Rice: A Rainbow Of Possibilities
My first memory of rice is not of it being eaten but of it being thrown. It was during my cousin's wedding ceremony in Delhi. After the ceremony finished, she stood at the entrance of her father's home, dressed in vivid red and gold, ready to leave. Her dear friend stood beside her holding a large bag of white puffed rice. As my cousin walked away from the house, her bejeweled and hennaed hands reached into the bag of rice. With each step, she scooped handfuls of puffed rice and threw them over her head. The puffed rice rained down on the ground behind her creating a quiet, white trail. I asked my mother what the bride was doing. Each scoop, I was told, signified that she was leaving behind good deeds and good wishes for her family. It is a custom still observed, so many years since.
Rice is thrown raw at Western weddings, made into sculptures in Bali and "drawings" at home entrances in south India, and used in powder form for Japan's Kabuki makeup. Rice is an ingredient with the power to define a culture.
I grew up eating only one shade of rice: white. I have been told that in accordance with Hindu traditions, rice was the first food I ever tasted. The white, nutty, aromatic basmati rice is what author Naomi Duguid calls my "home rice." Duguid, co-author of Seductions of Rice, says that for many cultures, rice is an anchor point — it provides a sense of place and belonging.
She says those new to rice should try different types, to develop a taste for their own home rice. "This is the rice you will turn to day in and day out. It is the one you perfect for yourself," she says. And once you have that, you are ready to expand and play with all the different rice in the world.
And there are so many. As a child, I only knew rice to be white. Then, I learned it could be brown. It is only in the past few years that I have discovered that rice comes in so many gorgeous colors and varieties: green bamboo rice, black "forbidden" rice, Himalayan red rice, Thai sticky rice.
Of course, there is no one right way to make all these different types of rice. Recently a friend invited me to a Persian restaurant and ordered a rice dish that smelled divine — but when I dug into it, I found that at the bottom of the dish, the rice appeared burned. I was about to voice my concern when I recalled the first time I cooked basmati rice for my mother-in-law. I cooked it the way I had learned from my mother, so every grain was separate. "Oh, I see you don't know how to make rice," my mother-in-law said. "Don't worry, I will teach you." In her world, the perfect rice is always moist and sticky and the grains never separated. It turns out that Persian rice is deliberately "burned" by a preparation in which the bottom of the rice is allowed to get crisp.
Today, I'm open to the whole world of rice, knowing that I can always return to my home rice.
Types Of Rice
All of these rices are available in the U.S. from online retailers or specialty stores.
White basmati rice: My childhood rice, native to India, is nutty, aromatic and simple to prepare. This rice pairs well with sweet as well as savory flavors. I love to make rice pudding with this rice using saffron and cardamom. This rice also works well as a foundation for biryanis (layered rice and meat dishes seasoned with cloves, cinnamon and cardamom). There is some debate on whether the rice needs to be presoaked. I rinse well but do not soak it before cooking.
Black forbidden rice: The taste is very different from white rice, as the kernels are very chewy. This rice is very rich in fiber and other nutrients. When cooked, it has a blackish-purple hue. This rice does well with both sweet and savory preparations. The "forbidden" part? Legend has it that in ancient China, where it originates, only the emperor or the royals were allowed to eat this rice. It was forbidden for everyone else.
Red Bhutanese rice: This medium-grain rice has part of the outer layer still on it and needs no significant companions to help bring its taste alive. Once cooked, it is slightly moist, full flavored and nutty. Just cooking it in broth with simple spices is the best way to showcase this rice. Don't let the exotic look fool you. This could easily become a staple, as the taste is quite comforting.
Green bamboo rice: This Asian rice is expensive — it averages $14 a pound. It is a short-grain rice that I use primarily when I am in the mood to show some colors on the plate: The green pairs well with brightly colored vegetables, simply sauteed shrimp and startling white eggs. The rice gets its color from being infused with bamboo juice. The taste can be a little underwhelming, given the price, but grows on you. It does stay a little sticky after cooking.
French red rice: I was in Paris recently attending cooking school and was surprised at the lack of rice in the kitchen. Chef Eric Fraudeau, who runs the school, told me that the French eat less rice than most parts of the world, such as Asia or South America, because they have such great bread. But he did tell me about the wonderful Camargue red rice. Camargue is in the south of France, and the rice grown there is long or round, colored black or red (the most famous variety). Fraudeau said this rice is harvested by hand, not with machines. As soon as I came back to the States, I ordered some. One taste of this rice and I could see it becoming my new home rice. This rice has a great full-bodied, earthy taste.