In my last post I talked about the tools used in creating Eastern or Asian food. Today I am going to talk about the rice since it is in just about every Asian dish other than soups and it does not have to be a monotonous filler that some tend to relegate it to.
By definition, a rice grain is a seed of a grass of species Oryza sativa or Oryza glaberrima (Asian and African rices respectively) that was first grown as a crop between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago in what is now the Pearl River valley region of China. Cross breeding by so many different cultures of two basic types has given the world so many different styles of rice to choose from that for the adventurous chef, the possibilities are nearly endless. For most of us, rice exists in three main varieties. Short grain, medium grain and long grain. As a rule, a rice seed is considered long grain if its length is 4-5 times its width. Short grains have a length and width nearly equal to one another and anything else in between that and the minimum for long grain is considered medium grain. Most of what I will deal with in this article will be medium or long grain rices.
Below I’ve arranged some rices I have in my pantry on a plate and will talk briefly about each one of them. Yeah, I have a LOT of rice. Did I mention I like to cook?
Starting at the top, in that cluster of black grains that resemble rodent droppings we have Chinese Forbidden rice. So named because this rice was cultivated for consumption solely by the Chinese emperor and his court. Legend has it that the rice had the properties of an aphrodisiac, and while this grain does contain more iron and other nutrients than any of the other rices above, the legend is definitely exaggerated for a lore effect. An interesting thing I discovered years ago when my children were little is if you cook 10% Forbidden rice with 90% white rice of any kind together in a rice cooker, you get a purple rice with some black forbidden grains speckled throughout. It made eating the rice more fun for the kids when they were very young and help cut down on fussy eating and food left on the plates after dinner. You can also serve this rice chilled after it is cooked as part of a salad. Use a white rice setting for Forbidden rice in a rice cooker.
Next we have Basmati. This grain is used in Indian and middle eastern cuisine and is very popular in Persian restaurants here in the United States. Basmati is a long grain rice that has the unusual property of expanding more lengthwise than in width, making the cooked grains look like short noodles instead of rice grains. They grow to three times in length from their precooked, dry state. I discovered talking with Indian coworkers and friends that in India this rice is actually more often eaten with ceremonial and holiday meals because for some people with sensitive stomachs, Basmati can cause irritation. That is why for day to day meals, Indians more often use a rice called Sona Masuri which I don’t have (or it would be on that plate too) that is another long grain rice. For myself, I use Basmati in Biryani (my favorite Indian dish that I cook for myself) and Persian Koobideh lamb skewers. That brings me to my next point which is that the national dish of Iran – Chelo Kebab – is made with Basmati rice. Lastly this rice is normally cooked on a white rice setting in a rice cooker (unless it is purchased brown) and can be used to make fried rice.
Jasmine rice is a long grain variety that comes from Thailand where I grew up, is the predominant rice grown there and is used all over southern Thailand. It has a lovely fragrance even before it is cooked which gets more pronounced when it gets boiled. It is my favorite rice to use in making fried rice as the grains separate easily when chilled and aren’t as apt to break when being tossed around in a hot wok. I have memories of living in Thailand where a huge 125 lb crate of the rice (that my father would buy once every other month for the 3 maids and gardener) was kept where the maids prepared their own meals and the smell of precooked, chilled Jasmine rice sizzling on a wok with cilantro, garlic and hot peppers would lure my siblings and I to the kitchen. I personally consider Jasmine superior to the standard Chinese long grain you get served in a Chinese restaurant to accompany meals. And lastly, this rice can be purchased white or brown and will use those settings in a rice cooker depending on which you buy.
Wehani rice is actually a very aromatic brown rice developed in California by Lundberg Family Farms and its name is trademarked. My wife likes this variety of rice and I cook it for her now and then when she gets the craving as she wants to eat more brown than white rice. It is a very healthy rice with a firm bran on the outside that is more than a little al dente. I am not a huge fan of it as it is very chewy but it tastes good with fats. I’ll eat it in a tabouleh with glee however, as I think it is better for being chilled. It should be cooked using a brown rice setting in a rice cooker.
