Real Food Encyclopedia | Rice
Rice is one of the most important foods in the world. This descendant of a wild Asian grass has spread from its domestication origins in China to become, without a doubt, the most significant grain used in a multitude of cuisines. Just try to imagine Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Persian, Brazilian or Mexican cuisine without rice. Three billion people rely upon it as their staple food, and it is the primary source of one quarter of the world’s per capita energy needs. Its captivating history is tied to ancient global trade routes and eventually to the slave trade. Read on to learn more about this fascinating grain.
Fun Facts about Rice:
- The traditional preparation of Carolina Gold rice is called “Charleston ice cream.”
- Thomas Jefferson pushed to transform the US South’s rice cultivation from wet to dry farming. Jefferson was convinced that wet farming rice was the cause of “pestilential fevers.” Indeed, rice farming did create ideal conditions for malarial mosquitoes in the South. The death rate exceeded the birth rate amongst slaves in South Carolina due to the terrible conditions slaves had to endure on rice plantations.
- Terraced rice paddies have been around for about 2,000 years. Here’s a fun interactive that shows how these terraces are built — by hand.
- Speaking of rice paddies: we thought this was Photoshopped at first — but no. Crazy rice paddy art really does exist!
What to Look for When Buying Rice
Brown rice is simply rice that has some of its bran left on, while white rice is “polished” to a sparkling white. Here’s how polished rice became the norm.
Rice is classified in mind-bogglingly different ways — from color to aroma to shape. Below are a few of the major types of specialty rice, aside from basic white and brown, that can be found in North America, but of course this list is not exhaustive. Here’s a nice glossary of rice types if you want to take a deeper dive.
- Arborio rice: Short/medium grained. Along with Carnaroli, the primary rice used in Italian risottos. Arborio’s high starch content releases when cooked in liquid, producing the creamy consistency risotto is known for.
- Basmati rice: Long grained. An aromatic rice common in South Asian cuisine. Basmati rice is grown exclusively in India and Pakistan, although a Texas-grown version exists (called Texmati).
- Black rice (aka purple rice): There are a couple of different kinds of black rice, including Thai black sticky rice and “forbidden rice,” a black rice from China. When cooked, black rice turns a deep purple due to the presence of anthocyanin, a powerful antioxidant.
- Bomba rice: Short/medium grained. Used in Spanish cuisine, typically for paella.
- Jasmine rice (aka Thai fragrant rice): Long grained. An aromatic type of rice common in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. Its distinctive flavor comes from the compound 2-Acetyl-1-pyrroline, in case you were wondering.
- Red rice: There are a few different varieties of red rice, each made red by the presence of anthocyanin. Bhutanese red rice is one of these types.
- Sushi rice: Short/medium grained. A Japanese variety, sushi rice gets slightly sticky when cooked, perfect for making sushi rolls.
- Sticky rice (aka glutinous rice): Short/medium grained. “Glutinous” refers to this rice’s sticky texture when cooked (it’s gluten-free, like all rice). Sticky rice is common in Southeast and East Asian cuisines (think Thai, Lao, Burmese).
- Wild rice: Harvested primarily in Minnesota and elsewhere in the upper Midwest of the US. Wild rice is sacred to the Ojibwe and other Native American peoples, which harvest it via canoe.
Sustainability of Rice
Intensive rice breeding for yield has resulted in less genetic diversity, with subsequently more potential for disease and resistance to the effects of climate change. Further, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations notes that while paddy rice uses more water than any other crop, a great deal of that water is recycled or put to other uses. The FAO’s rice and water fact sheet explains the varied and fascinating linkages between rice and water. Producing rice requires 660 gallons of water per pound produced — that’s a global average.
We’ve reported before on the problems with arsenic in rice due to pesticide contamination of soil. Consumer Reports has guidelines for children’s consumption of the grain. (ICYMI: rice from Texas and brown rice have the highest amounts of arsenic.)
Pesticides and Rice
Significant amounts of pesticides are used in conventional rice growing, negatively impacting local ecosystems, waterways and rice farmers alike. The Green Revolution, and the resulting adoption of the IR8 rice type (aka “Miracle Rice”), resulted in less global famine, but the unintended negative consequences have been localized pollution as the result of the amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers needed to grow Green Revolution-launched crops. Choose organic rice if you can, and, to ensure that rice farmers get a fair price for their labor, keep an eye out for fair trade rice, as well. In even worse news, research has shown that rice agriculture may be accelerating global warming, as it is a major source of methane.
