(Oryza sativa – Family Gramineae)
Rice is one of the most important staple foods of the world; and several million people are dependent on it. There are at least twenty different species of Oryza, but only O. sativa (Asian rice) and O. glaberrima (African rice) are cultivated. Because of its long history of cultivation in many different countries, over 100,000 local rice varieties have emerged, but only about 8,000 are grown for food. The rest are wild rices, which are not to be confused with the long, black grains of the Zizania species native to North America (dealt with separately below). Of all these varieties, only two major groups are notably recognized: the japonica or sativa types, which originally came from Japan and Korea, and the indica types, which came from India, China, and Indonesia.
Rice is divided into either long or short and classified according to the texture of their endosperm. It is mainly a swamp plant as its specialized stem allows oxygen to reach its roots, thus enabling it to grow in flooded paddy fields. The plant survives best when it can be submerged in one to eight inches of water. Some varieties are classified as upland rice and do not need to grow in standing water, just as long as there is plenty available. These types have extended rice-growing to such areas as Australia and Brazil – which now produces most of the world’s upland rice on huge plantations cut from the jungle. Rice is now cultivated in over 110 countries and in many different climates and environments.
The most modern varieties are often farmed by old methods, sown in nursery beds, transplanted by hand, and reaped with a sickle or even, stem by stem, with a tiny blade concealed between the fingers. It takes about 400-person days to plant, fertilize, and harvest one acre of rice using the age-old method. At the other end of technology, pre-germinated seeds are broadcast by low-flying aircraft. The flow of water is controlled through the fields by a computer system, and a combine harvester gathers in the crop reducing the 400-person days to just two days.
One advantage of the old methods is that every ricefield contained a wide range of genes, which protected the crop against total loss from any disease that may have struck. When no chemicals are used in its production, the natural ecosystem supports fish, frogs, and waterfowl, thereby enriching the soil and feeding the farmer. Another advantage is that as a skilled reaper cuts, she can select the finest heads of grain to be set aside for next year’s seed. Modern methods do give higher yields, but cannot sustain the momentum for nearly as long as the old methods. In the 1980s, it was estimated that 80% of the world’s rice crops were being sown with one variety bred by the IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) and believed to be the most-cultivated single crop in the history of mankind. Obviously, nothing was learned from the potato famine in Ireland when they did the same thing – planted only one variety. However, one of the leaders in the US rice industry is the Lundberg Family Farm in Richvale, California. They grow organically and have greatly extended their product line over the years to include their own varieties of wehani rice, Wild rice blends, rizcous, and red rice or Christmas rice.
Rice has several advantages over most other staple foods. It gives higher and more reliable yields than either wheat or barley. Despite growing in flooded fields, the grain’s moisture content is very low when harvested, and is reduced even more after drying. This allows the grain to be stored for longer periods of time than other grains. Since it is a drier grain, it is more easily transported, as it is not as heavy. Additionally, rice has a good flavour; and its versatility makes it a more sought after food staple. The Japanese prefer the short grain rice, which is more glutenous than the long grain, and is the only country that uses this grain so abundantly. At least half of the world’s population eats rice three times a day. Americans eat less than ten pounds of rice per year, as compared with the people of the Far East who consume up to 400 pounds of rice per person per year. However, the French eat less than the Americans at five pounds of rice per annum.
Although most people now associate rice with tropical countries, the plant did not originate in those areas. It is descended from a wild grass thought to be first cultivated in the southern foothills of the eastern Himalayas and upper reaches of the Irrawaddy, Salween, and Mekong Rivers. The earliest known remains of rice were found in the central Yangtze Valley, dating from 6500 BCE. Rice did not reach America until 1694 when a ship from Madagascar bound for England was blown off course by a severe storm ,forcing it to dock in Charleston, South Carolina. In gratitude for the help given by the citizenry, the ship’s captain gave the governor of the colony some rice grains, which were dutifully planted. “Carolina Gold” flourished in the freshwater tidal swamps around Cape Fear from the 1690s until the latter part of the 19th century when rice from the Mississippi Valey began to compete. Japanese immigrants to California set up the west coast rice industry. Today, rice still grows in the Carolinas and California as well as Louisiana and Texas, although it amounts to less than 1% of the total world’s supply, and nearly 70% of that is exported.
