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Rice Comes of Age

Now that Westerners are exploring varieties beyond the basic white, rice is set to become the next pasta.
Not so long ago, the range of rices on supermarket shelves ran from white (plain) to white (converted). Now we are living in a rice revolution. The quality and variety of rice available has taken a giant leap forward, recalling the pasta boom of the 1980s. Today we can choose among Thai Jasmine Rice, California Wehani, Japanese, Louisiana pecan, short- and long-grain sticky rice, red rice, black rice--and the list keeps growing.

There are thousands of rices in the world. Most strains originated in East Asia, where the grain was first cultivated about 7,000 years ago. Asia still raises most of the world's rice, though the grain grows on every continent except Antarctica, in radically different environments, from flooded tropical paddies to irrigated deserts. These differences in growing conditions, together with the long, complex heritages of the various seed stocks, produce rices in various shapes and colors with distinct flavors and aromas. Basmati grown on a sunny Himalayan slope will taste very different from jasmine rice raised in a paddy in Thailand or japonica rice from a temperate Japanese island. 

Making the most of this embarrassment of rices means pairing the characteristics of the particular rice with the dishes it is used in or served with. Flavor and color are important considerations, as is texture. Cooked grains of Japanese rice cling together while basmati is fluffy and dry; the chewy grains of Thai Sticky Rice adhere to one another yet the chewy grains of Wehani remain separate. 

At our house in Toronto, we first decide which rice to make as the heart of the meal. Once that's settled, we look to see what else we have on hand, then prepare dishes to match the rice. With jasmine rice we might make a Thai beef or mushroom salad; the rice serves as an aromatic foil to the light yet punchy flavors of Thai food. Wehani, a California native, calls for a full-bodied dish, perhaps a slow-simmered winter stew, and basmati has the ideal taste and texture for a Persian-style pilaf or an Indian-style curry. 

To celebrate the pleasures of rice, we've put together a primer on seven of our favorite varieties, with basic cooking instructions, plus recipes for 10 delicious dishes. 

These rices and other exotic ingredients in the following recipes are available at Middle Eastern and Asian markets or from Kalustyan's (212-685-3451; fax 212-683-8458) or The Oriental Pantry (800-828-0368; fax 617-275-4506). The rices named in bold-face type are the ones we believe are best in or with these dishes. 

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Toronto-based food writers and photographers, are the authors of Flatbreads and Flavors (Morrow). They are currently at work on their next book, which will be a global look at rice.

Published January 1997
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