By Nadine Awadalla and Maha El Dahan
CAIRO/DUBAI (Reuters) - With steaming plates of rice and freshly sliced apples on the side, a group of Cairo-based food scientists work in their lab to decide whether the foreign grains will suit Egyptian palates.
The scientists cook and taste samples of rice on offer at state tenders before they are accepted. The process, which began late last year, has so far eliminated Indian origin rice and approved of Chinese and Vietnamese offers.
Egypt has spent $46.8 million on Chinese rice in two tenders since November. A third is ongoing.
Egyptians are major rice consumers and take pride in the quality of their local crop. But after planting less local rice in 2018 to conserve water, Egypt tapped the international market in November, requesting samples for a cooking test.
Rice is a heavily discounted staple on Egypt's subsidy programme, under which the state purchases foodstuffs that are offered to subsidy card holders, currently around 60 million people.
The scientists' role is to ensure that the rice bought by the state is suited to familiar cooking methods and tastes.
"Here, as a unit, we are all (academic) doctors as well as mothers in our homes," said Nahed Lotfy, director of the test kitchen. "We are all trained judges who have completed training courses."
Samples are anonymized, said Nasra Ahmed, one of the taste testers. "We get a sample on which we have almost no information at all," she said. "Everything arrives with a code."
Researchers inspect grains for water absorption, colour and smell. After cooking, the rice is presented to the tasters.
"We evaluate the product based on colour, taste, aroma, flavour, as well as general response," Lotfy said.
Researchers cannot wear perfume or smoke cigarettes. Sliced apples and water act as palate cleansers.
PUSHING UP COSTS
Traders say the taste test drives up costs by forcing them to keep their offers open indefinitely while it takes place. They say the testing process is unique to Egypt.
"It is something that doesn't happen globally," Mostafa al-Naggari, a major Egyptian rice exporter and importer, told Reuters. "In other countries, the cooking instructions are simply written on the packet."
On the private market, importers have contracted to bring in 150,000 tonnes of Indian rice from October until end April, with no complaints from Egyptian consumers.
Naggari, who buys Indian rice to supply Egypt's private market, said he was not clear why Indian samples had failed the test.
"These are the rules of the tender and we will respect it, but I am happy selling rice on the private market."
But Nomani Nomani, an advisor to the supply minister, said the cooking tests were necessary to avoid the rice piling up in subsidy stores like it did three years ago when Egyptians refused to buy it.
"Of course if an Indian rice sample that suits Egyptian taste is presented we will accept it, but the cooking test is necessary to make sure the rice we are importing suits consumers," he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla and Maha El Dahan; Editing Aidan Lewis)