It may be a small sector, but speciality rice shows growth and promise way beyond its size. This tiny niche, worth no more than £3.9m, is achieving 36% value/24% volume yr-on-yr growth [Information Resources, 52 w/e 20 May '01]. Driving forces include the growth of eating out, especially foreign cuisines such as Indian, Thai, Chinese and Japanese, and consumer magazines' editorial focus on popularising Thai and regional Indian dishes. The influence of celebrity chefs can't be overlooked either. "The result is, consumers have become a great deal more knowledgeable about the different rice varieties. Not only do they want to eat the correct rice with each cuisine, but they're also far more experimental and prepared to try out different and unusual rices from around the world," says marketing manager Alison May of Merchant Gourmet, which has seen sales of its speciality rices increase by more than 180% in the last year. Its speciality range has expanded to six this summer with the launch of Imperial Red (deep pink and slightly sticky) and Emperor's Green (delicately scented), both from China, and sushi rice. May says proof of the growing popularity of speciality rices is the large increase in shelf space the company has gained for its products in the last year. As well as being listed by Waitrose, Safeway, Budgens, Morrisons, Somerfield, Tesco and the Co-op, the company is now Sainsbury's specialist rice supplier. "Asda has just taken on our Camargue Red from southern France, Nanjing Black from China, and our white, red and wild rice mix," adds May. Blue Dragon, the pan-oriental food specialist, has made a logical move into rice with a range that includes sushi, Thai jasmine and red rice, and Thai sticky for desserts. Marketing director Claudia Bailey anticipates strong sales for the range which includes Blue Dragon's oriental sauces. "Pan-oriental foods are becoming very popular, with the Thai sector alone worth £16m. Stylish and authentic new products like this will help drive growth still further." In the quest for unusual rices, Unique Fine Foods has come up with Bhutan red rice, which the company says is grown at the foot of the Himalayas. It also does Imperial Green, Pearl Jasmine and Emperor Black. A different twist on authenticity is Patak's new Spice for Rice, a blend of spices preserved in oil that comes in portioned servings enabling three traditional Indian flavours to be created at home. Pilau, coconut and garlic & coriander come in a 160g pack containing four 40g minipots. {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}