivating wild rice in paddies, a practice that hurt the incomes of Native American Indians who depended on selling their wild rice. About 80% of the wild rice grown in the United States today is cultivated in paddies in northern Minnesota, the Upper Mississippi Valley, California, Washington, and Idaho. The seeds do not grow well in stagnant water, and growers had to develop varieties that adapted well to their new environment. These hybrid varieties mature at the same time. The plants are then completely cut down with mechanical threshers and processed with mechanical parchers and winnowers.  In the final stages of processing, rubber rollers remove the hulls and create small cuts in the grain that shortens the cooking process.

Airboats have brought about recent improvements in commercial harvesting of the truly wild rice, while newer techniques for parching, winnowing, and hulling have been a help in saving time and labor. For example, the wild rice is winnowed on the reservations in large 30-gallon drums with paddles inside that loosen the hulls as the drums are turned. Still, it takes about three pounds of seed to yield one pound of wild rice kernels.

Wild rice is also grown in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, and Southern China. China grows another species, Z. latifolia, which is sometimes called Manchurian wild rice. The Chinese use these plants not for their cereal grains, but for their broad leaves and young shoots. The leaves are used to wrap dumplings, while the shoots are cooked and eaten like asparagus.

Wild rice can:

  1. Fight free radicals. Wild rice is an excellent source of manganese, providing 23% of the Daily Value per cup. Manganese is a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase.
  2. Balance your blood sugar and metabolic rateZinc in wild rice helps balance blood sugar, stabilizes your metabolic rate, and supports an optimal sense of smell and taste. Wild rice is low in fat and high in fiber.
  3. Promote heart healthMagnesium in wild rice helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, which is especially important in keeping your heart rhythm steady. It also promotes normal blood pressure. The fiber in figs reduces high cholesterol levels by binding with the bile acids that your body uses to make cholesterol. Fiber isn’t absorbed, so when it exits the body in the feces, it takes the cholesterol-containing bile acids with it. As a result, your body ends up with less cholesterol, which your liver then pulls from your blood to make more bile, lowering your cholesterol levels. Eating a high-fiber diet not only reduces your total cholesterol, it also reduces your triglyceride levels (a form in which fats circulate in the bloodstream), and your Very Low-Density Lipoprotein (VLDL–the most dangerous form of cholesterol) levels.
  4. Give you energy and strengthManganese in wild rice facilitates protein and carbohydrate metabolism. Magnesium helps regulate blood sugar levels, and is involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. Phosphorus in wild rice helps you use carbohydrates and fats and synthesize protein; it also helps with energy storage, muscle contraction, heartbeat, and nerve conduction. 
  5. Build strong bodiesManganese in wild rice facilitates formation of bone. Magnesium in wild rice keeps bones strong. Phosphorus in wild rice helps in the formation of bones and teeth. The protein in wild rice contains all the essential amino acids, which are vital for all growth and repair functions in your body. Proteins are required for the formation of body cells, enzymes, hormones, and antibodies. Virtually all cell functions require protein.
  6. Support your immune systemMagnesium in wild rice supports a healthy immune system. Zinc in wild rice prevents a weakened immune system.

Nutrients in 1 Cup Cooked Wild Rice

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

manganese

0.5 mg

23%

zinc

2.2 mg

15%

magnesium

52.5 mg

13%

phosphorus

134 mg

13%

protein

6.5 g

13%

carbohydrates

35 g

12%

fiber

3 g

12%

vitamin B6

0.2 mg

11%

niacin

2.1 mg

11%

folate

42.6 µg

11%

copper

0.2 mg

10%

Calories

166

  8%

riboflavin

0.1 mg

8%

thiamine

0.1 mg

6%

iron

1 mg

5%

potassium

166 mg

5%

pantothenic acid

0.3 mg

3%

fat

0.6 g

1%

sodium

4.9 mg

0.2%

calcium

4.9 mg

0%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

Wild rice is available in most grocery stores in packages or in bulk.

To prepare, combine one part wild rice with three parts water. Average cooking times range from 30 to 50 minutes.

Always cook wild rice covered, although you may open the lid to stir it from time to time. Wild rice is properly cooked when kernels are tender and many have burst open to reveal a cream-colored interior. Overcooking will cause split kernels to curl. For optimum taste, its chewy texture should remain true after cooking.

Follow package directions or use one of these easy methods:

  1. Stove-top method: Bring 3 cups water or vegetable broth to a boil, stir in 1 cup uncooked wild rice, reduce heat and simmer, covered 40-45 minutes or just until kernels puff open. Uncover, fluff with a fork, and simmer an additional five minutes. Drain off any excess liquid.
  2. Oven method: In a 2-quart casserole, pour 3 cups water or vegetable broth over 1 cup wild rice. Cover and bake at 350º F for 1 hour. Fluff with a fork and continue baking for 1/2 hour. Drain any excess liquid. Fluff with fork and season to taste.
  3. Microwave method: In a 2-quart microwave-safe bowl, add 1 cup wild rice to 3 cups water or stock. Cover and microwave on High for 5 minutes, then microwave on Medium for 30 minutes more. Let stand for 10 minutes; drain any excess liquid. Fluff with a fork and season to taste.
  4. Rice cooker method: Rub or spray rice cooker pan with a small amount of olive oil. Add 2 cups of water or vegetable broth and 1 cup of wild rice. Cook 50 minutes or until rice is fluffy, let stand for 10 minutes.

Wild rice has a nutty, smoky taste. Try wild rice in some of these recipes:


This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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