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Rice, Decoded

Rice is the staple food for over half of the world’s population. As a commercial crop it has the third highest worldwide production (after maize and sugarcane). But, considering that much maize is not even grown for human consumption, rice is the most important crop to our species. It provides more than one fifth of the calories consumed around the world by humans.

All varieties of rice are thought to have originated from a single domestication of the plant in the Chinese Pearl River Valley roughly 12,000 years ago. It spread quickly within Asia and Southeast Asia, but took some time to reach the Americas. We believe that rice was introduced to Mexico in the 1520’s by Spanish colonizers (who by that time had tasted the incredible grain as it made its way across Europe).

But what is rice specifically? Rice is technically a grass. The part we eat is the kernel which grows on a long, willowy arm in heavily irrigated or flooded paddies. 

There are four main types of rice:

  • Indica: Grown mostly in tropical regions, this kind of rice accounts for more than 75% of the global rice trade. It cooks up dry with separate grains. This kind of rice has no distinct, powerful flavor, it is easily used in a number of cuisines.
  • Japonica: Named for its place of origin, this variety of rice grows in colder climates and accounts for more than 10% of the global trade. It is commonly short and sticky.
  • Aromatics: These grains are grown primarily in Thailand and Pakistan and are the popular Jasmine and Basmati varieties. They are roughly 12% of the global trade and sold at a premium. They overwhelmingly have unique scents, Basmati smelling of popcorn and Jasmine of its namesake flower.
  • Glutinous: Mostly grown in Southeast Asia, these account for the remainder of the global trade and are typically used in sweet applications. These grains are stubby and powerfully filled with starch.

Now, within those four varieties of rice, we have one more consideration to take into account: grain length. You see rice classified by its length, and there’s good reason for this. The length of the grain is almost directly related to the amount and kind of starch held inside. Long grain rices are high in amylose, medium and short grain rices are higher in amylopectin. What this means for the consumer is that long grain rices cook up light and separate, while medium and short grain rices cook up sticky and fat, using their extra starch as a sort of glue to bind them together.

Around the world every culture has a particular tradition for cooking the perfect rice. In the Indian subcontinent most rice used is long grain aromatic and it is cooked in plenty of water before being drained in order to maintain separate grains. In China most cooks use medium grain rice that sticks together somewhat so that it is easier to eat with chopsticks. As we move to Europe we see the use of medium and short grain rices for paella and risotto, both of which are made with stock but only one of which is stirred throughout (risotto). Short grain rice is again popular as we circle back to Southeast Asia and find a plethora of desserts cooked from the glutinous varieties. 

But, of course, we must investigate the difference between white and brown rices. Yes, it is a plural, there is not just one kind of brown rice. Every rice species on the planet has a brown “phase.” What make rice brown? Rice is built like nearly all grains. It consists of an endosperm connected to the nutrient rich germ, coated in bran, then coated once more in a hull. Most rice is hulled before it reaches your market, we cannot easily digest that fibrous structure. But the difference between white and brown rice comes in whether you like your rice with or without the bran. The bran is that brown coating. It is full of nutrients and minerals, not to mention extra fiber. Oftentimes, white rice is not only bereft of the bran, but the nutrient rich germ (the fuel for plant growth) as well. 

Parboiled rice is rice that has been cooked with steam under high pressure in order to gelatinize the starch inside the kernel without fully cooking the grain. It is then allowed to dry before being packaged and sold, making the cooking process relatively quick at home (though you trade flavor and nutrition for that simplicity).