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Chefs explain: Everything you need to know about rice

Rice is and has always been a vital staple food. It is also categorised high on the glycaemic index, which means it is rife with absorbable sugars. An easy form of carbohydrate from a natural food source, rice is light on the stomach and also a great option for gluten-free eating. It is also easily digested and a quick energy provider when compared with other popular staple foods of the world, including wheat, corn and grains.

Dating back to 2,500 B.C. to its first cultivation in China, the use of rice in both traditional and contemporary cooking has been nothing but abundant. Rice also symbolises fertility in India and in various countries, is is plated on numerous tables, symbolic to specific cultures, heritage and traditions.

Rice cultivation in China.

These grains are classified based on size – short, medium and long-grain blends, as well as types and colours. In just the white rice category alone, there are variants that are specific to a country, climate and cooking. Short-grain rice is generally plumper and contains more starch. The two popular types include Japanese rice typically used for sushi and Arborio rice, the primary contender for risotto. The long-grain variant, on the other hand, is firmer and has a drier texture. These are common in all kinds of pilafs as well as for most Indian and Malay cuisine, with the use of Basmati rice for biryani and spiced rice dishes.

Rice is the key ingredient to a good serving of sushi.

For generations, white rice has been the main food item in every household. “As Asians, we grow up with rice. These are food that is rudimentary nourishment to our body, so much so, the notion of eating rice is already innate in our DNA,” quips Chef Yenni Law of Meatology Restaurant.

For many of us, the fragrance of freshly cooked rice wafting in the kitchen is also reminiscence to growing up. The slightly sweet, barely popcorn-like aroma is a familiar scent that is common in most Asian kitchens.

Freshly harvested rice.

“White rice is like vanilla. It is something that everyone knows, eats and doesn’t generally go crazy about. It is simply something that basically goes well with almost everything,” shares the 43-year-old chef.

Law has recently published her second cookbook, Her World 2017: The Rice Pot, which explores some 40 familiar recipes that centred on creative uses of rice. The cookbook has been recently honoured the title Best Cookbook under the Woman Chef category in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, which is often referred to as the Oscars of the cookbook world.

Chef Yenni Law of Meatology Restaurant, TTDI KL.

In her book, Law reinterprets all-time favourites like Chinese spring rolls, muffins, fried fritters and rice cakes heroing rice as the core ingredient. She also put together a list of rice dishes including the jambalaya, paella, risotto and the unmistaken nasi lemak.

“That’s my favourite dish. Nasi lemak is something I could never say no to. Of course, there are other local rice meals like nasi kerabu, nasi dagang and biryani that are equally as delicious and satiating as well,” she reiterates.

A delicious serving of nasi lemak. (Credit: Panasonic)

Rise of Black Rice
However, new health fads like the Paleo and Atkins diet have changed the way people look at rice. “The idea of eating rice has not become a stigma,” says Law. “We have moved into a new category of coloured rice that are marketed as healthier and more nutritious.”

One cannot deny the benefits of eating brown, red and black rice. Like white rice, these deep-coloured rice types are equivalently wholesome and nourishing. The rise of black rice, according to Law, is like any other food trend – a passing phase.

“All this while, the colour black is not something desirable for food. It is referred to as dirty, burnt or distasteful. Black rice, also known as the ‘forbidden rice’ has been cultivated and grown by upper-class societies in China some 2,000 years ago. It remains a hidden secret as to why the black rice is only served to aristocrats and nobles,” she explains.

A bowl of black rice.

Black rice can also be commonly mistaken as wild rice. It is dark in colour and contains the highest nutrient count compared to white and brown rice thanks to the anthocyanin content, which is a type of flavonoid with antioxidant effects as well as anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-cancer benefits.

However, black rice is starchier (similar to the glutinous kind) and requires at least 2 to 3 times the water, with longer cooking time. It has also protein content which is ideal for vegans and vegetarians.

“We also have ‘fortified rice’ in the market today – rice that is infused with essential nutrients and vitamins, which are mostly artificial anyway. I simply don’t believe in such things because it is just a marketing tool to create a need for people to want it.”

There are over 40,000 types of rice around the world.

Today, any kind of coloured rice has been proven to be more nutritious and healthier as compared to the polished types. These kinds of rice are slowly replacing their white counterparts in various rice-based recipes including rice pudding, porridge, rice noodles, desserts and many more.

With over 40,000 different types of rice, it is not surprising that these grains continue to retain its popularity over the years. Rice will never be obsolete in our kitchens as Law repeats: “One can never live without rice. It is the epitome of feeling contented – basically, comfort food. But everything should always be in moderation, including rice.”

(Featured image: Archanas Kitchen)

Martin Teo
Martin has a bent for history and food culture, especially of the Peranakan heritage. Since the pandemic, he finds joy in plant parenting and continues to expand his collection of Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Syngoniums. He's now on a lookout for the elusive Philodendron Florida Beauty to add to his urban garden.
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