Random thoughts of rice dance around my brain. I recall the Chinese phrase “rice barrel,” which refers not to a container of food, but a heavy person. I remember my Japanese home, with futon beds (removed from the tatami-mat floor and put in the closet each morning), a square bathtub where soap remains taboo, and a rice cooker.
Taking a break from my shakuhachi (bamboo flute) studies, I trot off to the local store, and am greeted by an unlikely chorus of “welcome,” shouted by the produce department. I search for the rice aisle in a supermarket with products ranging from imported New Zealand cheddar cheese to instant cup-o-noodle. Everything is available except rice. So I tentatively ask in my “broken” Japanese. Receiving a puzzling response, I try a different word for rice. This elicits more laughter to my seemingly simple request. (Uncooked rice is a different word than cooked rice.) Then I discover no rice is available in the supermarket; it’s sold in an exclusive rice store.
Years later, I return to Japan and visit the urban rice garden on top of a contemporary cinema complex in Roppongi Hills. This small rice paddy does double-duty as a site for ceremonies and as an earthquake dampening system!
Rice is not your run-of-the-mill food; it’s honored at a variety of rituals throughout Asia. Praised by poets, celebrated in song, and eaten by emperors, rice is a symbol of fertility and the lifeblood of many societies. It is used as paper, glue, and starch, crafted into dolls, and woven into sandals and hats. In Japan it’s worn as a hair ornament to bring good luck to geishas. In India, rice flour is used in drawings for luck, and colorful dyed rice is made into tapestries telling stories at Hindu temples and festivals. It is a common offering to the Gods in Bali, as well as a way to stop fevers when applied as a paste on the skin.
But rice is also a most popular food, eaten with hands, forks, and chopsticks. It is currently cultivated in 110 countries with about 140,000 varieties. A versatile foundation of home cooking, it’s said to be a natural mood lifter, boosting serotonin levels in the brain. Rice Krispies were first introduced in 1928, but rice has been cultivated for over 10,000 years.
A Global Sampling:
ARBORIO – This absorbent, short-grained northern Italian rice is used to make risotto.
BASMATI – Basmati is a Hindi word meaning “Queen of fragrance.” From India and Pakistan, this most expensive, often aged, long-grained, slender rice with a nut-like flavor is ideal for curries.
CARNAROLI – Known as the “caviar of rice,” it is grown in the Piedmont region of Italy.
DELLA – A combination of aromatic basmati and typical long-grain varieties.
EARLY – A Chinese (and Mongolian) crop grown before summer.
FORBIDDEN – This black rice with a nutty taste is high in iron and considered a blood tonifier. In China it was traditionally reserved for the Emperor’s table.
GOBINDUVOG – From Burma, this long-grained rice, known as the “Prince of rice” is used for pilaf and rice pudding.
HIMALAYAN RED – With thinner grains than brown rice, this variety resembles Thai red rice with a chewy texture and nutty flavor.
INDICA- This medium-grained variety is popular in Mexico and works well for soups and paella.
JASMINE – This popular, long-grained, scented rice native to Thailand, tastes best when steamed.
KALINJIRA – An ancient long-grain rice from Bangledesh, likened to a baby basmati.
LONG-GRAIN – Rice is usually classified by short, medium or long grain, with the longest grains growing and eaten closer to the equator (such as India’s basmati, whose long grains stay separate after cooking and become fluffy).
MOCHI – This sticky, glutinous Japanese rice is broad and short-grained. It is