Just Add Water: Rice Grows on Randall’s Island

Last year along, the paddy produced about 30 pounds of rice, and immeasurable quantities of enlightenment.

randalls-island-learning-garden

If you ask kids today where carrots and tomatoes come from, they’ll likely stare at you blankly and answer “the grocery store.” So you could hardly expect them to know much about rice, which in our part of the world is only ever seen in plastic bags or on your plate.

But rice is one of the few foods found in almost every cuisine. And so educators at the Learning Garden on Randall’s Island decided rice deserved a place alongside those carrots and tomatoes. In 2010, they expanded their learning garden to include New York’s first and only rice paddy.

It’s the brainchild of Randall’s Island staffer EunYoung Sebazco, who had spent time in Japan and knew that rice could grow in temperate climates like New York. The paddy—essentially two long pools—is as “low-tech as it gets,” says Phyllis Odessey, director of horticulture for the Randall’s Island Park Alliance. The bricks that form the low walls were left over from another building project. The containers were then lined with plastic picked up at Home Depot. The team also bought a cheap solar pump on Amazon to keep the water moving and oxygenated. A few fish from a nearby pet store and some papyrus and water lily plants, which also keep the water fresh, were the final touch. All told, the setup costs came to about $200. But the payoff was big: Last year along, the paddy produced about 30 pounds of rice, and immeasurable quantities of enlightenment.

Visiting students, mostly from under-served areas in the South Bronx and East Harlem, participate in nearly every stage of growing the rice. The environmental nonprofit GrowNYC, which originally suggested the space become a learning garden, coordinates the visits as part of its citywide school gardens program, Grow to Learn.

In spring, students plant the seeds for koshihikari, a Japanese sushi rice, in little plastic cups. Another group transplants the seedlings to the muddy water. But it’s the lucky class that comes in late fall that joins chefs to harvest the rice and prepare it for cooking. Gardeners cut the stalks and hand bunches to the kids who thresh and winnow the rice, by smacking it, over and over, on a plastic tarp on the ground and hitting the seeds with a wooden bat to loosen them from the husk. The final step is gathering all the seeds into a special winnowing basket, imported from Asia.

Even after all that work, the rice must be dried before it can be cooked and eaten. But students do get a chance to taste rice unlike any they have had before. Matthew Rudofker, the chef de cuisine at Momofuku Ssam Bar, made a lemongrass rice pudding and served it with homemade honey ice cream, while Yoshi Kousaka of Jewel Bako showed the kids how to make rice balls seasoned with bonito flakes and shrimp, then served them with pickled radishes from the garden.

“They loved it,” Kousaka says. Which just goes to show that anything is possible in New York.

Photo credit: Randall’s Island Park Alliance

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Jane Black is a journalist who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in the Washington Post, New York Times, the Atlantic, and New York magazine. Jane's 15-year career has taken her from San Francisco, where she helped to launch one of the first real-time online news services to the BBC in London, BusinessWeek in New York and the Washington Post where she was a staff writer at the James Beard-award winning Food section. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia town’s struggle build a healthier food culture and whether the food “revolution” can cross geographical, cultural and class boundaries.