Thursday, March 24, 2005

Rice Makes the World Go 'Round!

The warm, sweet, nutty fragrance approaches the restaurant table, tickling our waiting noses, arriving ahead of the waiter. He smiles, carefully placing the steaming bowl of rice at the very center of the table. The accompanying meat and fish dishes assume secondary position, around the perimeter.

In your mind’s eye, you may be picturing a multi-course banquet from one of my Far East excursions. Of course, I have enjoyed many sublime meals in Asia and experienced eye-opening rice flavors there. But the dining venue that always springs to the front of my brain when I smell fragrant rice cooking in my own kitchen – and the setting of the wafting fragrance in this essay – is a small Thai restaurant in Regensburg, Germany! I don’t know if the restaurant is even there any longer (but I hope so), yet it has been the definition of fragrant rice to me ever since.

By some counts, there are 40,000 different varieties of rice. That seems as incomprehensible to me as it does you, by the way! Even the Ingredient Sleuth sometimes just shakes her head in amazement that borders on disbelief. There are, however, many remarkable varieties to be savored. Here are some of the kinds that I like to keep in my rice repertoire, from time to time:

Long Grain – kernels are 4 to 5 times longer than wide, light, fluffy; most-commonly served by Chinese restaurants

Medium Grain – kernels are shorter and wider than long grain, more likely to cling together than long grain

Short Grain – kernels are short, plump, almost round, very likely to cling together

Arborio -- kernels are large, creamy when cooked, release their starch during constant stirring with liquids to make Italian risotto; originally from the Po Valley in Italy

Basmati – kernels are long, thin, dry and separate when cooked; aromas similar to toasted nuts or popcorn; native to India and Pakistan, now also grown in the U.S.

Jasmine – kernels are long, thin, moist and clingy when cooked; aromas similar to toasted nuts or popcorn; native to Thailand. Now also grown in the U.S.

Brown – kernels may be any length, clingy, with nutty flavors and aromas; only the hull has been removed, leaving the bran layers in place (maintaining the high levels of minerals and B-complex vitamins) and retaining their brown color

Sweet (Glutinous) – kernels are short, plump, chalky white, opaque, extremely sticky; kernels lose their shape when cooked; used for desserts and sushi

Wild – not technically a rice, but a type of grass that has similar (water-based) growing conditions to rice

Grown and consumed worldwide, rice stands like a unifier of nations. I wonder how many people in the world would not recognize rice upon seeing it. Little wonder that it blends so well with foods of diverse ethnicity and that it unifies multitudes of ingredients in a single dish. Like a wise diplomat comfortable in any setting, it knows how to exist peacefully with its neighbors, adding just enough personality to keep things interesting.

A good assortment of rice has become available at many mainstream grocery stores. Often, supermarkets ‘file’ their specialty rice on the foreign-foods aisle (even though so much of it is now grown domestically) rather than the rice-beans aisle. International grocery stores, especially Asian markets, offer a huge variety. Large Asian grocery chains such as Mitsuwa Markets ( and 99 Ranch Markets ( carry many kinds and specialize in large-sack quantities. In addition, it seems that most college towns have at least one Asian market, many of them charming mom-and-pop operations with friendly and courteous owners; look under ‘Grocers & Markets – Retail’ in the phone listings. And there is always Internet shopping for rice of every description.

It’s fun to sample various types, starting small, with a one-pound bag, and then seeing where it takes you. I never expected to carry home five-, ten- or twenty-pound bags of rice from the grocery – but I do. Very cost-efficient and good for the strength training, too! And, very importantly to a globe-trotting ingredient sleuth, I could never have developed my chopstick ability without short-grain rice for home-based practice -- its clinginess somehow shortens the distance between the plate and the mouth! (Am I the only one who practices chopstick maneuvering at home?)

After all is said and done, love, not rice makes the world go ‘round, just as the song says. Hmmm, we do throw rice at weddings! There has to be a love-rice, world-spinning link there somewhere, doesn’t there?


nosheteria said...

This month's issue of Vogue magazine has a really interesting article by Jeffrey Steingarten all guessed it, rice. It's funny how that goes, rice on the brain.

Ingredient Sleuth said...

Thx so much for the heads-up info. I'm headed to the library today and will read the article. One can never have too much 'rice on the brain'! Ciao!

Nancy said...

I had been wondering where I could buy one of those great automatic rice cookers that are used at home by the Japanese. I found one when I went to the local Asian market to buy rice! Thanks very much.