Rice is one of the most important foods in the world. This descendant of a wild Asian grass has spread from its domestication origins in China to become, without a doubt, the most significant grain used in a multitude of cuisines. (Just try to imagine Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Persian, Brazilian or Mexican cuisine without rice.) Three billion people rely upon it as their staple food, and it is the primary source of one quarter of the world's per capita energy needs. Its captivating history is tied to ancient global trade routes and eventually to the slave trade. Read on to learn more about this fascinating grain.
A Brief History
The origin of the domestication of rice (Oryza sativa) is a hotly contested subject amongst botanists, archaeologists and weird food nerds like me. Because the ancestor of rice, a wild grass, grows in a wide area of Asia, countries in which rice is of primary importance both culturally and dietarily (read: China and India) lay claim to its earliest domestication. The latest genetic and archeological research, as Ewan Callaway discussed in the journal Nature in 2014, seems to indicate that rice may have had two domestication origins somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 years ago, although the ways in which this happened is still unclear. Short-grained rice (aka japonica) was probably first domesticated in China, either in the Yangtze Valley or the Pearl River Valley. As Callaway discusses, this early japonica variety then made its way to India, where farmers crossed it with their local rice - which was either an existing wild species of rice, or possibly an early domesticated variety. This produced a longer-grain variety of rice, what we now know as indica. From these two centers of origin, rice spread widely throughout Asia and eventually to the rest of the world. (Here is more information on this from the scientific journal Rice, if you're interested in the nitty-gritty.) According to this article, Chinese farmers invented wet-rice (paddy) farming around 5,000 BCE, which required social organization and stable land ownership. There is even a social science theory (the "rice theory") that rice paddy farming cultures tend to be more cooperative and collaborative, and thus less individualistic. Paddy farming requires the cooperation of whole villages to irrigate, flood and drain fields, whereas cultivation of other grain staples, such as wheat, can be done by one family with minimal irrigation or necessary cooperation of their neighbors.
Food historian John Mariani, writing in The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, explains that rice was first brought to the American colonies in 1622. It wasn't until the end of the 17th century, however, that rice growing took off in the colonies - specifically in South Carolina, which Mariani notes then became the leading American rice-producing region for two hundred years. For years, there has been debate about the origins of Carolina Gold rice, the first variety of rice to be commercialized in the Americas (and the variety grown in South Carolina). And here's where things get really interesting. According to another article in Nature, African rice (Oryza glaberrima) was independently domesticated in the upper Niger River valley in West Africa, probably a few thousand years after rice was fully domesticated in Asia. This National Geographic article explains that preliminary research from the USDA suggests that Carolina Gold rice is more closely related to African domesticated rice (Oryza glaberrima) than to Asian rice varieties. It has long been known that slaves from West Africa were responsible for the success of the Carolina rice industry, due to their deep knowledge of rice cultivation technology and, of course, their labor. Now it is becoming clear that African slaves also brought the actual cultivar with them from Africa, as well. South Carolina rice production ceased in 1927 (although it is currently undergoing a revival), but rice is still grown in the US.
- The traditional preparation of Carolina Gold rice is called "Charleston ice cream." Here's a recipe (you can mail-order the rice from Anson Mills).
- Here's a fascinating article about Thomas Jefferson's quest to transform the US South's rice cultivation from wet to dry farming (more on this in "Cultivation," below). Jefferson was convinced that wet farming rice was the cause of "pestilential fevers;" indeed, rice farming did create ideal conditions for malarial mosquitoes in the South. This article notes that the death rate exceeded the birth rate amongst slaves in South Carolina due to the terrible conditions slaves had to endure on rice plantations.
- Terraced rice paddies have been around for about 2,000 years. Here's a fun interactive that shows how these terraces are built - by hand.
- Speaking of rice paddies: I thought this was Photoshopped at first - but no! Crazy rice paddy art really does exist! My favorite is definitely The Great Wave.