Some interesting rice varieties being offered at an increasing rate in the Western world are Basmati rice from India, sweet glutenous rice from Japan, arborio from Italy, and black Japonica from Thailand. Elsewhere, ethnic uses shows its versatility. There is the jambalaya of the Carolinas, risengröt of Scandinavia, picadillo of Cuba, paella of Spain, risottos of Italy, rijstafel of Indonesia, sake of Japan, and the “dirty rice” of New Orleans. Not everyone is a fan of the grain. The philosopher, Nietzsche, was quite certain that eating rice was what drove people into using opium!
Despite the universal appeal for rice, it is not one of the most nutritious of grains. It is low in fat and sodium and high in fiber, which is a plus; but it also consists of about 80% carbohydrates and only a small amount of protein, vitamin B1, phosphorus and potassium. The protein in rice is incomplete, lacking the essential amino acids lysine and isoleucine; but, when combined with legumes (peas and beans), the proteins become complete. Rice, like other grains, also contains phytic acid that binds its iron and calcium into insoluble compounds and, therefore, is not a good source from which to obtain these minerals.
The molecules of complex carbohydrates, amylose and amylopectin, are packed into the starch granule. When rice is cooked, the starch granules absorb water molecules; and, when the temperature of the water reaches about 60°C (140°F), the amylose and amylopectin molecules, inside the starch molecule, begin to relax and unfold, breaking some of their internal bonds and forming new bonds with different molecules. The result is a starch network that traps and holds water molecules, making the starch granules even more bulky, and allowing it to hold double or triple the amount of water. If rice continues to cook past this point, the starch granules will eventually break open, the liquid will leak out, the granule walls will collapse, and the rice will turn soft and mushy. At the same time, the amylose and amylopectin molecules escaping from the granules will make the outside of the rice sticky, causing them to clump together. The best way to avoid this is to cook the rice in just enough water for it to absorb and then remove it from the heat and leave undisturbed until the remaining water is absorbed. Then fluff the rice with a fork.
There is no doubt that milling destroys many of the nutrients in rice and other grains. During WWII, the Japanese took their rations of brown rice home and milled it, removing the bran and the embryo buds to convert it into a polished, less nutritious variety. Americans had done the same during the Civil War when polished rice was given to plantation workers, who promptly developed severe cases of beriberi. When the rice is changed from brown to white, machines strip the outer bran layer, leaving a pure carbohydrate white grain. Most of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, polyunsaturated fats, and fiber are lost. Some do not like the chewy texture of the brown rice, but still want the nutrients, so use converted rice.
Forms of rice are as follows:
Long grain: It has the largest kernels and can be either white or brown. With long grain brown rice, the hull is removed, but the germ and bran are left intact. There are several versions of long grain white rice: converted, enriched (only some of the lost nutrients are replaced), and instant or precooked (this is the least nourishing of all forms).
Medium grain: It can be either brown or white. It has shorter grains and a better cohesive quality than the long grain, but is not as sticky as the short grain.
Short grain: It can be either brown or white. It has short, stubby, thicker kernels than either of the other two types. The grains are also much softer and stick together when cooked. Generally, this type is used for such dishes as risottos, rice balls, or croquettes.
Glutenous rice: It is a stickier version of the short grain rice and is also known as sweet rice, sticky rice, or waxy rice. These broad, short grains are usually used in South East Asia for sticky sweets and a variety of desserts and the type used for Japanese sushi.
Converted rice: It has been parboiled under pressure before it is milled. Steaming forces the nutrients from the outside of the grain into the inside, allowing it to retain about 85% of the protein of the original. The biggest loss is in the fiber content.
