This has been adapted from Seductions of Rice by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.
The world of rice is huge, and very exciting. How can a plain grain be exciting? Because millions of people eat rice every day. Everyone who grows up with rice as their “home” food knows it intimately—knows how it should smell and how it should taste.
In Asia, a meal isn’t a meal without rice. It can be long-grain or short-grain, clinging or drier-textured, pleasingly aromatic or a little stinky, red or black or white or brown. It grows in humid river deltas and in the cold mountains of Bhutan, as far north as North Korea and all the way to the equator, in small intensely cultivated paddies, and in big industrial-scale rice fields.
All that variety means that there’s a rice for everyone. Some people love perfect Japanese rice while others want basmati. Some take their rice cooked plain, with no salt or other flavorings, while others are happiest eating the rich flavors of pulao, risotto or biryani, where rice is cooked in broth flavored with meat and/or vegetables.
The geography of rice can get a little overwhelming. So here’s a short list of words and ideas from the Asian-rice world.
Avali and poha
Parboiled rice that has been dried and flattened into flakes is a staple in several regions of the Indian subcontinent. In Kerala, it is called aval; in Bengal, Bangladesh, and Maharashtra it is called poha; and in Nepal it is chiura. When cooked in broth or water it softens to tender flakes. It can be used to make pulao-like dishes, or combined with finely chopped fresh vegetables (onion and cucumber, for example) to make a form of salad. It is available from Indian groceries.
Balinese black and purple rice
In Bali, as in most of the rest of Indonesia, rice is the primary crop and food. White rice is cooked fresh every day, but black rice (often purplish-black in color, so it’s often referred to as purple rice) is used for special offerings at the temple as well as for making fabulous sticky rice desserts, sweetened with palm sugar and coconut milk.
Bash ful is a medium-grain Bangladeshi rice, beige-cream in color, and not completely polished. Some of the translucent grains have an opaque white dot; many still have some small flecks of red bran attached. When the rice is cooked in plenty of boiling water, the water foams pink because of the bits of bran. Since the rice is parboiled, it takes a little longer to cook than regular polished rice, but holds its shape well during cooking. When cooked, bash ful has separate grains (like most parboiled rice) that are tender but with a slightly bouncy texture and firm bite. If you eat it with a curry or sauce you’ll notice that the sauce coats the rice but isn’t absorbed at all, so the rice is never mushy or too soft.
Basmati rice grows in the Himalayan foothills in northern India and Pakistan. (An adapted version of basmati is grown in California.) Basmati is a very long-grain, needle-shaped rice, best when it has been “aged” for several years before being milled and sold. When it cooks, it expands greatly in volume, mostly lengthwise, so it becomes even more elongated. California-grown basmati rices do not expand as much in length as Indian basmatis when cooked, and lack the lovely aromatic smell of the original. They are sold in natural foods stores and some supermarkets.
The best basmati from South Asia is often labeled “Dehra Dun,” since that is reputedly the best growing region. Other basmatis, from West Bengal, are labeled “Patna.” Basmatis from India and Pakistan can be found in specialty shops and South Asian groceries. Basmati rice is available white (milled) or brown (unmilled); brown basmati is usually American-grown. Basmati is the ideal rice for Mogul (North Indian) and Persian cooking, since its grains stay separate and firm even when cooked through. Outside Iran, it is the preferred rice for Persian rice dishes such as chelo (tender fluffy rice with a rice slightly chewy crust) and polo (similar to chelo, but cooked with flavorings such as fresh or dried herbs or tart barberries and or nuts). It can also be cooked plain, then eaten with dal or other savory dishes.
Bhutanese red rice
In Bhutan, which lies north of India in the Himalayas, the staple food is red rice. The rice is medium-grain and slightly sticky, and has recently become available in specialty stores in the United States, although supplies often run short. It’s a delicious red japonica rice (see below) that has been semi-milled, so the red of the outer (bran) layers is still on the rice in patches. The rice is pale pink when first cooked, soft and tender, and slightly clingy, so it’s easy to eat with chopsticks. The rice can be served in place of white or brown rice, accompanied by hearty side dishes such as dal or vegetable or meat stews.
