The Beginner's Guide to Rice
To many in the metropolitan US, one’s rice fix can be satisfied by hopping down to the nearest Chinese restaurant and grabbing it to-go in fried form. It is most unfortunate that the greasy, MSG laden kernels mixed with frozen vegetables and glow-in-the-dark pork is what first comes to mind when many hear the word “rice.”
Yet, off the beaten path, rice is thought of differently. In many parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and of course the USA, rice is the life-giving miracle grain that has helped sustain cultures across generations. It is easy for one who didn’t grow up eating rice, to lump this humble grain into one giant subgroup in the “cereal grains” category. But rice shouldn’t be confined to a certain class or category, for it is as diverse as an array of designer dresses. It shows up in different colors and sizes, and is flamboyantly crafted into different forms. Each form maintains the same relative shape, yet with differences both subtle and obvious. Rice is diverse in flavor, texture, and use from culture to culture.
Rice, can often take on varying forms depending on who prepares it, how it is cooked, and how it is enjoyed. However, there are several characteristics to this humble food that remain the same.
Before rice is edible, it must be grown, harvested, and processed. Much to the shock of many un-rice-educated people, the rice we eat is a reflection of the various stages of processing. Brown rice, the most rustic and unprocessed rice, contains the outer coating (bran) and inner corner (germ). In contrast, white rice only contains the endosperm. In fact, white rice used to be so labor intensive to produce without modern technology that it was only reserved for the most wealthy of the aristocracy.
Once rice gets to the plate it is easy to forget how much work actually goes into producing it. However, rice should never be taken for granted. Production itself is a labor-intensive ordeal which requires lots of land, water, and manpower. It is a common saying that each grain of rice is akin to a drop of sweat from the farmers who grew it.
White rice is by far the most common and accessible kind of rice consumed. It can be seasoned with vinegar underneath fine slices of fish or left sitting patiently in a bowl awaiting a helping of kimchi and tofu stew. There are many kinds of white rice. The two most common of which are short grain and jasmine rice. Short grain rice is used mostly in northern and central China, the Korean Peninsula, and Japan. The flavor is subtle but it is prized for its plump and slightly glutinous texture. It can be eaten plain, made into porridge, or ground and pounded into “Tteok” (rice cakes). Jasmine rice has longer grains, a drier texture, and a more fragrant aroma. It is most popular in southern Chinese and Southeast Asian cultures. The dry and non-glutinous characteristics make it unsuitable for rice cakes, but a vital component of top-quality fried rice. The driest and least glutinous of them all is without a doubt Basmati rice, which is popular in India, Pakistan, and other parts of the Middle East. Often boiled with saffron and cumin, the fragrant rice is the perfect cereal to mix with the spicy and vibrant curries, dahls, and biryanis that these regions have to offer.
If there is any variety of rice undergoing an aggressive revival, it would be brown rice. Recently, humans have discovered the numerous health benefits of brown rice. It has been found to have vital resources of minerals and fiber and — unlike white rice — has not been linked to diabetes. Brown rice exhibits a coarser and more rustic texture due to the inclusion of the endosperm and the bran. Its rustic texture and numerous health benefits have made it the highlight in any self respecting kale, tofu, seitan, and green-goddess-dressing veggie-monster bowl. On a more serious note, the sturdier structure of brown rice makes it suitable for dressings. As a result of its recent revival, it is definitely more widely enjoyed in western cultures than in the east.
No, in spite of its name, glutinous rice does not contain gluten. It is aptly named “sticky rice” because of its very sticky nature. Glutinous rice has been prized for its texture and for centuries has been pounded to make rice cakes for special occasions. In fact, many Asian cultures serve rice cakes made from sticky rice at weddings to symbolize the sticking together of the spouses-to-be. Sticky rice is commonly used in sweets, but can be served in savory dishes with curries and salads in Southeast Asia, predominantly Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.
Rice is inarguably an important staple for countless people around the world. Like most guides, this guide to rice barely scratches the surface of the cultural uses and preparations of rice. From Jambalaya in the deep south to Jollof Rice in West Africa, and from Risotto in Italy to Congee in east Asia, rice has played a vital role in forming today’s global food traditions. With such a versatile and highly recognized grain, it is impossible to know the limit of ricey creations still to come.