New York may be home to all manner of firsts and bests: the Yankees, the IRT, the Manhattan and Tiffany’s to name a few but why didn’t we ever lay claim to a rice paddy?
After all, rice is a key ingredient in so many cultural cuisines, including Asian and Latino. And New York City boasts its fair share of these immigrant groups.
Now, in an homage to an important but heretofore overlooked seasonal rite of spring, the second annual rice planting at Randall’s Island Urban Farm formally celebrated the planting of rice in New York City’s first and only rice paddy.
On hand to mark the special occasion on a picture-perfect spring morning last week were: Koichi Ai, Director, Japan Information Center,
Masakazu Kigure, Consul, Cultural Attache, Japan Information Center and Midori Goto, Cultural Affairs Specialist – all representatives of Consulate-General of Japan, New York.
Also on site was master chef, Yoshi Kousaka, Jewel Bako restaurant (jewelbakosushi.com) to demonstrate cooking with rice. Chef Yoshi made rice balls stuffed with pickled plum. He also made fresh pickles with carrots, cucumber and radishes. His knife skill prowess astonished the visitors and schoolchildren. Also on hand was Mihyun Han, general manager from Don’s Bogam restaurant (donsbogam.com) located in New York’s Koreatown. (This Examiner reviewed the restaurant as part of Lunar New Year celebration: http://usedview.com/review/enjoy-delicious-korean-cuisine-to-celebrate-lunar-new-year
In addition, about 40 schoolchildren from Brooklyn Excelsior Charter School were on hand to help plant the rice.
The Randall’s Island Children’s Learning Garden is collaboration with GrowNYC and the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation. According to their literature, “The 6,000 square foot urban farm provides schools and groups who lack on-site or proximal open space with the experience of environmental education and nutritional learning by growing, harvesting, and eating garden-fresh produce. The garden grows a variety of produce and every year it features a special vegetable, fruit or grain.”
While a traditional Japanese folk rice planting event, the Hayashida Event of Shinjo, for example– worships Sanbai,” the god of rice fields,” and Kamioroshi, in which the god of rice fields is welcomed to the ground.
At the Randall’s Island Urban Farm rice paddy event, the saotome, or rice-planting maidens, were represented by first graders.
The Park’s Urban Farm serves to educate students from East Harlem and the South Bronx.
In fact, GrowNYC works with the Urban Farm to coordinate school visits as part of its citywide school garden program, Grow to Learn. GrowNYC’s Rachel Brauser and two interns were on hand to help with the rice planting.
Eating with the Seasons
The concept of growing and eating food that punctuates the seasons is returning to American palates.
It hasn’t been easy, but the idea that we can eat fresh food that changes by the season and dictated by our climate has gripped the attention and appetite of New York’s foodie culture.
From beehives to herb gardens to community gardens, it seems everyone wants to grow their food. Hyper local.
Riverpark restaurant has its urban farm where edibles grow in former dairy crates repurposed as containers.
The New York Horticultural Society’s George Pisegna has installed a rooftop garden for The Waldorf=Astoria this year. There is no denying NY has gotten back to its roots.
So now ramps and scapes in spring and tomatoes and melons in the summer – not January are the norm.
How then did rice elude our culinary and farming focus?
The reverence for rice in the Asian culture, has flourished since the second century BC.
The fact that rice planting was brought to the tapestry of Gotham’s burgeoning urban farm and culinary culture just last year is all the more dramatic.
The enterprise is the brainchild of EunYoung Sebazco, Horticulture Manager, Randall’s Island Park Alliance, and horticulture genius and landscape architect.
EunYoung first conceived the daring and bold concept of actually growing rice in New York.
While growing edibles has increasingly taken on a greater horticultural prominence in so many of the city’s parks, botanical gardens and rooftops, no institution had taken on rice as an edible crop to grow.
New York rice met its destiny.
It was up to EunYoung to launch not only the planting and growing of the rice but to help introduce a cultural roadmap for how New Yorkers will celebrate a crop and food that is unique to its Gotham style.
She helped provide the historical context by including the Japanese consulate, sprinkled in happy doses of horticulture education and cooked up a culinary connection or two to extend the rice narrative from its paddy to the plate.
And like a play that starts off Broadway in New Haven, say, then goes on to win a Tony, so too the Rice Paddy at Randall’s Island.
This is the little rice paddy that could.
From a humble start, the Randall’s Island Rice Paddy has emerged as a star.
If you build it, they will come.
With a solid, smart hort team at Randall’s Island, including Phyllis Odyssey, director of Horticulture, the Randall’s Island Park Alliance and Nick Storrs, Urban Farmer at Randall’s Island, and EunYoung, the rice paddy gained notoriety and hort respect in the last few years, not only for its rice paddy and its urban farm, but for its apple orchard, too. More on the urban farm later.
The rice paddy design was solid, and simple.
Odyssey and Sebazco had two long tubs made of cinderblock masonry erected in the urban farm area of Randall’s Island.