Rice is a type of annual grass (although in some places in the tropics it can survive as a perennial) with wind-pollinated flowers. According to Edible: An Illustrated Guide to the World's Food Plants, there are over 100,000 cultivars of rice around the world - each perfectly adapted to its climate. (Here's an amazing list of just some of these, by country.) These cultivars are divided into two major sub-species: Japonica (generally shorter-grained) and Indica (longer-grained). Not all rice is grown in paddies - some types are dry farmed, usually on hillsides, some are strictly rain-fed and some are grown in irrigated paddies. Brown rice is simply rice that has some of its bran left on, while white rice is "polished" to a sparkling white. (Here's an article on how polished rice became the norm.) Wild rice (primarily Zizania palustris) is a distant cousin of Oryza sativa and Oryza glaberrima, harvested primarily in Minnesota and elsewhere in the upper Midwest of the US. Wild rice is sacred to the Ojibwe and other Native American peoples, which harvest it via canoe.
China, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh are the word's largest producers of paddy-grown rice. Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas produce 99 percent of the rice grown in the US.
Most varieties of rice are available year round. Wild rice is generally harvested at the end of summer and the beginning of fall.
As this article in Nature points out, intensive rice breeding for yield has resulted in less genetic diversity, with subsequently more potential for disease and resistance to the effects of climate change. Further, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations notes that while paddy rice uses more water than any other crop, a great deal of that water is recycled or put to other uses. The FAO's rice and water fact sheet explains the varied and fascinating linkages between rice and water. Producing rice requires 660 gallons of water per pound produced - that's a global average.
We've reported before on the problems with arsenic in rice due to pesticide contamination of soil; Consumer Reports also recently came out with updated guidelines for children's consumption of the grain. (ICYMI: rice from Texas and brown rice have the highest amounts of arsenic.) Significant amounts of pesticides are used in conventional rice growing, negatively impacting local ecosystems, waterways and rice farmers alike. (*Check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb for more information.) The Green Revolution, and the resulting adoption of the IR8 rice type (aka "Miracle Rice"), resulted in less global famine, but the unintended negative consequences have been localized pollution as the result of the amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers needed to grow Green Revolution-launched crops. Choose organic rice if you can, and to ensure that rice farmers get a fair price for their labor, keep an eye out for fair trade rice, as well. In even worse news, recent research has shown that rice agriculture may be accelerating global warming, as it is a major source of methane.
Rice is classified in mind-bogglingly different ways - from color to aroma to shape. I've outlined below a few of the major types of specialty rice, aside from basic white and brown, we can find in North America, but of course this list is not exhaustive. (Here's a nice glossary of rice types if you want to take a deeper dive.)
- Arborio rice: Short/medium grained. Along with Carnaroli, the primary rice used in Italian risottos. Arborio's high starch content releases when cooked in liquid, producing the creamy consistency risotto is known for.
- Basmati rice: Long grained. An aromatic rice common in South Asian cuisine. Basmati rice is grown exclusively in India and Pakistan, although a Texas-grown version exists (called Texmati).
- Black rice (aka purple rice): There are a couple of different kinds of black rice, including Thai black sticky rice and "forbidden rice," a black rice from China. When cooked, black rice turns a deep purple due to the presence of anthocyanin, a powerful antioxidant.
- Bomba rice: Short/medium grained. Used in Spanish cuisine, typically for paella.
- Jasmine rice (aka Thai fragrant rice): Long grained. An aromatic type of rice common in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. Its distinctive flavor comes from the compound 2-Acetyl-1-pyrroline, in case you were wondering.
- Red rice: There are a few different varieties of red rice, each made red by the presence of anthocyanin. Bhutanese red rice is one of these types.
- Sushi rice: Short/medium grained. A Japanese variety, sushi rice gets slightly sticky when cooked, perfect for making sushi rolls.
- Sticky rice (aka glutinous rice): Short/medium grained. "Glutinous" refers to this rice's sticky texture when cooked (it's gluten-free, like all rice). Sticky rice is common in Southeast and East Asian cuisines (think Thai, Lao, Burmese).
Contrary to recent popular belief, white rice does contain some nutrients - just not as much as brown or wild rice. White rice is loaded with folate and manganese, and is a good source of thiamin, niacin, iron and selenium. It's even got some protein. Brown rice contains more of all of these nutrients and protein, plus lots of fiber. Rice (of all types) does not contain all of the amino acids the body needs, so it must be combined with other foods, like beans, that contain the missing nutrients in order to be a complete protein source. Rice also doesn't contain Vitamin A. This a major problem in places where rice forms the bulk of the diet, as Vitamin A deficiency causes diarrhea in young children, impaired immunity (especially to diarrheal diseases and measles) and eventually, blindness. Golden rice, a genetically engineered (GE) form of rice modified to be rich in Vitamin A, was developed to combat this problem. Critics see golden rice as a marketing ploy to enhance biotechnology companies' images and point to traditional nutritional solutions as better alternatives. (Here's a nice discussion from NPR of the debate surrounding golden rice.)