Chinese black rice
Grown in Zhejiang, in northern China, Chinese black rice is like Thai black rice, an unmilled rice—what we would call “brown rice” in North America. Local people in the black rice growing area eat it primarily as juk (aka rice porridge or congee). It has firm, non-sticky grains and cooks relatively quickly for an unmilled rice.
This premium pink-red, medium- to short-grain rice is the preferred rice for making pulao in Turkic parts of Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan and Xinjiang. It has a tender bite and absorbs flavor from the meat and vegetables it’s cooked with, much as Mediterranean rices do. It has not yet become available in North America.
Sometimes labeled “gobindobhog” or “kalijira,” this medium-grain rice from Bengal and Bangladesh is like a miniature basmati, with grains that are needle-shaped and tiny. It is available from some specialty shops and by mail order. It is cooked plain or can be used for pilafs (because, like basmati, it absorbs flavored liquid and takes on flavor, while keeping its shape) and rice pudding (because it is tender and fine, so it blends well into the creaminess of pudding).
This is the Japanese name for semi-milled rice: some but not all of the bran coat is milled off. Like brown rice, it should be stored in a cool place because the oils in the bran tend to deteriorate and become rancid unless kept cool.
Himalayan red rice
A long-grain unmilled rice with red bran, Himalayan red looks like Thai red rice (see below).
Indica, japonica, javanica
Most rice that is grown and eaten around the world today is of the common Asian variety, Oryza sativa. It is generally divided into two main groups, indica rices and japonica rices, with a third, smaller group called javanica. Indica rices tend to be longer-grain rices that grow better near the equator, where day length is more constant. They can be grown at any time of year and so they’re often used, where irrigation is available, to grow two or even three crops in a year. These rices generally have a lower yield per acre than japonicas. Indicas include basmati, Thai jasmine, the long-grain fragrant rices including American Della rices, and Carolina-style long-grain rices.
Japonica rices are generally medium- to short-grain. They grow best farther from the equator, in temperate climates, and they ripen through the summer and early autumn in response to decreasing daylength, so that only one crop per year can be grown. Some japonicas are also relatively tolerant of cold and can be grown in the mountains of northern Japan or in colder US states such as New York and Vermont. Japonicas tend to he higher yielding than indicas and to respond better to applications of fertilizer. Classic japonicas include the rices of the Mediterranean region and Japanese rices. Sometimes known as bulu rice, Javanicas are tropical rices that originated in Java or other parts of Indonesia. They tend to be medium- to long-grain.
Japanese rice is of the japonica type. It is medium-grain rice and the raw grains are slightly glassy, translucent rather than opaque. Rice grown in Japan is rarely exported. In the United States, there is a well-established Japanese-style rice production, particularly in California. Good California brands include Kokuho Rose (my favorite), CalRose, Nishiki, and Matsu, available at Asian groceries and specialty stores. Japanese-style rice is also grown in Korea. When properly cooked, plain Japanese rice is very slightly sticky but with distinct tender grains. Japanese rice is sold white or semi-milled (see haigamai) or brown. There is also a distinctive and special kind of Japanese rice, a sticky rice, called sweet rice; see mocha gome and sticky rice.
One group of aromatic rices is known as jasmine rice. Thai jasmine rice is the best known. They are low-amylose rices that cook to a soft, slightly clingy texture—unlike the separate texture of basmati rice (see above). They are generally cooked in less water than basmati or Mediterranean rices. The rice is very tender and noticeably fragrant. In Thailand it is eaten with a spoon and fork. Cooked Thai jasmine, when chilled, is ideal for making fried rice.
This is the Japanese name for Japanese-style short- to medium-grain sweet rice (sticky rice). It is used for making mochi and sweets. It must be soaked before cooking and it is usually cooked by steaming. When cooked, it is very sticky and clumped together with a slightly sweet taste. See sticky rice.
This long-grain Indian rice from western Bengal is a kind of basmati rice. It is a very good everyday rice, less expensive than Dehra Dun basmati (see basmati). It is available in most Indian and South Asian stores and in some specialty shops.
