Here's the long and short of the world's most popular food.

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Do you have a minute to talk about rice? I hope so; statistically speaking, if you are a human on the planet Earth, rice is most likely your staple food. The starches contained within rice were strong enough to secure the stones used to build the Great Wall of China. And yet the meticulous methods required for rice's cultivation and cookery have long made it the grain of choice in royal kitchens. Whether you enjoy it as polo, biryani, or risotto, rice is both grain of the people and delicacy of the rich and powerful. 

There are many forms of rice. Most—though not all—are varieties of Oryza sativa, the Asian rice grain originally domesticated during the Neolithic Revolution. Today you have access to more kinds of rice than a Persian monarch, each with its own biochemistry and virtues in the pot. It pays to understand the differences between them. This is a guide to many of the most common varieties, with notes on how to cook them, so that you too can participate in this essential culinary tradition that stretches back to the earliest days of human civilization.

Different types of rice
Credit: Photo by Antonis Achilleos / Prop Styling by Christina Daley / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey

Long-grain rice

There are two principle starches in rice—amylose and amylopectin—that along with the processing method influence how a grain behaves when cooked. Rice grains with a high proportion of amylopectin become sticky and soupy when cooked. Most long- and medium-grain rices are richer in amylose, which leads to grains that tend towards fluffy and separate. Long-grain varieties are often the most aromatic forms of rice, with fragrances of roasted, uh, grain, tropical herbs, and wildflowers. Long-grain rice makes great table rice, of course, and is also best for dishes where you don't want rice grains to stick together, such as biryani, pilaf, and fried rice.

Basmati and jasmine are the two big long-grain rices in town. Broadly speaking, you can substitute one for the other and still obtain a mountain of fluffy grains. Which one you prefer may be a matter of what you grew up with or where you shop. Basmati is longer and a touch more brittle with a slightly earthy aroma, and is popular across South Asia and the Middle East. Jasmine is plumper and pliant with more of a fresh-floral fragrance, and is widely used in Southeast Asia. You may also see kalijira, a medium-grain rice that cooks like a long-grain variety. This product of Bangladesh is renowned for its delicate aroma and texture.

In the United States, Texmati is a popular basmati variant, though purists may deride its comparative lack of aroma. Carolina Gold is another homegrown rice: an old specialty cultivar that practically went extinct in the mid 20th century, and is now undergoing a revival due to its American heritage and fantastic notes of roasted nuts and fresh-baked bread. 

Soupy rice

Whether you're making asopao, juk, or risotto, soupy rice is characterized by exceptionally tender grains that have given up much of their starch to enrich a cooking broth. Any rice cooked long enough will exhibit these qualities, but Italian risotto rices are arguably the best equipped for the job. Carnaroli, vialone nano, and arborio are medium-grained rices that excel at forming a rich, creamy broth while maintaining the integrity of individual grains that are soft to the tooth but don't dissolve completely.

Paella rice

There is a whole genre of rice dishes that are all about crispy bottoms. In Iran you have saffron-tinged tahdig. In China, bo zai fan is cooked in clay pots over high flame to develop a lacquered crust. Most recipes—emphasis on most here, as the subject of rice is too grand for absolutes—call for whatever long- or medium-grain rice is popular in the region. Spanish paella is a notable exception. Bomba and calasparra are short-grain rices that release enough starch to form a crispy crust on the bottom of the pan, yet when cooked in an open vessel with plenty of air circulation, they retain a toothy texture where basmati would turn to mush. Making paella without the appropriate rice is an uphill battle for the best of cooks, and paella rice may be a friend to any crispy-bottomed rice dish.

Short-grain rice

Japonica rices, as opposed to longer-grained indica varieties, tend to contain more water-soluble amylopectin, which leads to grains that stick together during cooking. One common example is "sushi rice," which isn't a specific variety so much as a platonic form. The rounded bowl of rice you may get at a Japanese or Chinese restaurant—the kind that absorbs some sauce but can be picked up in clumps with chopsticks—is best made with a rice sold as sushi rice. Calrose is a common variety in the U.S. and is popular in restaurants. 

Unlike long-grain rices, which turn plasticky and brittle after they cool, short-grain rices tend to be more tender at room- and fridge-temperature. This makes them ideal for chilled puddings. Short-grain rice can also absorb a lot of moisture; in Turkey, a variety called baldo is a popular short-grain rice used for pilaf, as it can soak up flavorful cooking liquid and form slightly sticky clumps of grains on your spoon. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, ponni rice is a short-grain variety often fed to the young, elderly, and sick, as it takes well to porridge preparations and is easily digestible with a relatively low glycemic index.