What to Do with It and Cooking
There are thousands upon thousands of rice dishes, from cuisines all across the globe. In many cultures, a meal isn't a meal without rice in some form or another. Rice is of primary culinary importance all across Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, parts of the US, large parts of Africa and in Latin and Central America. Here is an incredible list of rice dishes from around the world - hope you didn't want to get any work done today. Rice is commonly steamed, baked or boiled, depending on the dish and cuisine. Frying rice in butter, ghee or oil before steaming or boiling reduces its stickiness. Some rice preparations may also instruct you to wash the rice several times to remove some of its starch; this, too, keeps the rice from getting too sticky. Rinsing rice, however, does deprive it of some of its nutrients.
There are an infinite amount of rice-derived foods, as well - like rice flour, used to make rice noodles, rice flour pancakes and the most delicious thing in the whole world: mochi ice cream. (Mochi is a sticky cake made with rice flour. As an aside, mochi pounding was once an important practice in Japan, especially for the New Year's celebration. It is a dying art, as most people buy, rather than make, mochi.) If you want to get super DIY, you can make your own rice flour. And if you want to get hard core DIY, you can make your own mochi from your homemade rice flour.
Uncooked white rice can be stored for years in a cool, dry place, although quality may be reduced if kept for more than six months. (Fragrant varieties, like jasmine and basmati, may lose their characteristic aromas if kept for longer than six months.) Brown rice tends to have a much shorter shelf life, as the natural oils in the hull can become rancid. Store your brown rice in the refrigerator or freezer to extend its life.
An important note about food safety and rice: raw rice can contain the dormant spores of a nasty bacterium called Bacillus cereus, whose toxin can cause significant intestinal distress. These spores can survive cooking, and if left at room temperature, the bacteria (and its toxin) can multiply. As this article explains, for this reason, you should always store cooked rice in the refrigerator within four hours, and discard it after three days. Interestingly, the traditional seasoning for sushi rice, rice vinegar and sugar, acts as a natural antimicrobial. As sushi rice is traditionally served at room temperature, sushi rice seasoning prevents the B. cereus bacteria from multiplying.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
There are many, many fermented rice products, including rice wine and rice vinegar. Here's a fascinating article on how to make your own Chinese fermented sweet rice (jiu niang) - make it to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year, but it will keep in your fridge for months. A similar product is made in Japan, called amazake (here's a recipe from Root Simple), and a similar fermented Thai rice dessert "for adults" (because it's slightly alcoholic) called khao mahk. Here's how to make your own rice vinegar, if you're so inclined, but first you'll need to make your own rice wine. Venerable food scientist Harold McGee is on it. Sake, is, of course, a type of rice wine, as are the Korean yakju and makgeolli.
Baked Brown Rice with Shallots and Herbs
I hesitate to call this a "recipe," because it's really more of a method. A perfect method. I've always had trouble making brown rice on the stovetop - it either came out too wet or too dry, never just right. (And I don't have a rice cooker - no room on my countertop.) Baking the rice creates the perfect texture, every time.
This recipe is infinitely variable. Omit the shallots and herbs for perfectly cooked plain brown rice. Substitute olive or coconut oil in place of the butter to make a vegan version. Add toasted cumin seeds to the basic recipe for Indian dishes. Stir in a few tablespoons of tomato puree, some chopped onion and cumin powder for Mexican rice. Toss in some chopped vegetables. The possibilities are endless. The basic recipe for baked brown rice (without the shallots and herbs) is from the My Nepenthe cookbook. It can easily be doubled or even tripled.
1 cup brown rice
1 1⁄2 cups water
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons finely minced herbs (any combination of parsley, thyme, marjoram, sage and rosemary)
1 tablespoon butter
- Preheat the oven to 375F.
- In a medium baking dish (the exact size is not really important, but don't use a dish that is super small - remember that the rice will expand as it cooks), add the rice, water, shallots, herbs and a generous pinch of salt. Top with the butter.
- Seal the dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake for about 50 minutes to an hour, or until all the water has been absorbed. Avoid removing the aluminum foil until the end of cooking. Fluff with a fork before serving.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)