Instant rice: It has been cooked and dehydrated, leaving a hard, starchy outer covering. Its starch granules have already been broken so that it will reabsorb water much faster as it cooks. However, the nutrient content is negligible.
Types of rice are as follows:
Arborio: It is the most popular imported name. It is a short grain rice from the Piedmont section of Italy. Each grain has a translucent outer portion and an opaque center. When cooked, it yields a creamy product that has the ability to “stick” together, making it perfect for such dishes as risottos. It also has the ability to absorb large amounts of liquid. Several other varieties in this family are now beginning to appear.
Vialone nano: It has a smaller kernel than arborio and is sold mainly in Italian specialty markets. It makes a very creamy risotto. Other names in this category include canaroli and tesori. There is a Californian variety called “pearl” that can be used in place of the arborio. A Spanish short grain rice, grown in Valencia and known as “granza”, is now being imported. It is short, very round and quite plump, used mostly for paellas.
Red rice, Christmas rice: It is basically a short grain brown rice, similar in colour to wehani. It is being grown in California from an Asian strain. It has a russet colour and an unusual wild mushroom-like flavour. The special selection Christmas rice now contains some longer-grained wehani, but will soon only be short grain.
Basmati:It is named after the tropical basmati blossom of Southeast Asia and grown in Iran, India, and Pakistan. It is a long grain aromatic variety that is aged for at least a year after harvest in order to develop its full flavour. Sometimes, there is an unhulled basmati available, which is an extra long grain variety that is chewier than the hulled rice and has a taste and texture much like wild rice. Other variations of the basmati are texamati, grown – where else, Texas; wehani, a reddish brown Californian variety; and wild pecan rice, which has no pecans but milled to retain most of the bran, giving it a nutty flavour. It was developed by the Louisiana State University and is produced by the oldest rice mill in the US, near New Iberia.
Popcorn Rice: It was developed by Nelson Jodan at the Louisiana Experimental Station about 1960. It does smell like popcorn when it is cooked.
Thai black rice (Japonica): It has been grown in Thailand for centuries, but it is among the newer varieties coming into vogue in the Western world. Unlike most long grain varieties, the black rice is quite sticky and shiny; and in Thailand, it is used mainly in making desserts. Another unusual aspect of this variety is that its dark colour leaches into the cooking water, turning it purple and staining everything cooked with it.
Jasmine white rice: It is a soft, very white delicately flavoured long grain aromatic rice grown in the southern US and in Thailand. It can be substituted for both the domestic and imported basmati rice.
Wild rice: (see below)
Some available rice products are as follows:
Rice bran: It is the outer brown layer of the rice kernel that contains not only the bran but a small part of the germ as well. Its fiber content is nearly double that of oat bran, but can be substituted in any recipe calling for bran.
Rice bran oil: It is a new type of oil lauded as a cholesterol-fighter, although most vegetable oils have that moniker.
Rice cakes and crackers: The cakes are generally made from puffed rice, while the crackers are made from rice flour. For those on wheat- and gluten-free diets, these rice products are a good substitute.
Rice cream: It is made from coarsely ground rice and generally used for breakfast cereals or for puddings. Prepackaged items are available, but it can also be made at home in a blender.
Rice polish: It is the flour taken off the rice during the process of making white rice. It contains small parts of the germ and bran and has a high content of vitamins, iron, and fiber. It can be added to any recipe and used in the same way as the bran or germ.
Puffed rice: It is created under pressure, and then expanded by filling the grains with air. It is used in the same way as other puffed grains.
Rice vinegar: It is generally used as an accompaniment for sushi and other dishes in Japan. The Chinese also use it as a seasoning, as it comes in various strengths and colours.
Rice flakes: They are created when the kernels are heated and pressed flat under pressure. Rice flakes are processed very much like rolled oats, but the result is a thicker flake. They can be used in a similar manner as rolled oats.
