With the grain: rice

Categories: Expert guidance

Chef and demo kitchen regular Jenny Chandler explores cereal grains and offers tips and recipes to get the best of them. This month: rice

The domestication of rice (a seed of the grass species Oryza sativa) is claimed by some to have even preceded the growing of wheat in the Middle East, with evidence of cultivation in the Chinese Yangtze and Pearl River valleys between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago. What’s certain is that today, it’s the staple food of more than half of the world’s population, with Asia accounting for around 90 per cent of global consumption.

Rice is best suited to wet, lowland areas where the fields, or paddies, can be easily irrigated and so the most productive growing areas lie in the great river valleys. Yet some of Asia’s most evocative and lasting scenes have to be the terraced upland hillsides where the lush green, flooded paddies follow the contours of the land, shimmering like stained glass windows. Much of the world’s rice is cultivated on small farms—it’s an extraordinarily labour-intensive process but provides the bulk of calories for some of the world’s poorest inhabitants.

Rice may be seen as a lowly staple by some and it’s true that with wealth comes a diversification of diet, such as we’re seeing in China, where per capita consumption is dropping as rice is being replaced by meat and other cereals. Ironically, in non-producing countries such as Britain, our appetite for rice is on the rise, with more and more varieties, many at premium prices, on offer. But which rice to choose?

As a child I recall just two types of rice in the cupboard: there was the ubiquitous orange box of American long-grain to accompany the odd chilli con carne and the short grain pudding rice that lived in a battered, rose-embossed tin on the bottom shelf. Nowadays I struggle to keep my rice selection in single figures. Here are my favourites:

(Long, medium and short grain rice classifications refer to the length-to-width ratio once the rice is cooked)

The longest, most slender grain of all the rice varieties. Basmati is aromatic and fluffy, my go-to for accompanying anything from curries to chilli. It makes the perfect pilaff.

A slightly sticky long grain, sometimes known as Thai fragrant rice, perfect for Oriental dishes. Chilled, cooked jasmine rice makes the best egg fried rice.

Long grain
The rice of my childhood that lacks the aromas of basmati or jasmine but works well in Creole, Caribbean and Latino dishes such as jambalaya or Jamaican rice and peas.

Wholegrain or brown rice, with its outer layer of bran, can feel a little worthy. I rarely serve it as is, in place of white. Once tossed with caramelised shallots, toasted nuts and plenty of herbs or served with roasted vegetables, the added chew seems welcome, with the extra fibre coming as a bonus.

Camargue red
This medium, wholegrain rice from the south of France is an absolute favourite for salads. The cooked rice has a wonderful burgundy hue, deep nuttiness and a pleasingly chewy bite.

Spanish paella rice
A medium to short grain rice that soaks up almost three times its weight in stock and doesn’t stick together. Bomba rice is the most famous and reliable variety, while calasparra rice from inland Murcia is perhaps the king.

Italian risotto rice
Risotto is made with medium to short-grain rice, with a particularly high starch content. The starch breaks down making a creamy stock as you stir, while the centre of the rice retains a little bite. Arborio is the most common variety, but carnaroli and vialone nano give the most fabulously creamy texture.

Black glutinous rice
A wonderfully sticky short to medium-grain rice (no gluten, despite its name) with super-duper health credentials, the bran being loaded with fibre. Perfect for savoury dishes, but best cooked in coconut milk with palm sugar and spices for an ambrosial rice pudding.

Japanese sushi rice
A short grain, polished rice that retains starch well, making it bind together sufficiently for sushi.

Short grain pudding rice
If you’re after a traditional, slow-baked rice pud (along with the prerequisite skin), you can do no better than traditional short grain pudding rice.

There are simply thousands of varieties of rice on offer—if I’ve left out your winner please let us know all about it.

Read Jenny’s recipe for arroz negro