Using material that was available to them on the Island, they constructed the three rice paddy pools from masonry blocks, lined the pools with plastic and purchased a solar-powered pump online from Amazon in order to keep the water aerated and lend a hand to the gold fish that also help to keep the water clean.
EunYoung chose Koshihikari rice from the Kitazawa Seed Company (kitazawaseed.com) to grow.
Rice has many, many varieties, suggesting regions and culture.
The koshihikari rice is a kind of sushi rice – often called the “ultimate sushi rice” because of its high quality.
Right there, nestled under the soaring sculpture of the Triboro and the Little Hell Gate Bridges, basking in a sunny spot, the rice paddies were filled with water,
(Just to double check the rice growing plan, EunYoung checked with her wise, Korean grandmother who lives in the Garden State and lent her rice-growing experience to the project.)
And just like that – the rice experiment was soon in full swing.
Rice as Art
The rice paddy’s were launched last year – and to much acclaim.
The simple, yet highly successful rice paddies were an immediate hit – a superstar darling within the garden, horticulture and local food and urban farming communities.
Along with Chef Yoshi and Don Bogam restaurant, David Chang, master chef, cookbook author is also involved. His chef de cuisine, at Momofuku Ssam Bar, Matthew Rudofker, was one of the chefs that have all been lending their culinary talent to the Art of Rice at Randall Island’s urban farm.
The Rice Paddy will also star in an upcoming film documentary produced by Hadeel Assali who learned about the rice paddy from a feature story in The New Yorker magazine that cited the Rice Paddy as one of the top reasons to Love New York.
It is already a YouTube star: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDqW_DrKSsE
And the subject of its own blog: http://ricepaddyrandalls.wordpress.com
And will be included in the soon to be released book: Rice: a Global History, authored by Renee Marton and published by Reaktion Books, UK.
No wonder the First Lady, Michelle Obama wrote the Urban Farm Rice Paddy team to applaud their edible garden effort.
If this keeps up, it won’t be long till we name this pet project, “Rice Patty,” and she gets her own Twitter and Facebook page!
Rice growing and harvesting, especially the threshing, is a fascinating cultural topic.
Chronicling the birth of New York’s first rice paddy and its homage to an Empire State horticulture and culinary heritage is an innovative narrative that is being written – by those who come to know of the effort.
The lucky-strike extra of involving children — of all ages — in the exciting and revolutionary enterprise of rice growing in New York is demonstrating how rice can be prepared and cooked and included as a healthy and delicious element at meal time.
No disrespect to Uncle Ben – but just like any homegrown ingredient, it tastes better when the food is locally grown.
The connection to rice doesn’t get any closer than growing rice.
Hats in the air for Randall’s Island, led by creative landscaper and cultural pioneer, EunYoung Sebazco and her dream to introduce New Yorkers to growing rice.
Who doesn’t love that horticultural dream?
EunYoung and the team at Randall’s Island Urban Farm should be given a McArthur Genius Award – or the horticulture equivalent for their “hort heroics” in dreaming this could happen.
And two thumbs up for the Urban Farm’s Odyssey, who took on the project and built it on a shoestring that amplifies the get-it-done New York and American spirit. It’s kinda’ like the film “All the Right Stuff” that shows astronauts using duct tape to remedy a problem – but those space travelers have nothing on this creative team.
No way. Increasingly, they are respected as leaders who come up with a garden concept that celebrates local urban gardening and well, just make it work.
In addition to the Randall’s Island Rice Paddy there is an enchanting, important world of urban farming to explore and celebrate.
In fact, there is so much to report, this Examiner will save the full garden tour for another, unique posting.
Just know that visitors shouldn’t wait.
There is so much to see and love and learn from in – drum roll please – a city park! It’s pure alchemy.
There are chickens, blueberries, cranberries, herbs, grapes …
At the same time, all locavores must dine in style at Randall’s Island premiere “Farm-to-Fork Dinner” in the field, Thursday, July 17th at 6:45 pm.
The colorful invitation reads:
Help support Randall’s Island by joining the Randall’s Island Park Alliance for an alfresco dinner featuring an amazing locally-sourced menu prepared on site by Chef Mitchel London, chef de cuisine of Fairway Market.
Enjoy a cocktail as you stroll the Urban Farm and nearby waterfront gardens, and then partake in a meal that features produce grown just feet away. The dinner will bring the farm to the table and symbolically reconnect our guests to the land in the middle of New York City, with all proceeds used to support the Park and the Urban Farm
The dinner will feature live entertainment by Dead Amble, beer and wine, and ferry transportation with drink service to and from the Island courtesy of
New York Water Taxi.
This Examiner can promise it will be transporting.
To dine al fresco, under the stars, bookended by two dazzling bridges, surrounded by an apple orchard and a farm –in a field — is a chance to experience farm fresh food that simply doesn’t come along too often. Make a food and dining memory.