Rice: Go with the grain

As we embrace world cuisines, we can't get enough of rice. Gillian Orr finds out how to cook it perfectly

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Rice is believed to have been eaten for around 12,000 years, when the Chinese first learnt to cultivate it. However, it wasn't introduced to Europe until the 10th century, when it began to be grown in Spain and Italy. Today, it is the third most produced crop in the world after maize and wheat and the British get through 425,000 tonnes of it each year (that's 6.5 kilograms per person.) Our consumption of rice has risen about 5 per cent over the last five years, suggesting we can't get enough of the exotic grain.

"One of the reasons we're finding this increase is that obviously the population is rising," says Alexander Waugh, director of the Rice Association. "But also, rice is traditionally consumed with eastern cuisines – Indian, Chinese, Thai and so on – and there has been more demand for that both by Western consumers and because of the increase of eastern populations in Britain."

As Britain is unable to grow the crop, lacking the warm and wet tropical climate that is required, we import it from all over the world. "All basmati rice comes from India and Pakistan because it can't come from anywhere else," says Waugh. "Risotto-type rice comes from Italy; Spain and the USA produce a lot of long grain rice but it's Thailand that actually accounts for about a third of all the world's rice exports." And will we ever be able to grow it in Britain? "Well, with climate change and everything, who knows?"

How to cook

Everyone has their own preference of cooking rice. Some prefer to boil it in the exact amount of water that should be absorbed (the absorption method), while others prefer to boil it in a large quantity of water and drain it before serving (the rapid boil method). Soaking the rice might seem like an unnecessary added extra but not only does it decrease cooking time (thus saving fuel) but it softens the grain, allowing the water to penetrate it more easily and therefore it comes out much less sticky.

Ultimate rice

Put the grains in a large bowl, cover completely with water and swirl around to remove starch and dirt. Pour rice into a sieve and rinse under the cold tap. Return to a clean bowl and cover with clean water and leave to soak for 30 minutes.

Rice should be measured by volume, not by weight: using a measuring jug, allow 75 millilitres of rice per person. The quantity of liquid you'll need is double the volume of rice.

Bring water to the boil, add the rice and leave the lid on. Take care not to stir the rice while it's cooking. After the water is evaporated, take off the boil and fluff up the rice with a fork.

Short cuts

Many people complain about the time and care it takes to cook rice and have looked to more convenient methods. Rice cookers are popular in Asia and Latin America and can cook rice to perfection (while requiring zero supervision). However, because they are rather cumbersome gadgets, they are only really worth it if you eat a lot of rice and have plenty of storage space. Boil-in-the-bag rice is quick and simple and many brands have excellent nutritional value because the rice is cooked in the husk parboiled, which forces nutrients into the grain of the rice. However, the fastest option is instant rice that has been cooked entirely and then dehydrated. Instant rice takes just a few minutes of rehydrating and heating to be edible. But experts say it has an appalling flavour and texture, and lacks many of the nutrients of other varieties.

Health and safety

There are a lot of warnings thrown around about rice consumption, particularly with regards to reusing it. Rice actually contains bacteria, Bacillus Cereus, that survives the cooking process so some caution is advised. In rice the bacteria remains present as spores, which will appear dormant until added to water, when they grow. If you're not eating rice straight after you've cooked it, refrigerate it as soon as possible (certainly within four hours), which won't kill the bacteria but will slow its growth. Then the rice should be safe to eat (reheated or not) for two days.

Rice dishes around the world

China – Fried rice

Traditional fried rice is made from cold rice that has already been boiled before being fried with any combination of vegetables, egg, meat and seafood. A staple of Chinese cuisine, it is also extremely popular in West African countries including Nigeria and Ghana.

Asia – Biryani

The name biryani derives from the Persian word "beryan", meaning fried or roasted. A one-dish rice meal, a typical biryani will include meat or fish, vegetables and, often, a hard boiled egg. The difference between a biryani and a pilaf is that the former is cooked in layers while the latter is all mixed up together.

Japan – Sushi

Sushi's roots can actually be found in South-east Asia, before spreading to China and finally being introduced to Japan, with which it is now associated. Contemporary Japanese sushi has little resemblance to the traditional rice dish (the Westernised versions such as California rolls even less so).

Mediterranean – Paella, risotto

After rice was introduced into Europe from northern Africa, it quickly became a popular grain. Paella dates back to Valencia in the 19th century and the rice, seafood, meat and vegetable dish remains a Spanish staple. Risotto is the most common way to cook rice in Italy.

North America – Gumbo

Dating back to Louisiana in the 18th century, gumbo is a heavily seasoned thick stew or soup that includes stock, meat, shellfish and celery, pepper and onion. There are several different varieties including Cajun and Creole but it is always served on a bed of rice.

Caribbean – Rice and peas

A mainstay of the Jamaican diet, it is traditionally served as part of the Sunday meal. Garden peas as we know them don't feature in this dish, but rather any available legumes such as kidney beans and pigeon peas as well as various other spices and flavours.

The UK – Rice pudding

Although there are countless desserts that feature rice all around the world, rice pudding remains a popular English dessert. The earliest rice pudding dishes were called whitepot and recipes for the rice, cream and sugar treat date back to 1615.

Types of rice

Basmati

This has long, thin, pointed grains, and is more expensive than others but yields a far superior taste. This aromatic rice is grown mainly in the foothills of the Himalayas in India and Pakistan.

Long grain white

Milled to remove the husk and bran layer, on cooking, the grains separate to give an attractive fluffy effect. Extremely versatile and used in countless savoury dishes, and is essential in Chinese cooking.

Arborio

An Italian short grain rice, it is named after the town of Arborio in Piedmont, where it is grown. The grain is firm, chewy and grainy – perfect for risotto and rice pudding.

Jasmine

Originating from Thailand, this aromatic rice, with a subtle floral aroma, is sometimes used as a cheap alternative to basmati, although it has a rather less pronounced taste.

Wholegrain

Brown rice undergoes minimal milling, removing the husk but retaining the bran layer. Due to this the rice keeps more vitamin, mineral and fibre content than regular rice. It has a distinctly nutty flavour.

Della

Also known as sticky rice or sushi rice, it is a short grain and extremely sticky rice used widely in Asia to make sushi and a number of desserts.

Wild rice

Contrary to its name, wild rice is not actually a member of the rice family but an aquatic cereal grass native to north America. However, the two grains have similarities in taste and appearance.

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