August 1, 1998

5 Min Read
Rice: A Most Versatile Grain

 Rice: A Most Versatile Grain
August 1998 -- Design Elements Plus

By: Christopher Keegan

  With its many varieties, rice is probably the most versatile grain of all. Its unique flavor blends with, and complements, almost every food imaginable. From meats to fruits and vegetables, rice adds flavor, texture and nutritional benefits to any dish it accompanies. When combined with legumes, rice becomes an excellent source of protein. Today, this low-fat nutritional source of carbohydrates is a dietary staple for six out of every 10 people worldwide.  Rice as a food crop first appeared more than 4,000 years ago in the Himalayas, moving east to China, then to other parts of Asia, the Mediterranean, and finally to the Americas. During the last decade, rice's popularity in the United States has grown tremendously. This can be attributed to Americans' quest for a more healthful diet and their growing interest in rice-dominant world cuisines, such as Southeast Asian Pacific Rim, Indian and Caribbean.  Literally hundreds of rice varieties or types exist, but all can be classified as either long-, medium- or short-grain. A basic rule of thumb: the shorter the grain, the greater its tendency to have a starchy character and, therefore, be stickier when cooked. The type of rice used in a given cuisine really reflects cultural proclivities. Asians prefer stickier rice as it is easier to eat according to their customs. Americans, for the most part, prefer a separate, firm, nonsticky grain.Basic forms  Besides grain size, all rice comes to consumers in four basic forms.  Brown. Raw rice with the hull removed and the bran layer intact. This is the most nutritious form and possesses a chewy, nutty flavor.  Regular white milled. Rice that has had the hull and bran removed, giving it a mild taste and white color. This form, the one with which most American consumers are familiar, is often fortified with vitamins and nutrients.  Par-boiled. Rice that has been steamed before milling, yielding a fluffy, firm and separate cooked grain. This form is more nutritious than white, since steaming drives some of the nutrients from the bran into the grain. This process, first developed and patented by Uncle Ben's Inc., allows the company's Converted(r) brand rice to preserve 80% of these nutrients which would otherwise be lost during conventional milling.  Precooked. White milled rice that has been completely cooked, then dehydrated, making it an instant product. Instant rice cooks in less than 20 minutes - usually less than five minutes - and sometimes only requires adding boiling water. Over the years, manufacturers have greatly improved this convenience product's flavor and texture, which now comes much closer to that of regular cooked rice.Popular choices  With rice's new popularity and a more educated and discerning public, demand for more exotic rices and rice-like grains has increased. Some of the more popular varieties include:
  Basmati. The name "basmati" literally translates to "queen of fragrance." Grown in the Himalayan foothills for thousands of years, basmati is a long-grain rice featuring a fine texture. When cooked, it exudes a perfumed aroma and possesses a nut-like taste. The rice is aged to decrease its moisture, which contributes to its flavor and unique smell. Basmati rice is the staple rice of India and Pakistan, and is best-known in curried dishes. This variety acts as a source of thiamin, riboflavin and potassium. It also is nonallergenic and gluten-free.  Arborio. The high-starch kernels of this Italian-grown grain are shorter and fatter than most other short-grain rice. It is traditionally used for risotto because its increased starch level lends this classic dish its unique, creamy texture. Arborio serves as a high-quality source of protein, and contains thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and potassium.  Jasmine. The most popular rice in Southeast Asia, jasmine is used extensively in Thai cooking. Its flavor is similar to Basmati, but possesses a rounder, more starchy grain. The flavor lends itself well to the tastes and textures of this region's cuisine, and goes well with everything from seafood to sweet rice dishes such as tropical fruit puddings. Jasmine is a good source of B vitamins and complex carbohydrates.  Wild rice. This isn't really a rice at all. Rather, it's a long-grain marsh grass native to the northern Great Lakes. Its nutty flavor and chewy texture provide it with a popular uniqueness. Unique to North America, wild rice serves as a great accompaniment to any dark meat, but its nutty flavor and chewy texture lends itself best to wild game. Wild rice is rich in fiber and minerals, and is a good source of protein.  Rice is not only nutritious, but a great medium on which to build flavors without having to add high levels of fat. The different varieties, flavors and textures available offer unlimited creativity that can touch any cuisine. Hallmarks of this versatile grain include jambalaya, with its spicy intense flavors; Spanish paella, that great saffron dish with a variety of meats; spiced, curried rice accompanied by dried fruits and nuts - an Indian favorite; the rich, deep flavors of rice and beans from the Americas; or, the Asian fried-rices from the Pacific Rim.  In the culinary arts, rice enjoys a place in every aspect of cooking, from side dishes to salads, main dishes to desserts. An excellent thickening agent, rice adds its unique flavor to soups and sauces. This characteristic was what originally made bisques different from other soups - they were thickened with rice. It's easy to cook and very cost-efficient. Along with its nutritional benefits, these features make rice a dream with which to work.  Chef Keegan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America with an extensive background in the foodservice industry and more than seven years experience as a research chef. A founding member of the Research Chefs Association, he also is a member of the American Culinary Federation and the Institute of Food Technologists. He currently is head of culinary development for Uncle Ben's Inc.Back to top

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