Rice is a versatile ingredient that can be flavored in many ways.
Cooking rice is a skill and being able to prepare a decent rice dish is one of the ultimate proofs of a cookery expertise.
Rice was originally native to India and Indo-China, but is now grown in many other areas including the Po river valley, in Italy, Valencia, in Spain, and California, Louisiana or Texas in the United States, and many more countries. Rice needs wetlands to prosper and for that reason is cultivated on flooded land, either river valleys, deeply irrigated terraces, or flooded fields.
There are more than 800 varieties of rice, some of which are consumed only where they are grown, and others are well known all over the world. Rice is usually classified by grain length. Longer grains tend to separate and fluff on cooking while the shorter grained varieties are softer and cling together; these varieties are more likely to be used in somewhat sticky dishes such as risottos, sushi, or puddings. Long grain rice is consumed much more often than short or medium grain rice.
Bhutanese red rice
Sushi (glutinous, mochi, sticky, sweet)
Thai purple (/thai black sticky rice)
Basic recipe for cooking long grain white rice: 1 part rice to 1 1/2 parts water. Add both to a pot; bring to a boil over high heat with lid on. Do not remove the lid - reduce heat to low. Simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, with lid on, for 5 minutes - see cooking perfect rice.
Shopping for rice
Some of the most popular varieties of rice you will find in your grocery store include:
Basmati rice - Basmati presents a long, slim grain. It is available brown or white. White basmati is milled and cooks up into separate fluffy grains with a fantastic aroma. It is used mostly for savory dishes, in particular curries and pilafs, where separate grains are essential. It is also used in some Indian sweet dishes; Kheer, a creamy, sweet milk and rice pudding, is an example.
Italian Arborio o risotto rice - This is the perfect rice for risottos. Arborio is hard, milled, ivory color rice. The grains are chubby and short, with chalky lines or dots. This kind of rice can take up to four times its original volume of liquid and it is best cooked to a plump, just right tender al dente state.
Japanese sushi rice - Sushi rice is white, milled and plump with a short grain that releases some starch when cooking and it is mildly sweet, sticky-perfect for sushi. This glutinous rice needs less water for cooking than other types.
Thai fragrant, Jasmine, or Jazmine rice - Brown or white, milled, long grain rice, aromatic and fluff when cooked. This is the first choice rice for Thai cooks. Good with Thai-style curries, stir-fries or in pilafs. The cooked rice may be rinsed for a split second under running water to break away any clumps.
Easy cook rice - Husked rice that has been partially steamed. Many varieties of rice are now available in parboiled, quick cook or easy cook versions. These easy cook versions of rice give confidence to the cook as the grains are less likely to stick together but consider that some rice dishes are easier to eat when the grains cling to each other.
White long grain rice - This milled rice is the preferred all purpose and everyday rice in western cooking. It is used mostly in savory dishes, but it does require added flavor.
Textmati - An aromatic Texan hybrid rice, cross between American long grain rice and basmati, available brown or white.
Valencia rice, bomba rice - Spanish milled white rice, medium length grain, moist, tender and slightly sticky when cooked. As can be guessed, this is the rice of choice for paella.
Whole grain brown rice, long or short - The rice is hulled but not milled. It is less refined than white rice and higher in natural fiber, retaining also most of its vitamins, which are lost in the refined varieties. It is healthier than white rice, but it takes longer to cook and it is chewier to eat.
Other kinds of rice - There are many other types of rice, including red or black colored rice. An exception is wild rice, which is not rice at all, but a completely different plant. What we call wild rice is a type of wild oat plant, native to Canada.
Other rice products
Rice is not only used as a grain, like other cereals it can be fermented into vinegar, ground into flour, and turn into noodles. Fortunately, we have now access to a wealth of rice products to suit many diverse styles of cooking.
Rice cakes - Rice cakes are a great snack food. Rice cakes don’t pile up the calories and they are gluten free. They can be eaten on their own or with different toppings. Rice cakes are ideal as part of a gluten free or a calorie controlled diet.
