Let's Eat Rice

Rice is arguably the world's most important food. It is the second most widely cultivated cereal in the world, after wheat, and is a staple food of over half the world's population. In much of Asia, rice is so central to the culture that the word is almost synonymous with food. In Chinese the line in the Lord's Prayer is translated as "give us this day our daily rice," and a Japanese proverb states that "A meal without rice is no meal."

Rice is roughly divided into two types – Japonica and Indica. The characteristics and forms of these two types of rice differ. Japonica rice is usually grown in temperate climates. The grains are round and do not easily crack or break. When cooked, this rice is sticky and moist. The rice produced in Japan is mostly Japonica. Indica rice is usually grown in hot climates. The grains are long and tend to break easily. When cooked, the rice is fluffy and does not stick together. Most of the rice produced in Southern Asia, including India, Thailand, Vietnam and Southern China is Indica rice.

Both Japonica and Indica types of rice include non-glutinous and glutinous rice. Each type of rice has its own special characteristics and each has its own place in rice cooking. Non-glutinous rice is popularly used in general rice cooking. This rice is somewhat transparent and when cooked is less sticky than glutinous rice. It is usually cooked in water and served plain. Glutinous rice tends to be white and opaque and is very sticky when cooked. It is commonly used to make rice cakes and various kinds of desserts, and processed to make rice snacks.

Rice is usually threshed and polished after harvesting. Semi-polished rice, which still has the whole germ, contains most of the grain's original vitamins B1, B2, and E. Polished rice, the type of rice generally consumed, has had the husk and bran completely removed; and contains fewer vitamins than brown rice. However, white rice is ninety-eight percent digestible and brown rice are less easily digested.

The attributes that have long attracted Asians to this grain are now becoming more well known to Westerners. Fans of rice cite its ease of preparation, its flexibility, and its ability to absorb flavors while retaining its texture. Rice dishes can be spicy or tangy, savoury or sweet. Rice soaks up gravies and rice sauces and cools and refreshes the palate when served with spicy food. Baked with milk and sugar, rice transforms itself into one of the western world's best-loved creamy puddings. Rice has no fat, no salt and no sugar but many important nutrients. Little wonder then that many of the world's finest dishes have been based around it.

Because it's also nutritious and economical, rice is being hailed as "the pasta of the '90s." Its rising popularity in the West coincides with an increasing number of types and varieties being marketed. Well-stocked supermarkets and natural foods stores now offer over a dozen distinct rices, from short grain sweet brown to aromatics such as basmati or jasmine.

The quintessential local food, half of all rice is consumed within eight miles of where it is grown. Some Asian populations consume it at a per capita rate of 200-500 pounds per year, counting on it for 30-70 percent of total calories. Though it is increasingly popular in the western world, per capita consumption in most countries outside Asia is low; for example, per capita consumption in the U.S. is still on the order of a comparatively meager 12 pounds per year.

Depending primarily upon the type of processing it has undergone, rice ranks high on the list of most nutritious foods. Brown rice provides significant levels of fiber, complex carbohydrates, some of the B vitamins and vitamin E, and the minerals calcium, iron, phosphorus, and lysine. Traditionally it has been eaten with beans or a complementary legume to be a reliable source of protein. Another nutritional advantage is that fewer people are allergic to rice than to wheat or most other grains.

Since rice has no cholesterol, only a trace of fat, and provides about 160 calories per cooked cup, it is not surprising that it is the backbone of a successful weight-loss regimen, the "rice diet," developed by Dr. Walter Kempner of the Duke University Medical Center in the late 1930s. The rice diet has improved the health of many thousands of people over the past 50 years. The rice diet enjoyed a recent spurt of popularity when it became the subject of a bestselling book, The Rice Diet Report, in the mid-‘80s. It is low in protein, salt, cholesterol, and fat yet high in complex carbohydrates and fiber.

With over half the population of the world eating rice two or three times a day, it is not surprising that there are many arguments over how it should be cooked. Indeed rice can be cooked in a variety of ways, including boiling, baking, roasting, frying, and pressure-cooking. Cooking rice in an automatic rice cooker is becoming very popular, as it ensures consistent results and cooking instruction is much simpler to follow. As it requires no preparation and is so easily stored in the home, rice is the ideal food for busy cooks. There is no wastage – any leftover rice quickly becomes the base for a rice/vegetable dish, a rice salad, or with additions, a savoury meal. Many people cook double quantities for just this reason.

Rice is best cooked immediately before serving, but cooked rice can be kept in the refrigerator for up to about five days. After about three days, it may begin to "retograde" or dry out. You can either scrape off the top, crusty layer and discard, or add a few tablespoons of moisture before reheating. Left over rice is good for a stir fry , producing different types of fried rice). Or it can be simply placed in a microwave-proof

Rice just about trebles in bulk when cooked (i.e., 1 cup of rice produces 3 cups of cooked rice) and this is by absorbing water. The amount of water required for cooking can vary with the type of rice used. For example, long- grain rice generally needs less water than short-grain rice.

From delicate translucent noodles to delightful sushi to exquisite desserts, rice is a surprisingly versatile—and nutritious—food. (It's not too fattening, either!) So help yourself and make a meal of it—or a feast. Explore the world of rice through your taste buds. You won't be disappointed.

For rice recipes from around the world, check out the Recipe Exchange and Home Chefs. The Have a Rice Day Cafe also has lots of good things cooking. For the true cooking fanatic, browsing through the list of rice cookbooks is a must, as are the featured rice dishes. For recipes of brown rice, click here.

Do you have a great rice recipe? Share it! We'll put it online in the Recipe Exchange. For some observations on preparing rice, Edita Burgos shares her insights.

If you want to know something about sake, Japan's national rice-based beverage, read on.

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