Koshihikari is the most popular rice in Japan and was developed in the 1950’s as part of an initiative to develop a more productive grain of rice to feed the expanding population of that country after the war. It is a medium grain Japonica rice and as such, it is a stickier rice. These rices are popular in Japan because the tendency of the grains to clump together makes this rice good for eating with chopsticks. In Japan, the image of a bowl of fresh steamed medium grain rice is as seductive to the appetite as a well dressed burger might be here. Koshihikari is used extensively for sushi all over Japan as well as for meals. Consider that the word for rice in Japanese – Gohan is the same word for meal. The importance of rice in the Japanese economy cannot be overstated and certainly this particular variety is my own favorite rice to serve with Asian cuisine if I am not going to fry the rice. The stuff I buy is grown in California and not Japan, however but I still think it is as good as that grown in Japan for the most part.
My family and I consume more Koshihikari rice than any other and it is just as good alone with a raw duck egg yolk dumped on top and stirred in as it is plain with Furikake seasoning shaken on top. I treasure it because it picks up other flavors from the foods and gravies it is served with easily and even soaks up Thai curries so richly in each grain that it infuses each with citrusy, sweet and savory notes. Virtually every dish I cook that gets served with rice (other than Indian or Persian dishes) will get served with this rice. To prepare with a rice cooker, Koshihikari should be cooked on a normal white rice cycle or Umami if your cooker has that setting. It is interesting to compare the raw grains of this rice with the Nishiki grains in the plate above. They look very different before cooking but after being cooked, it is almost impossible to tell the difference visually. They have to be tasted and the Koshihikari has a more pronounced sweetness on the palette. Other rices of the same quality as Koshihikari are Tamanishiki and Nozomi which can be used as suitable substitutes. All three are premium Japanese rices.
Nishiki is a readily available medium grain rice found in most large food markets and indeed it used to be my go to rice before I tried Koshihikari. Nishiki is often the style of rice used to make sake with in Japan after most of the grain is polished away. It is cooked on a white rice cycle in a cooker and served in much the same way as Koshihikari and this is because both rices are bred for the same purpose. It’s a starchy, sticky rice used by Koreans and North Vietnamese living here in the U.S. that emigrated from their countries of origin because of its similarity to short grains they used to get back home. Medium grain rices like this are used everywhere in Japan, Korea and in Northern Thailand.
Bomba rice is a less sticky short grain rice grown in Spain and used for making paella. If you look at the picture above, it has perhaps the shortest grain of all. Now I have been told by Spaniards that Calasparra rice is a higher quality rice for making paella but then I have not been able to find it myself. So Bomba it is for me. It’s strict development for paella means it absorbs a lot of liquid and is unusual for a shorter grain rice in that it is not sticky because of its high amylose content. I have this rice exclusively for making paella so it never sees the inside of one of my rice cookers. This is a rather expensive rice.
Arborio is a medium grain japonica cultivar grown in the Po valley region of Italy for over a century. It is the most common rice used for making Risotto outside of Italy itself. In fact, it is the rice most commonly used by cooks here in the United States to both make and teach others how to make risotto. A couple years ago, I took some classes on making risotto at a Cooks Warehouse taught by 2 different experts both with slightly differing styles of preparation. I have learned during those sessions that there are a number of other varieties of japonica cultivars also used (mainly in Italy itself) depending on the type of risotto being made. All rices of this sort tend to be fat, short grains that absorb a lot of liquid and have a very starchy, powdery surface which helps form the creamy, sometimes thick soupy sauce when cooked with a broth or stock. Like Bomba, this rice has a very specific purpose and does not get cooked in my rice cookers like the Asian varieties do. If you look at the picture below, you can see three rices I ordered from Italy and Spain, all with their labels in the language of the producing country. You gotta love Amazon! Bringing the rest of the world to your doorstep for a nominal fee, hehe. I like the Italian rices shown here because they are vacuum packed in a durable clear plastic shrink wrap that prevents individual grains from rubbing together and possibly breaking until you cut the package open.
