Icif's Italian Rice Cooking Competetion

Smoldering eyes, dark curling hair, and a bowlful of pasta in a garlicky red sauce -- not a bad idea of Italy, but limited ... very limited. Because most Italian-Americans trace their roots to the southern regions, like Sicily or Rome, the fair complexions and creamy flavors of the northern part of the country haven't really factored into the American image of Italy. But all this is changing, as risotto, as common a first course in the north of Italy as pasta, becomes a worldwide affair.

In mid-April, eight chefs from around the world gathered at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners (ICIF) to compete in the first "Italian Rice in World Cooking" Competition.

ICIF regularly serves as a sort of Italian finishing school for culinary students from around the world, but for this occasion the function was a little different. Located in a castle outside of Asti in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy, the school hosted representative chefs from Brazil, England, Canada, Korea, China, Japan, Germany, and the United States. Each won a semifinal ICIF rice-off in his own country before being invited to Piedmont, a vine-choked, near-alpine area known for fresh Spumante sparklers, fragrant white truffles, anchovy-infused bagna cauda sauce, and young Barbera wines. What isn't as well-known is that for hundreds of years the northern regions of Piedmont and Lombardia have taken advantage of water running down from the distant Alps to irrigate extensive rice fields which produce Italy's signature short-grain rices (such as arborio and carnarole), making Italy one of the largest rice exporters in the world.

The idea of Italian-style rice is finally crossing national borders, as evidenced by the contest entries. Each chef combined an aspect of his signature cooking with the traditional preparation of risotto: short grain rice cooked and stirred slowly so that starches bind the individual grains, often moistened with broth and/or wine, and flavored with additional ingredients.

The Brazilian chef prepared a risotto with dried beef, pumpkin, and a soft cheese local to Brazil, the Chinese contestant made a dessert risotto flavored with red tea, and the American competitor (Raymond Arpke from Euphemia Haye Restaurant in Long Boat Key, Florida) served a Cajun-style "dirty" risotto with ground duck. Arpke came in second, with high marks for creativity and flavor, but the panel of judges, which included chefs and food writers from Italy, awarded top honors to Holger Zurbruggen, executive chef of Langhaus Restaurant in Berlin. Zurbruggen won with his Cockerel With Ginger and Sukiyaki sauce.

Ginger and teriyaki may not sound German or Italian, but then again the Japanese contestant entered with an eel dish, which is actually a common preparation of risotto on the eastern coast of Italy. No one even dared to prepare one of the most traditional dishes Italy has to offer, a dish which further proves that many Americans don't know what people across the pond are really eating -- in this case, rice prepared with the tiny, tasty frogs that populate the watery fields where all this rice is actually grown.
-- M.P

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