Sticky rice

Often called glutinous rice, white sticky rice doesn't actually contain the flour-protein gluten. It is, however, full of sticky amylopectin, and after a brief soak is ready to be steamed into all kinds of chewy sweet and savory preparations. Plain sticky rice is a regular accompaniment to Thai curries and saucy dishes. Cantonese cooks wrap sticky rice, fatty meat, and treats like mushrooms in lotus leaves for parcels called lo mai gai. When cooked with sugar and coconut milk, sticky rice makes a sweet and chewy dessert served with fresh mango and lightly salted condensed milk. And mochi—along with many chewy desserts across Asia—are made from sticky rice that's ground into a fine flour.

Black sticky rice is a whole-grain version that retains its purple bran layer. It requires a longer soak than white sticky rice but has a more complex texture, natural sweetness, and subtle fruit-and-pandan aroma. It's especially popular in the dessert preparations above, and makes a stunning visual contrast when cooked as a sweet pudding and layered with salted coconut cream.

Whole-grain rice

White rices are polished to remove their cereal germ and coarse brain layer, leaving only the inner starchy endosperm. Whole-grain rice retains these nutrient-rich components, to different degrees. That means they have more fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and consequently require more time and water to cook through those dense layers. Whole-grain rice demands more chewing power to eat, but rewards you with incomparable depth of flavor. Beyond making great table rice, whole-grain rice is ideal for salads or for stuffing vegetables.

Common brown rice is polished to remove most of this good stuff, leaving a thin coating of bran for some fiber and a grainy, cereal flavor. Himalayan red rice retains more of the bran layer, and has a correspondingly deeper nutty taste. You may see a black-hued rice called forbidden rice, which looks similar to uncooked black sticky rice, but cooks far less stickily. Once restricted to the rich for its nutritional profile and strong flavor, it's now used to make all kinds of rich-tasting rice dishes. A whole-grain basmati variant called Wehani is a trademarked invention of a family farm in California; devotees say it reminds them of hot roasted peanuts.

Wild (and "wild") rice

The wild rice sold in most American markets is neither wild (it's all cultivated these days) nor technically rice. It is a grass from the genus Zizania that grows in similar wet habitats as Oryza. Since it retains its bran and germ, you can treat it like whole-grain rice, though it can take even longer to cook. Better yet, treat it like pasta, boiled in a large pot of salted water and drained when al dente.

Native peoples in the North American Great Lakes did once forage for varieties of indigenous rice, and some have continued the tradition to this day. The rice, called manoomin in the language of the Ojibwe people, was often dried over smoky fires that contributed to its full bodied flavor. To meet demand, some of this rice is cultivated now, but Native American wild rice is a far cry from the "wild" "rice" sold in health food stores. It takes far less time to cook and has a fresher fragrance of nuts and pine, more like a quality basmati. Groups including the Red Lake Nation now sell this rice to the public.

Dimensionally reconfigured rice

Beyond simple drying, there are a number of processing methods that alter the shape and texture of rice. If you've ever eaten a Rice Krispies treat, you've had puffed rice, which is popped in a manner similar to popcorn. In Bangladesh and India, it's called jhal or bhel, and is tossed with mustard oil, chopped vegetables, and spices to make irresistible snacks called jhal muri or bhel puri. Also popular in South Asia is poha, which is rice that has been steamed, smashed down to become as flat as a bookmark, dried again, and sometimes toasted. This dried format may form the starch component of a Nepali thali with a variety of stews, dals, and vegetables, or the poha may be further sauteed in a pan with oil and spices as a hot cereal.

Cơm tấm is white rice that has been fractured and broken into pieces during milling. In Vietnam, this "low grade" rice was a common food for the poor, while rich families ate the pristine manicured grades. In recent decades, Vietnamese cooks have reclaimed broken rice as a piece of culinary heritage, and street vendors in Saigon may serve it alongside a fried porkchop glistening with fish sauce and caramelized sugar. Because broken rice releases extra starch as it cooks, it behaves similar to sushi rice, so it forms a nice rounded dome when packed into a bowl.

Par-cooked rice

Last but not least, we have parboiled rice. Parboiled or converted rice is partially cooked right inside the hull, then dried. This makes for rice that cooks far more quickly than standard white rice and the grains are more nutritious, as they've absorbed nutrients from the bran and germ that are polished away before bagging. Instant rice is fully cooked, then dehydrated, similar to dried ramen noodles, so all you need is to rehydrate it in hot water for a minute on the stove or in a microwave. "Minute Rice" loses some flavor and texture in the process, but it functions as a handy time- and labor-saving ingredient in many households. Makes good congee, too!