In recent years, wide varieties of rice have made their way into grocery stores around the world. It is a staple in the diet of well over half the world’s population and for many of those people, it is a majority of their daily food intake. In Southeast Asia, rice is such an important part of the diet that in many Asian lanuages, the words for “rice” and “food” are the same and a common phrase for asking of someone’s well-being is to ask them if they have eaten rice today.
The United States has been slower to adopt this staple, however. There, is it rarely served as a main course and is often relegated to being a side dish or at best, as a substitute for potatoes or another starch. But because of recent health trends in the U.S. and the ease of farming, cultivating and storing the grain, restaurants have been adding different varities of rice to their menu and today, most of the rice consumed in the United States is grown domestically.
Rice is one of the oldest foods in the world and is believed to have originated in India and Southeast Asia around 5,000 years ago. Since then, rice has easily migrated to most other parts of the world because of its ability to adapt to different climates and growing conditions. It also comes with its own storage container that allows for a very long shelf life without much deterioration. The countless varieties of rice and its range of shapes and textures are reflective of its modern-day cultivation in more than 100 diverse countries.
Rice is often grouped a number of ways, depending on the needs to the prevailing culture and their culinary needs. It can be classified by its usage, such as “sushi rice” or “risotto rice”, or more commonly by its color, degree of stickiness or gluten content, or other unusual characteristics. Several varieties are outlined below:
Arborio has almost become synonymous with risotto, even though many cooks agree that it is not necessarily the best type to use, preferring instead Carnaroli from the Piedmont, or Vialone Nano from around Mantua and Verona. All of these rices are of the short-grain variety, which have a high starch content resulting in soft, creamy-textured rice. They can also be used successfully in puddings and other desserts. Risotto has been partly responsible for the success of these types of rice in the U.S., although the consumption rate in Italy has been declining for some time. The culture of rice eating is normally restricted to the areas that grow it and consequently, they export more than they consume, pasta being the starch of choice for most Italians.
Rice grown in the region of Valencia in Spain intended for their national dish paella essentially falls into this category as well — short to medium grain with enough starch to slowly absorb the cooking liquid as it braises and in turn cooks the accompanying ingredients, such as seafood, rabbit, sausage, etc. Both Spanish paella rice and that used for risotto are subspecies of japonica rice consumed in Japan.
Glutinous rice, or sticky rice, the type favored for sushi, is a curious misnomer for it contains no gluten, the substance in wheat that when combined with yeast, causes the bread to rise. Rather, it has a very high starch content, more so than its counterparts in Spain and Italy, and the resulting cooked rice tends to clump together; hence, the second name. Japan, as in so many other culinary areas, differs from the rest of Asia in its choice of rice. Virtually all of the Japanese-style rice sold in markets in America is grown here in California, and I was told by one importer that the quality is considered good enough that the Japanese rice merchants mix U.S. rice in with their own to meet the demand.
In that regard, most of Asia favors long-grain rices, the two most famous varieties being India’s Basmati, which translates to “queen of fragrance,” in which the cooked grains actually get longer but stay the same width, and Jasmine rice from Thailand, with its flowery bouquet that can permeate a kitchen like no other. These two darlings of the specialty food world have also influenced our own modern hybrids, such as Texmati, ironically grown in California by Lundberg Farms, that is a cross between Basmati and American long-grain varieties. It has the familiar nutty flavor and cooks up much the same as its Indian relation. Wehani, a reddish-brown, long-grain rice with a nutty flavor, is another hybrid grown by the Lundbergs. Pecan rice, a long-grain hybrid grown in Louisiana, contains no such nut but is named for its taste, a rather intensified nuttiness.
Although the majority of the world’s rice eaters — Americans included — favor white rice, many people here opt for brown rice, which can come in either short-, medium-, or long-grain varieties. It is simply rice that has not had its outer hull and bran removed and therefore, has more of the original nutrients intact. Generally speaking though, most of those nutrients are made up for in the other foods we eat and gourmets usually eschew brown in favor of the more elegant and tasty polished rice. Black rice is also unhulled rice, except with a decidedly darker exterior than regular brown rice. Excellent black rices are emerging from both China and now Italy. Naturally, these unhulled rices take longer to cook than white rice, and because the bran is intact, they don’t last as long in storage.
Wild rice from the northern United States and southern Canada is not really rice at all. It is the seed of a tall, aquatic grass that originally grew in marshlands and along riverbanks, and traditionally has been harvested only by Native Americans indigenous to these areas. Today, although there are still wild varieties being harvested, most of the wild rice is cultivated in irrigated fields. Wild rice takes considerably more time to cook — even longer than common-variety brown rice, but it is very flavorful and contains nearly twice the protein as regular white rice, as well as being high in amino acids and B vitamins. Many cooks like to mix wild rice with a long-grain variety of rice such as Basmati, although one is well advised to cook them separately because of the difference in cooking time.
Finding Exotic Rice in Your Neighborhood
The rice selections in gourmet stores across the country are expanding. With such exotic varieties as Forbidden Black Rice of China and Bhutanese Red Rice, plus recently discovered examples from Spain like the delicious Bomba Rice, plenty of new products are available to invigorate your department. Many retailers say that rice is selling like never before. The growing popularity of cuisines from southeast Asia — especially Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian — as well as perennial favorites like Indian cooking and the renewed interest in foods from Spain are making rice a very profitable item indeed.
Retailers, too are finding that introducing a new rice to their selection is not difficult as long as one is willing to demo out the product. Fortunately, rice is an easy demo food because it can be eaten on its own, and in fact, most of the new gourmet varieties are absolutely delicious with nothing on them. Add a simple sauce like many Asian cultures do and you’ve got a meal.
The world is increasingly becoming a smaller place. To our taste buds, this is a change for the better. With the many recent improvements to shipping infrastructure and food technology, sharing national foods with other cultures has never been easier. Thankfully, gone are the days when “spaghetti and meatballs” can be considered an exotic or ethnic meal.