Rice: The grass that feeds millions
The Manila Times, October 22, 2003

RICE is one of the world’s most important, and perhaps its most versatile foods. In feeding more than half of the earth’s people, those white grains elegantly enhance anything from apples to zucchini. Rice converts even a simple stew into haute cuisine and can cover the entire dining scene: appetizer, soup, salad, side dish, varied main course, dessert. It even supplies us with beer and wine. Superb extender, it tastily expands expensive food, and also gives fresh personality to leftovers.

What’s in rice anyway? Nutritionists discover that rice contains carbohydrates, protein, minerals, vitamins and fiber. Rice is one of the few foods in the world, which is entirely non-allergenic and gluten-free. Most of the white rice available in the supermarket is enriched, which means, besides its other assets, it is also supplemented with iron, niacin and thiamine. But most of these added nutrients are lost if rice is washed before cooking or drained afterward. Brown rice, with its healthful bran layers, contains all these nutrients naturally, plus fiber, oil and vitamin E. Low in sodium and fat, with no cholesterol, rice is a boon to weight worriers and those allergic to other grains.

Rice, a member of the grass family and known scientifically as “Oryza sativa,” has devotees all over the region. India is famous for its “pulaus,” which is served with all kinds of meat, poultry and seafood. A popular Japanese rice dish is sushi, rice flavored with sweet rice vinegar and wrapped with fish and vegetables. Indonesians set a whole table with rice and assorted goodies that go with the grain; the feast is called “rijstafel.” The Filipinos are known for its “bibingka” or rice cake. The Chinese make cakes, noodles and paste from rice.

In Italy, broken rice is made into flour, sometimes mixed with wheat flour to make “bread of real luxury with a most agreeable taste.” A waxy rice flour, produced from glutinous rice varieties, is commercially produced in the United States. It possesses superior qualities for use as a thickening agent for white sauces, gravies and pudding because it prevents liquid separation when these products are frozen, stored and subsequently thawed.

Various alcoholic beverages are made from rice, “sake” in Japan and “wang-tsiu” in China being the best known of these. “Sake” has a higher alcohol con-tent than “wang-tsiu.” Both beverages are served warmed and featured at ceremonial feasts.

Rice wine, which may contain 10 to 15 percent alcohol, is made from glutinous rice which is boiled and inoculated with fungi and yeast “cake” and left for a long period in open tubs, decanted into closed vessels which are then buried for several months.

The rice plant itself has varied usage. Farmers use rice hulls for fertilizers, and add bran to feed their livestock. The straw provides fuel and bedding. Rice hulls are also used as an ingredient in such products as insulation, cement, bricks or building blocks. Cooking oil is extracted from the bran. Leather shoes are made supple with rice oil. The straw from rice plants are used to thatch roofs, to weave sandals, hats and baskets, to make handicrafts and toys.

The list goes on.

In Asia, rice is considered the most important food. “Rice is the one thing that truly defines Asia,” explains Dr. Ronald Cantrell, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the world’s leading international rice research and training center based in the Philippines. “From Pakistan to North Korea to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, rice is the one thing shared by all. Asia has no common political systems, no common religions, no common philosophies and no shared social values—however, each and every day most Asian join in together to eat rice.”

Rice is intimately involved in the culture as well as the food and economy of many Asian societies. For example, folklore tells us that when the Kachins of northern Myanmar were sent forth from the center of the Earth, they were given the seeds of rice and were directed to a wondrous country where everything was perfect and where rice grew well.

Rice is also an integral part of their creation myth and remains today as their leading crop and most preferred food. In Bali, it is believed that the Lord Vishnu caused the Earth to give birth to rice, and the God Indra taught the people how to raise it. In Japan, white-robed Shinto priests cook rice twice daily to present to Amaterasu, a sun goddess at the Grand Shrine of Ise.

In most Asian cultures, newlyweds are showered with rice so they will be blessed with many children, with prosperity and abundance. There are multitudes of other Asian beliefs and practices connected with rice.

Rice is nearly all (90 percent) produced in Asia. Rice is grown on 250-million Asian farms, mostly smaller than one hectare, according to the IRRI. Nine of the top 10 rice-producing countries are from Asia: China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Myan-mar, Japan and the Philippines. In Japan, toyota means “bountiful rice field” and honda is “the main rice field.”

Rice comes in an endless variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Rice grains can be long, like those of “basmati” rice from India and jasmine rice from Thailand; tiny, like “mochi-gome” from Japan; or somewhere in the middle. Likewise, the color of rice varies greatly: black (from Indonesia and the Philippines), purple (also from the Philippines), red (throughout Asia), brown, yellow, pink, blue, cream, white, and many shades in-between.

In Asia, food means rice. For instance, in China, instead of the usual “How are you,” the typical greeting is “Have you had your rice today?” In Japan, the grains are called “little Buddhas” so Japanese children will finish all the rice in their bowls.

“Many eat as much as 214 kilograms of rice each year (more than half a kilogram a day), providing them with up to 76 percent of their daily calories,” says Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio, a Filipino rice plant breeder. “While rice—and other starches for that matter—fill the belly, they are rather empty nutritionally speaking.”

Enter golden rice, a genetically modified rice variety that contains precursors of vitamin A in its seeds. Vita-min A deficiency lowers defenses against disease and is the leading cause of childhood blindness. In Southeast Asia, about a quarter of a million children go blind each year because of this nutritional deficiency.

Credited for “discovering” the golden rice are Ingo Potrykus who, a retired professor of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg. Their findings were published in the respected Science journal.

Today, several countries in Asia— particularly the Philippines, India, and Vietnam—are working on golden rice.

“Consumers are looking forward to buy golden rice in the market,” says Dr. Swapan Datta, a plant biotechnologist who is in-charge of the golden rice research at IRRI. “Traditional rice varieties does not contain any beta-carotene after polishing. Hence the advantage of using golden rice is to combat the vitamin A deficiency of the poor people in Asia.”

Compared with other staples, rice is th*e lowest in iron or even other micronu-trients. “Most of the rice eating countries are micronutrient deficient, so any improvement in the nutrition in rich will have significant effect on our health because we eat too much rice,” says Dr. Gregorio.

Ideally, to meet all the much-needed micronutrients, people are recommended to eat more vegetables, fruits and meat. “Unfortunately, the poor cannot afford them,” Dr. Gregorio says. “Vegetables and fruits are also perishable and most of the time they are not available. Another thing, it takes a longer time to prepare and cook vegetables and meat. What they have is just rice, or rice with small fish or just salt or dried fish.”

The solution is to put iron in rice. And IRRI has developed such kind of rice called high-iron rice. The new variety, developed by exploiting natural variation in rice germplasm, was tested by a group of 27 religious sisters in Manila, who ate the rice exclusively for six months, resulting in higher iron levels in their blood.

Aside from the Philippines, the high-iron rice is currently planted in Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and China. “Even slightly more nutritious rice could mean healthier people,” said Dr. Gregorio of the rice that has an iron content of 20 milligrams per kilogram.

Rice, anyone?

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