Rice flour: It is available in white or brown, and can be used as a thickener or in combination with other flours in a variety of baked goods. Rice flour has a silkier texture than other flours.
Rice meal: It is a ground product that is often mixed with rice cream to make a breakfast cereal.
Rice noodles: They are made from rice flour, coming in various shapes and thicknesses, and used in a variety of Asian dishes.
Rice paper: It is thin rounds or triangles of dried rice dough that are later soaked and used as wrappers for such traditional dishes and confections as macaroons. Rice paper does not come from the rice plant, but from a shrub or small tree (Tetrapanax papyrifera(us) – Family Araliaceae, the Ginseng family), grown in China. The paper is made from the pith of the stem.
Rice syrup: It is an organic brown rice sweetener that is produced by the Lundberg Family Farms.
Rice-based breakfast cereals:The manufacturers use polished rice from which the nutritious outer layers of pericarp, aleurone, and most of the embryo have been removed. If there are any nutrients in these cereals, they have been synthetically added.
(Zizania aquatica – Family Gramineae)
Wild rice is not a true rice, but the seed of a wild aquatic plant usually found in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada. The French explorers who first came across it did not know that it was not a grain and called it ‘crazy oats’, while the local natives called it ‘manomin’ (or mahnomen) after the Menominee tribe. At one time, it had been found growing at heights of nine feet along Lake Champlain and in places along the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. It was very much a “good berry” to the Ojibways, the Chippewas, Sioux, Fox, and Winnebago tribes, as well as the Menominees. During the cold, harsh winters, natives learned to survive when game was scarce and thick ice covered the fishing grounds by harvesting and storing wild rice as their basic food source. Although there are other wild rice varieties grown in Korea, Burma, Japan, and China, they are quite different. The wild rice grown in North America is a true wild rice, with most of it still grown in Minnesota.
The seeds are still hand-gathered, which is why wild rice is more expensive than true rice. Two people in a canoe harvest an allotted section of a lake, with one pushing the boat along with a long pole and the other pulling the plants down over the gunwale and beating out the grain with two cedar flails. The grain that falls into the water instead of the boat becomes next years crop. Preparing wild rice for market is also a tedious and expensive job. It takes about three pounds of the seed to btain one pound of product. Then the hulls still have to be removed. Even today, the wild rice is put into bags and pounded by hand with clubs, after which the grain is “winnowed”, that is, tossed into the air to remove the hulls from the grain.
To compound the growing problem even more is the fact that wild rice is not only difficult to cultivate, but also is vulnerable to the weather. A severe windstorm at harvest time can destroy the entire crop by blowing seeds into the water before the harvest boats can gather them in. Then, if the weather cooperates, birds do not, and will compete with the harvesters for the crop. Some improvements have taken place over the years. Airboats are used more often, and custom-built harvesters are more adept at gathering the seed; but costs still remain high because it still takes three times as much seed to make enough for a saleable product. Although, when cooked, wild rice triples in volume to where one pound can serve thirty or more people, which should make up for some of the cost. This grain is a high fiber food, rich in proteins, B vitamins, and minerals. It has a distinctive nutty and smoky flavour and can be “stretched” by combining it with other rice forms. In China and Japan, the stems of their varieties of wild rice are a valued vegetable.
Forms of wild rice are as follows:
Giant (long): It is the super-deluxe grade of wild rice, with each grain being about an inch long. It is also the most costly and usually reserved for specialty dishes.
Extra-fancy (medium):It is the most popular grade of wild rice. Clean and unbroken, the grains are of an equal size and quality. This grade is most often used for salads and side dishes, but can be used interchangeably with the giant grade.
Select (short): It has some broken or imperfectly formed kernels; and, if appearance is not important, it is used mainly for its distinctive flavour in baked goods and soups.
Miscellaneous grades: They include such other grades as parboiled or otherwise processed. There are also wild rice and white rice mixes.