Rice vinegar - Rice vinegar is sharp and is used for pungent, oriental salad dressings and it is the one to use for preparing the vinegar rice central to sushi.
Rice noodles - Made from rice flour, rice noodles vary from very thin to wide, about I cm ('/2"). To cook, soak in very hot water for 5-10 minutes to re-hydrate, drain thoroughly and deep fry or use in stir-fries. Usually, there is no need to boil them.
Shaohsing - Chinese red cooking wine. Shaohsing varies in color from pale to deep gold. In cooking, it is used in batters and marinades. Dry sherry, dry vermouth or Sake can be used as an alternative.
Mirin - Japanese sweetened rice wine. Mirin is a low alcohol, clear, pale yellow drink which is used in cooked rice and dressings. Oloroso or sweet oloroso sherry are very good substitutions.
Rice flour - Rice flour is a coarse to medium, ground meal. It is useful as a thickener and can be used for fine biscuits, dough, batters and milk puddings.
Rice syrup - Similar uses to corn syrup.
Rice milk - Used as substitute for those not allowed to drink cow or goat milk.
Rice, always nice
Not so long ago, in Western cooking, rice was used only for milky puddings or as a bland side dish; bland even when served with well liked food like curries or Chinese cuisine. There were a few regional rarities, like some Creole gumbos, risottos, or paella, but those dishes remained just that, regional. Rice was not rightly valued as the enjoyable, resourceful, easy food it really is.
Today we are used to travel, and with ethnic restaurants are springing all over, we have had the opportunity to taste wonderful rice dishes. Chefs are introducing amazing new recipes in all sorts of media. Sushi, pilaf, risotto, paella, rice noodles are fast turning into everyday words. We are beginning to understand how rice has become a daily ritual in so many diverse cultures.
Globalization has brought new and better rice products to the every supermarket aisle and what once were exotic meals are now well within reach of every home cook. Rice can surprise you, cook perfect rice, enjoy it and discover its full potential.
Rice constitutes the bulk of the Chinese diet; in fact, cooked dishes are seen more as an accompaniment to the rice than a main course. Chinese food combines a vast range of contrasting flavors, textures, aromas, and color in a variety of delicious dishes that complement rice perfectly. Chinese food is light and warm, perfect for the cold to warm weather transition.
Keeping to Asian cuisine, you could prepare a mild Thai curry -rice is also the center of every Thai meal- or a stir-fry to accompany your rice. You cannot go wrong with this one.
Why not sushi? Nowadays, the ingredients -sushi rice, nori, rice vinegar, tamari or other soy sauce, sugar- are at hand at the grocery store. Vinegar rice is easy to prepare and, while I would not recommend to use raw fish at home, there are many options using cooked fish or seafood, and vegetables.
Sushi is still a cooling option. If looking for more variety, serve the rice cold, in a salad. Add the dressing to the warm rice and let it cool down, covered, in the salad bowl. The rice will soak up the flavor. Don't do this if you are planning to serve the rice shaped in a mold; the grains will not stick and the shape will crumble.
Paella on the stove comes out great and it is always welcome, but paella cooked on the barbecue is just sublime. Sometimes the stove's heating surface is not large enough for the paella pan; this is not a problem on the barbecue and the rice cooks to perfection. And there is something to paella cooked outdoors.
Fall - Autumn
Rice cooked the Cuban way can help you to extend the summer warmth and also to take advantage of the tomatoes that ripen late in the summer and early in the fall season. Other Creole, Caribbean and tropical rice dishes will bring back the summer sun.
Some of the fall vegetables are just perfect for creamy risottos; try butternut squash or pumpkin. Fried rice balls are easy to prepare and they are a good option to use up boiled rice leftovers.
Winter is the time for the very welcomed soups, and the many options to prepare them -rice and lentils together, for instance, make a complete protein. Winter is my favorite time for spicy Indian curries and those rice milky puddings.