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120,000 types of rice...

There are many, many types of rice... I remembered reading that there are more than 3,000 varieties then I came across another article that says more than 120,000!

Yet most people know and eat only one type. For many people in Singapore, that would be "Thai fragrant white rice". I know of families that eat the same type, same brand of rice for decades. My family was one of them.

That changed when I learned macrobiotics and started to eat unpolished brown rice. Not only did I discover many different types of rice, but also that they can be very very different.

I remember, especially, the first time I ate biodynamic brown rice from Australia. This is rice grown by a special method of agriculture, introduced by Rudolf Steiner, that is not only organic and natural but also takes into account cosmic cycles like the phase of the moon for planting, fertilising and harvesting.

The biodynamic rice tasted so much better than regular organic brown rice. I never thought there could be so much difference.

White vs brown vs 'red' rice

The many types of rice can be divided, firstly, into two broad types - polished and unpolished, or white and brown. The difference may be obvious. White or polished rice has its "skin" or bran removed. It is mainly carbohydrates, with most of the fiber, protein, oils, vitamins and minerals removed. Brown or unpolished rice is the whole grain, minus the husk, with the fibre and nutrients mostly intact.

But... there is still some confusion and, initially, I, too, was confused.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that, in the past, the type of brown / uinpolished rice available in Singapore (and other parts of Southeast Asia) was mainly dark, reddish brown in colour. But when organic and health foods stores started selling brown rice (from the US, Australia), they were light brown or beige in colour.

Initially, I thought the "red" rice was the genuine unpolished rice and "superior" to the brown rice, which I thought was slightly poiished. I will not be surprised if some people still think the same. Not so. They are just different types of rice with different skin colour. Both are equally unpolished.

As I later discovered, different types of rice come in different colours - beige, reddish brown, chocolate brown, black, etc. There is even unpolished brown rice that looks white. It has a white skin but is still whole, unpolished rice.

'Whole grain'

Another confusion stems from the use of the term "whole grain". Most people understand whole grain rice to mean unpolished brown rice. In Singapore and some other Asian countries, however, the term "whole grain" actually refers to polished white rice that is not broken. This is to differentiate them from lower grades of rice that consists of broken grains.

Long, medium and short

The most important thing to know about the many different types of rice, whether unpolished or polished, brown or white. is the differences in their lengths:

  • Long grain rice is long and slim. When cooked, it is fluffy. This is the rice that grows in hot tropical climates - such as Southern China, Thailand, India, Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar), Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines - and is more suitable for people in such climates.

  • Short grain rice is short and fat. When cooked, it is slightly sticky / starchy. Short grain rice grows in colder temperate climates like Japan, Korea and Northern China and is more suitable for people in colder climates.

  • Medium grain rice is, well, "medium" - between long and short grain.

A few points to note:

  1. The "stickiness" of short (and, to some extent, medium) grain rice is not the same as that of glutinuous rice or sticky rice. This is a different category of rice and there is also long grain, medium grain and short grain sticky rice. Click here to read about glutinous types of rice.

  2. Some sub-tropical climates can support the cultivation of all types of rice. This is why rice growers like Lundberg in California and some of the Australian rice farms are able to produce all the three main types.

  3. It is okay for people in hot tropical climates to eat short grain and for those in colder climates to eat long grain rice, especially in summer.

Yin and yang of rice

In the macrobiotic classification of food terms of yin and yang, the three main types or rice may be viewed as follows...

  • Long grain rice is more yin or "expanding". The effect of eating long grain rice is more relaxing and It can help balance the condition of people who are more yang, such as those whose bodies are are hard, tight and tense.

  • Short grain rice is more yang or "contracting". The effect of eating short grain rice is more tightening and strengthening. It is especially helpful for people who are weak from illness as well as those whose body condition is more soft and loose.

Types of rice - by name

As consumers become more sophisticated, rice is no longer sold as a generic food and nowadays, more of the different types of rice come with names. The more common types of rice include:

  • Basmati rice might be considered a "super long grain" rice as it is even longer than other varieties of long grain rice. It is known for its delicate flavour and very soft, fluffy texture. This rice is used in Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern rice dishes such as pilaf and briyani.

  • Jasmine rice is a long, but not too long, rice from Thailand, also known for its fragrance. It is also known by other names like Hom Mali or simply as "fragrant rice" or "aromatic rice".

  • Calrose rice is a medium grain rice originally developed in California in 1948. The original Calrose variety is no longer grown but newer varieties continue to be called Calrose and this is the type of rice most commonly eaten in the Pacific islands of Hawaii and Guam. At one time, Calrose rice was highly sought in Asia as it was considered an "exotic" imported rice.

  • Japonica rice is a generic term of Japanese short grain rice, unique for its stickiness. However, California rice grower Lundberg also sells a variety called Black Japonica which has dark chocolate brown, sometimes almost black skin.
    • Arborio rice is another short grain rice - but sometimes classified as medium grain. It belongs to the same family as Japonica, is grown in Italy and used for the Italian rice dish, risotto.

    Wild rice

    Finally, a note about wild rice. Strictly speaking, this is not a type of rice but a different grain. It has been described as a "close cousin" to rice. It is also called Canadian rice or Indian rice - in this case refering to American Red Indians rather than Indians from India.

    Wild rice grows in shallow lakes in North America and Canada as well as in northern China - buyt the Chinese no longer eat the grain, only the stalk of the wild rice plant, as a vegetable.

    It is a very long grain, longer than even Basmati rice and has a strong nutty flavour. Because of the strong flavour - and also its high price - wild rice is not normally eaten like regular rice as a main food with accompanying dishes of meat, vegetables, etc. Some Western restaurants serve it as a small side dish. It may also be added to regular rice - 10 percent or more - to impart a nice flavour.

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