Today's types of rice papers aren't really paper and some do not even contain rice. The name originated with 19th century Europeans attempting to discover Chinese papermaking secrets. The original rice paper was made from pith of a small Asian shrub, Tetrapanax papyriferum, of the ginseng family. Paper for painting 18th century watercolour miniatures was cut from dried sections of this plant's narrow inner pith.
Asian Edible Rice Papers
Edible rice paper used for making spring rolls is known as "bánh tráng" in Vietnamese cuisine. Ingredients are white rice flour, tapioca flour to give a smooth, glutinous texture, salt and water. Traditionally made wrappers are flattened into sheets, steamed and sun-dried on bamboo mats. Once dried, the hardened rice paper wrappers are cut into squares or circles. Alone, these thin, brittle wrappers are tasteless. Fillings include rice, cooked cellophane noodles, diced tofu, shrimp, crab, pork and vegetables. In Korea, slices of freshly-made rice cakes as referred to as rice paper and used to wrap barbecued meats.
Edible Rice Papers for Sweets, Baking and Cake Decorations
Chinese candies are wrapped in small squares of extremely thin extruded edible rice paper, also called wafer paper. These are made from starch, much like the rice paper used in baking and cake decoration. Edible rice paper available in the US is made from potato starch, vegetable oil and water. This paper comes in very thin sheets, rounds, squares and rectangles. The most common size measures 11-by-8 inches and some brands are certified as kosher. Cakes decorating uses include stencils for icing and coloured cut-outs such as numbers, names, flowers and leaves, all attached to cakes by food-grade gel. Printed toppings for cakes are made from rice paper coloured with edible inks. Sheets of this paper also line baking trays to ensure cookies do not stick or burn.
Early Rice Straw Papers
The Japanese and Chinese both originally made paper from rice straw. In Japan it was separated into three types: sube, nakanuki and do-u. Sube is the best quality and made from the topmost straw of the first leaves. Rice straw paper was made from dried stalks, bleached by the sun. Since the 10th century, rice has been largely replaced by other materials such as mulberry, bamboo, wingceltis and hemp. From this rice paper, made during the Tang Dynasty in the Xuancheng region of China, the paper making craft spread to Japan, Korea and eventually, the rest of the world.
Modern Japanese Handmade Washi Rice Papers
Japanese handmade rice paper is called "washi" and made from the inner barks of three plants: kozo, or the paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera, the Mitsumata shrub, Edgeworthia papyrifera and the Gampi tree. White rice paper made from the mulberry tree is prized for woodcuts, because of its strength, flexibility and the ability to absorb ink without much pressure. Japanese rice papers are used for painting, origami and calligraphy. Washi is also featured in a number of home decorations like thin screens and lamp shades, because its translucent qualities give out a soft, diffused light.
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