Carnaroli rice is touted is being the king of risotto rices. I can say from personal experience with it that it’s a lot more forgiving than Arborio and when I started learning to make risotto under the watchful eye of an experienced Italian mother and housewife, even she was surprised at how well I’d done on my first try. I wasn’t going to tell her that I brought my own medium grain rice with me while the other students ladled chicken stock into cheaper Arborio provided by Cooks. It’s hard to overcook if you use this rice and I personally like making hearty beef, shrimp or chicken based risotti with Carnaroli. Like Arborio, this rice is grown in the Po valley region of Italy and does not belong in a rice cooker.
Vialone Nano rice is the last risotto rice grain I will treat here. When matched up against Arborio, the grains appear tiny and it is obvious to the observant eye that it is the shortest of the three risotto kernels I have on display. To me it is a delicate risotto rice that cooks more quickly than the other two varieties I have above which is good for gentle fish and crab stocks. The rice is content to sit in the background and let the seasonings and broth have their way. Now I don’t know if this next point I will bring up is true, but I have been told by more than one Italian risotto aficionado that the famous Gho risotto made in the Trattoria da Romano in Burano, Italy is made with Vialone Nano rice. If so, it would make perfect sense to me as I have made some delicate herbed crab risotti using this rice and it makes that soupy, flowing gruel you can toss around in a pan and have it flow in waves across a plate when you serve it. I never get tired of that visual effect and when I serve it. I like to wait until my guests are seated at the table before plating so they can witness first hand, this hallowed communion of food and stoneware (Remember to warm the plate right beforehand as this heightens this showy effect). I never seem to have leftovers with this stuff (which is a good thing with risotto because it does NOT reheat well. You are better off forming the day old rice into balls and deep frying them).
Lastly, in the middle of the plate we have Minnesota wild rice which is not really a rice at all. Harvested for centuries in Minnesota rivers by native Americans, these grains are tough and have to be cooked for a long time before enjoying. It is grown and sold wholesale by native Americans living on reservations and as such, you can find it in most farmers markets or online. The grains of this variety do not start to absorb liquid until the outer shell breaks open which takes almost 30 minutes in low boiling water to achieve. I find these grains mix well with other rices for a diversionary texture, but you do not want to cook them together or your other rice will be mush. I have added this rice to a risotto after it is cooked by itself and the risotto is nearly complete. Typically at the end of the risotto mantecatura stage, I stir in the cooked wild rice and that gets good results. Great flavor in the traditional risotto grains and a good bite with a moist crunch make for a more memorable meal. After all, what good is dinner if you’re just duplicating what the corner pasta cafe can do? If I am going to go that route (making a wild grain with risotto medley) I will use a 3 to 1 ratio of Italian to wild rice and I don’t even start the risotto cooking until the wild rice has been simmering in water for 25 minutes. I have found that a brown rice cycle in a rice cooker is good for this wild rice when cooked by itself.
I’ll add one last word about rices and that is in storing them. Many of the Asian rices I have depicted above come in large sacks (15-50 lbs in some cases). I often buy 15-20 lb bags. Once you open any rice packaging, you must store the unused product in an airtight container. I like screw top jars best. The reason for this is pointed. In a word, Moths. Little tiny waxy, dusty moths. If there is even the tiniest pinprick of a hole in a bag or gap in a container top, moths will find it and lay eggs in it. I can tell you from personal experience that opening a tupperware container that was not adequately sealed and finding squirming yellow-brown baby maggot moth larvae and white rice grains quivering on web strands when you’ve barely used what was in that $30 bag of Koshihikari you bought only a week before is infinitely frustrating. Few things get my goat worse than throwing away 27 lbs of premium quality rice because I couldn’t protect my food stores. My family won’t suffer me sifting the larvae out and keeping such rice either. I have to discard the infected batch completely with extreme prejudice. So with high quantity bags of rice I now use screw top jars exclusively. Nothing gets into those.
In closing, as I mentioned before, this blog is primarily about cooking Asian dishes but is certainly not restricted to them. I will talk about cooking paella and risotto in a some future posts as well which is why I treated those rices here in this article. Going forward from here, I will start sharing my actual recipes. I hope you enjoy them.