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.

About The Author

An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her website.

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.

Basmati Rice With Pomegranate Seeds

There are as many ways to make rice as there are birds in the sky, but this is an especially tasty preparation. If you wish to vary this dish, don't add too many other whole spices. Instead vary the nuts, add dried fruits or choose other herbs. Too many spices will overwhelm the taste of the dish. This recipe is from Modern Spice by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster 2009).

Makes 4 servings

1 cup white or brown basmati rice

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 bay leaves

2 green cardamom pods, bruised

Salt to taste

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 cups water

1/2 cup toasted pine nuts*

8 to 10 mint leaves

1/2 cup fresh pomegranate seeds

Rinse the rice well in running water. Drain and set aside. (Some people like to soak their rice in water for about a half-hour. This reduces the cooking time. I generally don't soak my rice.)

In a deep pan, heat the vegetable oil. Add the bay leaves and cardamom pods. Saute for a minute, or until fragrant.

Add salt to taste, the lemon juice and the rice. Mix well. Add the water and bring to a rolling boil. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 18 to 20 minutes for white rice, 30 to 40 minutes for brown, until most of the water has been absorbed. You will see small craters forming on top of the rice.

Remove from heat and let sit, covered, for about 5 minutes.

Fluff with a fork, remove the bay leaves, top the rice with the pine nuts, mint leaves and pomegranate seeds, and serve immediately.

*To toast pine nuts, heat a small, dry skillet on medium heat. Add the pine nuts and toss gently for about 30 seconds or until they begin to brown. Remove immediately.

Bhutanese Red Rice Pilaf

You can make this ahead and just reheat it with a glob of butter to bring the sheen back to the rice grains. This rice pairs well with chicken stews and vegetable curries and makes a colorful side to a plate of grilled chicken or vegetables. The recipe is adapted from The City Cook: Big City, Small Kitchen. Limitless Ingredients, No Time: 90 Recipes So Delicious You'll Want to Toss Your Takeout Menus by Kate McDonough (Simon & Schuster 2010).

Makes 4 servings

1 cup Bhutanese red rice

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup finely minced yellow onion or shallot

1 1/2 cups chicken stock (homemade or boxed, not from a bouillon cube), at room temperature or warmed

2 small or 1 large sprig fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Rinse the rice with cold water. Drain completely, shaking off any excess water.

In a large (about 3 quart) saucepan or a saute pan with a cover, melt the butter over medium heat until the foam subsides. Add the onion and cook until soft and transparent, 1 to 2 minutes, keeping the heat low so it won't brown.

Add the rice and stir to coat with the melted butter. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, over medium heat. Your goal is to cook the rice for 1 to 2 minutes, not to toast it, but to have the hot butter adhere to the surface of the grains. It's at this point when the rice begins to sound dry and scratchy as you stir it.

Add the warm stock, thyme sprigs and bay leaf. If you're using an unsalted stock, add 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Cover and gently simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes. It's done when all the stock is absorbed and the grains of rice are tender but still chewy. If you want the grains to be softer, add 1/3 cup more stock and cook for a few minutes longer.

Fluff the rice with a fork and remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed.

Camargue Red Rice And Basil Oil

This recipe is adapted from one by chef Eric Fraudeau, who recommends serving it with sardines or other grilled fish. I like the combination of basil and lemon with cucumber and zucchini.

Camargue Red Rice And Basil Oil i i
Monica Bhide for NPR
Camargue Red Rice And Basil Oil
Monica Bhide for NPR

Makes 4 servings

Salt

1 cup Camargue red rice, rinsed and drained

1 small cucumber

1 very small zucchini

1 bunch chervil

1 bunch chives

Ground white pepper

Leaves from 1 bunch basil

3 tablespoons olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

2 small tomatoes, seeded and diced

Add the rice to a deep pan. Add two cups of water. Bring the water to the boil. Let it boil for a minute then turn the heat down, cover and cook for 25 minutes, or until just tender. Remove from heat and set aside. Season with salt to taste.

Peel the cucumbers, cut in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds. Cut the flesh in small dice. Cut the zucchini in small dice. Chop the chervil and chives fine. Mix the cucumber, zucchini, chervil and chives into the rice and season with salt and pepper.

Puree the basil with the olive oil. Stir the lemon juice into the basil puree and season with salt and pepper.

In the center of each serving plate, place a mound of rice. Drizzle with the basil sauce and garnish with diced tomatoes. Serve immediately.

