How Carolina Gold Rice Took Over Kitchens in the South

John Kessler

Jake Lee, a sous chef at Charleston’s Fig, keeps a Japanese headband tucked into his gear for one specific purpose. Once a day, he pulls it out, slips it across his forehead and in doing so sends this message to the kitchen crew: “Don’t talk to me. I’m cooking rice.”

Lee has earned this theatrical flourish. Few restaurants in America take rice as seriously as Fig, where cooks must earn the right to prepare it. “I have just one person at a time make the rice,” says Executive Chef Jason Stanhope. He works closely with his cooks until they can pull off the restaurant’s signature pilaf—a basic recipe that showcases the region’s most famous cultivar, Carolina Gold. “Once they’ve started cooking the rice on a daily basis, they can start fudging the water or stock,” Stanhope says. “But I’m talking tablespoons to the quart.”

Cultivation of Carolina Gold rice goes back as far as Revolutionary times, and it once stretched from the estuaries of Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. But as other cultivars, and indeed other crops, gained traction, this rice, so distinctive in the field for its golden husks, turned from a cash crop into a rarity. It was all but moribund until it reemerged in the early 2000s, thanks largely to the efforts of Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts. Since then, it has become a showcase ingredient on menus throughout the South and beyond. As Roberts notes on the company’s website, it is a “chameleon” rice, with starches like those of a short-grain rice that can be coaxed into a creamy medium for risotto. Yet it is long-grained, so, as at Fig, it lends itself to a textbook pilaf with fluffy, separate grains. Then again, broken rice “middlins” will cook up as appealingly sticky and springy as Japanese gohan. This is the rice that really can do it all.

Or, oftentimes, not.

Photo: Kathryn McCrary

Steven Satterfield Photo: Kathryn McCrary

Cooks can’t mess up the distinctive flavor of Carolina Gold rice, which some liken to hazelnuts, but they can readily cook it to a texture that’s sticky, beady, and lacking the starchy spring that should be its hallmark. In order to prepare this rice well, you must first understand it.

Carolina Gold is neither a fragrant long-grained Indica rice, such as jasmine or basmati, nor a typical short-grained Japonica rice, like arborio or sushi rice. Rather, scientists classify it as a “tropical Japonica” rice. Roberts believes it originated somewhere near Sulawesi, Indonesia. (Indeed, tropical Japonica strains so often originate in that country that some refer to them as “Javanica” rice.) Like other Japonica cultivars, it has no odor; unlike them, it has a long, brittle grain that breaks easily in the mill. For this reason, Carolinians have developed such a taste for broken rice middlins that they sometimes give unbroken grains a spin in the blender.

"This rice has that intangible X factor that makes food memorable.”

— Jason Stanhope, Fig, Charleston

The other thing to know is that producers usually sell Carolina Gold as a new crop rice, meaning the time between harvest and packaging is but a few months. Anson Mills lets the unhulled grains ripen in the field and then dehydrate naturally in open air, resulting in more residual moisture than other crops of American-grown rice. Roberts says the grains are still “breathing” aerobically when they end up in chefs’ hands.

At Fig, Stanhope washes the rice in several changes of water and then soaks it for an hour. (“It’s one of the starchiest grains and can get very sticky if you don’t,” he advises.) He then cooks the rice like a pilaf, coating it lightly in fat and cooking it covered over a high flame with a 1:1 ratio of rice to liquid. High heat can be a hard trick to pull off, with every detail from circumference and gauge of the pan, to the temperature, to the rice itself ready to throw it off.

Stanhope uses his method for both whole-grain rice and his favorite, middlins, which he says “has these amazing flavors of hay that I imagine are unlocked by cracking the grain. This rice has that intangible X factor that makes food memorable.”

Many chefs, particularly in the South, concur. “I’m obsessed with Carolina Gold,” says Steven Satterfield of Atlanta’s Miller Union. He is best known for cooking it slowly in cream and stock to draw the starches out of the grain. “It’s basically made like a risotto,” he says, “but in our Southern fashion we call it ‘creamed rice.’ It’s not as fat a grain as arborio, so it cooks faster and has almost a tapioca-like final texture.”

Carolina Gold rice shines in more advanced culinary techniques as well. “It’s really perfect for puffed rice,” says Jason Zygmont of Nashville’s The Treehouse. “We overcook it, dry it, then fry it. The increased starch content helps that process.”

Yet the biggest fans of this rice say the less you mess with it, the better. For a spring street festival in Charleston, Stanhope prepared 60 quarts of Carolina Gold pilaf cooked in sweet butter, green garlic, and a light fish fumet. And he served it to the fairgoers with… “Nothing,” he laughs. “I just wanted them to taste the rice.”

Recipe: Creamed Carolina Gold Rice with Summer Vegetables and Country Ham

A self-proclaimed rice nerd, John Kessler’s go-to dishes include Japanese haiga cooked in a stove cooker, or stovetop pilaf with jasmine rice and toasted orzo.

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