Rosematta, a parboiled rice from South India, has slightly fat, long grains with some flecks of reddish outer layers (bran) still on. When raw, even the “white” part of the rice is yellowish because of parboiling. The overall look of the raw rice is pinkish-bronze. When cooked, the grains are separate and almost seem to bounce apart; they fill out and become quite fat, or rounded. The taste of the cooked rice is somewhat smoky-meaty.
South Indian red rice
Some of the rices in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Sri Lanka have red bran; most often, they are rices used for parboiling. Recently one of these has become available in North America, usually sold as “rosematta” (see above). Others may soon become available.
Sticky rice, also known as glutinous rice or sweet or waxy rice, may be long-grain or short-grain. It’s different from nonwaxy rice, with different starches: more amylopectin and very little amylose. The name “glutinous” refers to its stickiness (note the spelling: it contains no gluten). When raw, it has a white opaque look, whereas most white rices have a shining translucent or transparent look. In northern and northeastern Thailand, Laos, among the Dong people in China’s Guizhou Province, and in parts of Vietnam, long-grain sticky rice is the staple grain. It is mostly served with savory side dishes and flavorings, though occasionally it is served sweetened, as in the perennial favorite “sticky rice with mango slices.” In northern Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and in parts of Burma and China, shorter-grain sticky rices are widely used, both as savory dishes and in sweets. Breakfast in northern Vietnam is often xoi, sticky rice steamed with peanuts, then eaten with sliced meat, or, instead, with sugar—often as a street food. The sticky rice cakes traditional at New Year’s in Japan, much of China, and Taiwan are made from pounded short-grain sticky rice. See Balinese black and purple rice, mochi gome, Thai black rice, and Thai sticky rice.
Sushi is made using regular Japanese-style rice. In other words, there is no special variety of rice used for making sushi; the difference in taste and texture comes from the cooking method and the way that sushi rice is flavored after it cooks. The rice is cooked in a little less water than plain rice, then flavored with lightly sweetened and seasoned rice vinegar.
Thai black rice
A black variety of Thai long-grain sticky rice, this rice is not milled (i.e., it is a “brown rice”). Though the rice inside the bran is a sticky rice (and white), because the outer (black) bran layers are left on the grain, the grains of rice do not stick together when cooked, but stay entirely separate. The rice turns a most beautiful, slightly purply black when cooked. Village cooks in northern Thailand mix a little black rice in with white sticky rice when they soak it and steam-cook it, to give some chewiness and an attractive color, in a proportion of about six parts white to one part black. Thais also use this rice for desserts and other sweets. They usually mix it with an equal quantity of white sticky rice and soak them together. The black rice dyes the white and the white’s stickiness helps the blended rice to stick together when cooked.
Thai red rice, Vietnamese red rice
Red rice grows among jasmine rice plants in Thailand and Vietnam, and a similar “gone wild” red rice also “contaminates” many rice fields in other parts of the world. Red rice is brittle and difficult to polish, so its color lowers the value of any white rice it is mixed in with. This formerly “problem” rice has now become sought after as a novelty rice, sold unpolished. It’s pretty to look at and good to eat, with a flavor and texture that is very like other brown rices: a warm grain taste and a greeably chewy yet tender. Red rice is available from many Southeast Asian groceries and from specialty stores. Himalayan red rice is very similar and can be substituted. Look for needle-slender grains, mostly a reddish-brown, but with the occasional bit of pale white showing through. The rice is unmilled (like brown rice) and so takes longer to cook than polished rices such as Thai jasmine. Cook it as you would brown Japanese rice.
Thai sticky rice
Known as khao neeo in Thailand and Laos, Thai sticky rice is medium- to long-grain and slightly aromatic. It is cooked by steaming rather than in water, and must be soaked ahead of time before steaming in a basket above boiling water. The rice clings together in clumps, so that you eat it in hand, rather like eating a small chunk of bread. You use it to scoop up or pick up other foods, say a piece of grilled meat or a cooked vegetable. The rice may be labeled “sweet rice,” or “glutinous rice,” or “gao nep” (Vietnamese for “sticky rice”). Thai sticky rice is also being grown in California. See sticky rice.
This has been adapted from Seductions of Rice by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.