Black Forbidden Rice With Shrimp, Peaches And Snap Peas

If you have trouble finding black rice, substitute brown, basmati or jasmine rice. Slightly underripe peaches will hold up better to the heat while cooking. If your peaches are fully ripe, saute for just a minute to a minute and a half. This recipe is adapted from Weeknights with Giada by Giada De Laurentiis (Clarkson Potter 2012).

Black Forbidden Rice With Shrimp, Peaches And Snap Peas i i
Courtesy of Amy Neunsinger/Clarkson Potter
Black Forbidden Rice With Shrimp, Peaches And Snap Peas
Courtesy of Amy Neunsinger/Clarkson Potter

Makes 4 to 6 servings

3 1/2 cups water

2 cups black forbidden rice

1 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1 1/2 pounds peeled and deveined large shrimp

8 ounces sugar snap peas, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces (2 1/2 cups)

3 peaches, pitted and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar

3 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon soy sauce

In a medium saucepan, bring water, rice, ginger and 2 teaspoons salt to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat, cover the pan and simmer until the rice is tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside for 5 minutes.

Fluff with a fork and transfer to a large serving bowl.

Meanwhile, in a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the grapeseed oil over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the shrimp are cooked through and opaque, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the shrimp and set aside to cool. Using paper towels, wipe the pan dry.

In the same pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat. Add the snap peas and cook, stirring frequently, until slightly soft, about 2 minutes. Add the peach slices and cook for 2 minutes. Transfer the peas and peaches to the serving bowl.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the vinegar, the remaining 1/4 cup oil, honey and soy sauce until smooth. Pour the dressing over the rice mixture. Add the shrimp and toss well. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Khao Neeo See Dum (Sweet Black Rice Treat)

From Thailand to Bali, wherever there is black rice, it seems to be prepared with coconut milk and palm sugar to make desserts, snacks and breakfast treats. Black rice can be prepared as long as 8 hours ahead and kept at room temperature, well covered. Do not place it in the refrigerator, as it will dry out and harden. Recipe adapted from Seductions of Rice by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books 1998).

Khao Neeo See Dum (Sweet Black Rice Treat) i i
Courtesy of Artisan
Khao Neeo See Dum (Sweet Black Rice Treat)
Courtesy of Artisan

Makes 6 to 8 servings as dessert or sweet snack

1 cup Thai black rice, soaked for 12 to 24 hours in plenty of water

1 cup long-grain Thai sticky rice, soaked with the black rice

2 cups canned coconut milk

1/3 cup palm sugar or brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Sliced fresh peach, mango, star fruit, kiwi or other soft tart-sweet fruit (optional)

Heavy cream, for garnish (optional)

Place the rice in a steamer or a large sieve lined with cheesecloth or a tea towel. Place the steamer over a pot of water; the water must not touch the rice. Bring to a vigorous boil. Steam the rice for 35 minutes, stirring gently after 15 minutes, or until the rice is shiny, the white rice dark-colored and soft, the black rice grains soft inside but still a little resistant outside.

While the rice is steaming, prepare the coconut milk dressing. Canned coconut milk usually separates into thick coconut cream and more watery coconut milk. Mix the two together then transfer to a saucepan and place over low heat. Stir in the sugar and salt. Palm sugar may be solid at first but will quickly dissolve. Keep the sauce warm over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the rice has finished steaming.

Transfer the cooked rice to a serving bowl and immediately pour 1 1/2 cups of warm coconut sauce over it, reserving the rest of the sauce. Stir gently to mix well, then let stand covered at room temperature for 30 minutes or as long as 3 hours, to allow the flavors to blend and the rice to soften further.

Serve in individual small bowls topped with a little of the reserved sauce or let your guests serve themselves at the table. If serving with sliced fruit, pass separately or arrange several slices over each serving. Guests can add cream, if they like.

Green Bamboo Rice

I like to make this rice in the simplest way possible and then play with the garnishes. Here it is garnished with steamed snow peas and bean sprouts. I sometimes serve it with a fried or poached egg on top. You also can play up the colors of the dish by serving it with stir-fried mixed vegetables such as red and orange bell peppers. Do not rinse this rice before you use it.

Green Bamboo Rice i i
Monica Bhide for NPR
Green Bamboo Rice
Monica Bhide for NPR

Makes four servings as a side dish

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup green bamboo rice

In a deep pan, bring the stock to a boil over medium heat. Add the rice and stir for about a minute. Return to boil.

Reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until the stock has been completely absorbed. You will see small craters forming on top of the rice.

Remove from heat and let it sit for about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving. Garnish as you like.

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