Rice Seasonality and Geography
China, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh are the world’s largest producers of paddy-grown rice. Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas produce 99 percent of the rice grown in the US.
Most varieties of rice are available year-round. Wild rice is generally harvested at the end of summer and the beginning of fall.
Rice and Cultivation
Rice is a type of annual grass (although in some places in the tropics it can survive as a perennial) with wind-pollinated flowers. According to “Edible: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants,” there are over 100,000 cultivars of rice around the world — each perfectly adapted to its climate. These cultivars are divided into two major sub-species: Japonica (generally shorter-grained) and Indica (longer-grained).
Not all rice is grown in paddies — some types are dry farmed, usually on hillsides, some are strictly rain-fed and some are grown in irrigated paddies.
How to Cook Rice
Storing Fresh Rice
Uncooked white rice can be stored for years in a cool, dry place, although quality may be reduced if kept for more than six months. (Fragrant varieties, like jasmine and basmati, may lose their characteristic aromas if kept for longer than six months.) Brown rice tends to have a much shorter shelf life, as the natural oils in the hull can become rancid. Store your brown rice in the refrigerator or freezer to extend its life.
An important note about food safety and rice: raw rice can contain the dormant spores of a nasty bacterium called Bacillus cereus, whose toxin can cause significant intestinal distress. These spores can survive cooking, and if left at room temperature, the bacteria (and its toxin) can multiply. For this reason, you should always store cooked rice in the refrigerator within four hours, and discard it after three days. Interestingly, the traditional seasoning for sushi rice, rice vinegar and sugar, acts as a natural antimicrobial. As sushi rice is traditionally served at room temperature, sushi rice seasoning prevents the B. cereus bacteria from multiplying.
Cooking With Rice
There are thousands upon thousands of rice dishes, from cuisines all across the globe. In many cultures, a meal isn’t a meal without rice in some form or another. Rice is of primary culinary importance all across Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, parts of the US, large parts of Africa and in Latin and Central America. Here is an incredible list of rice dishes from around the world — hope you didn’t want to get any work done today. Rice is commonly steamed, baked or boiled, depending on the dish and cuisine. Frying rice in butter, ghee or oil before steaming or boiling reduces its stickiness. Some rice preparations may also instruct you to wash the rice several times to remove some of its starch; this, too, keeps the rice from getting too sticky. Rinsing rice, however, does deprive it of some of its nutrients.
There are an infinite amount of rice-derived foods, as well — like rice flour, used to make rice noodles, rice flour pancakes and the most delicious thing in the whole world: mochi ice cream. (Mochi is a sticky cake made with rice flour. As an aside, mochi pounding was once an important practice in Japan, especially for the New Year’s celebration. It is a dying art, as most people buy, rather than make, mochi.) If you want to get super DIY, you can make your own rice flour. And if you want to get hard core DIY, you can make your own mochi from your homemade rice flour.
There are many, many fermented rice products, including rice wine and rice vinegar. Here’s a fascinating article on how to make your own Chinese fermented sweet rice (jiu niang) — make it to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year, but it will keep in your fridge for months. A similar product is made in Japan, called amazake, and a similar fermented Thai rice dessert “for adults” (because it’s slightly alcoholic) called khao mahk. Here’s how to make your own rice vinegar, if you’re so inclined, but first you’ll need to make your own rice wine. Sake, is, of course, a type of rice wine, as are the Korean yakju and makgeolli.
Contrary to recent popular belief, white rice does contain some nutrients — just not as much as brown or wild rice. White rice is loaded with folate and manganese, and is a good source of thiamin, niacin, iron and selenium. It’s even got some protein. Brown rice contains more of all of these nutrients and protein, plus lots of fiber. Rice (of all types) does not contain all of the amino acids the body needs, so it must be combined with other foods, like beans, that contain the missing nutrients in order to be a complete protein source.
Rice also doesn’t contain Vitamin A. This a major problem in places where rice forms the bulk of the diet, as Vitamin A deficiency causes diarrhea in young children, impaired immunity (especially to diarrheal diseases and measles) and eventually, blindness. Golden rice, a genetically engineered (GE) form of rice modified to be rich in Vitamin A, was developed to combat this problem. Critics see golden rice as a marketing ploy to enhance biotechnology companies’ images and point to traditional nutritional solutions as better alternatives. Here’s more information about the debate surrounding golden rice.