One the most consumed foods on earth is rice, a staple in many countries around the world, rice is also the most popular grain on the planet.
There are several species of grain called rice. Asian rice (Oryza sativa) is most widely known and most widely grown, with two major subspecies (indica and japonica) with over 40,000 varieties.
In India alone 50% of its population depends on the grain for sustenance. Even though many people are familiar with India’s basmati rice, there are actually around 6,000 different varieties of rice cultivated in India.
India is not only the second-largest producer of rice in the world, accounting for some 20% of the global production, it is also among the largest consumers of this grain, with over 50% of India’s 1.3 billion people depending on rice for sustenance, India is ranked second to China with 100 million metric tons of rice consumed in 2019 to 2020 alone!
It is also the single most important staple item in almost all of India’s extremely diverse cuisine cultures, with different words for rice in each of India’s 29 official languages! Rice is repeatedly mentioned in ancient Indian texts, including the Yajur Veda (compiled in the period circa 1800 BC), and is closely associated with fertility and health across India’s many cultural traditions.
So, yes, rice has always been associated with civilization in India.
As tradition dictates in India, rice is also the first food offered to babies when they are weaned onto solids or to the husband by his new bride, to ensure they will have children. Rice is also often directly associated and symbolic of prosperity and fertility; hence there is the custom of throwing rice at newly-weds. Rice is often included in auspicious ceremonies in Indian culture and rituals.
To this day, there is still around 6000 different varieties of rice in India but it is estimated by ecologists that we have likely lost tens of thousands of native varieties of rice in the last 5 decades or so. Even then, the diversity of Indian rice varieties is among the most in the world—from aromatic and fragrant long-grain basmati varieties that grow in the northern part of the country to roundish medium-grain, glutinous rice preferred in the southern coastal areas. There are other types, including “red rice” (a coarse-husked variety that has a reddish-brown external color), which is very popular in Kerala in the South of India, as well as in some of our neighboring countries. Parboiled rice, in which the rice is processed differently after harvesting, is also popular in India.
Basmati rice is the most internationally well known of the rice grown in India.
As its name suggests in north Indian languages, it means ‘fragrance-filled’. So, this variety of rice is particularly good for savory dishes incorporating other fragrant spices like saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf, mace, pepper, etc. A fragrant meat-based rice dish like “Biryani” integrates these flavors with the fragrance of the rice, thereby doubling the sensory appeal of the food to the palate.
On the palate, itself, basmati has a uniquely nutty, warm flavor.
Well-steamed basmati rice, served with fragrant gravies or meat, helps complement and enhance the flavor of the food by providing a warm base flavor on the palate.
And finally, visually, basmati grains are extra-long and non-sticky. When cooked, basmati grains separate neatly from each other. This gives a basmati-based dish a distinctly different appearance when compared to other rice-based dishes. Interestingly, there is a saying in the ancient language of Sanskrit that grains of rice should be like brothers: close, but not stuck together!
Indian rice is also steam cooked most often when it is used as plain rice to accompany gravy-based dishes. However, when it is served as a pilaf, it is usually dry roasted with spices, other ingredients, and butter before being slow-cooked with water. Rice is also turned into a range of desserts, in which case it is cooked entirely in thickened milk. Or it can be turned into pancakes and savory rice cakes, in which case it is turned into a paste with lentils, fermented, and then grilled. In north-eastern India, rice is even cooked over embers in bamboo tubes.
So to avoid being too encyclopaedic (and boring) we will just look at the major categories here.
Generally speaking, rice is classified as either long, medium or short grain, with long grain rices being the most common, and the most diverse.
Probably the most well known variety of Indian rice and the one usually recommended for Indian food. It is grown in India and Pakistan in the Himalayan foothills, where it is thought to have originated – it is known as “the prince of rices”.
It is very long and slender grained and, unless it is overcooked, should not be sticky, but fluffy with separated grains. It has a distinctive delicate fragrance (in Sanskrit it means ‘the fragrant one”) and a nutty flavour.
There are dozens of varieties of Basmati rice, some traditional some hydrids, and there is also a lot of rice passed off as Basmati which isn’t (although this is mostly in India and probably doesn’t happen in Tesco’s)
Although this is sometimes used as a general term for any long grained rice, it is a specific variety. It is grown in and around Bihar (the state capital being Patna) in the Ganges plains.
It is closely related to Basmati but not quite as fragrant and again is long grained. In the West, the UK and USA in particular it is most highly regarded and probably the most used.
Basmati and Patna are the best two to use for plain boiled or aromatic rice but you can also use other varieties as long as they are long grain.
If you want to be purist when making idlis this variety was developed in Southern India and is specifically used for idlis. It does contain less starch than most varieties of Indian rices.
Ambe Mohar Ambe mohar rice, a raw rice, also called Govindbhog rice, is very short grained and fragrant, grown in the Himalayan foothills of Maharashtra. It is popular in Maharashtra due to its flavour and strong aroma of mangoes. Many consider this rice to be superior to basmati. It can be difficult to find, as it is a low-yield rice and farmers are gradually converting to other varieties.
Also known ad Ambamohar and Amba Mor.
Most varieties can be bought brown as well as white. The husk is removed but the bran layer is not polished off. This gives a nuttier taste and is a lot more nutritious as it retains more vitamins, minerals and fibre. It is unlikely ever to get sticky but it does take considerably longer to cook to soft. It has a slightly chewier texture than the white grains which you may or may not like. I like it for a change occasionally.
Maybe it’s the control freak in me but I rarely use this. It is sold part cooked so it takes very little cooking time – you just need to warm it up really. It is parboiled before being hulled and milled, this way it is meant to keep more nutritional value. It may be slightly yellow when bought but turns white when you cook it.
Sticky Rice (Glutinous Rice) In Northeast India, people commonly harvest and use variants of sticky rice, and there are dozens of varieties. Sticky rice has a distinct aroma, and based on strain of rice the colour can vary from brown to red. A special variant of sticky rice called bora saul is harvested widely in Assam.
This is a related grass plant but is not a true rice. It is mainly grown and used in North America where it is nearly always sold as whole grain. It has the dietary advantage that it is naturally gluten free, it is also very rich in protein, mineral and fibre.
In Asia, mostly China, it is mostly grown for the stems, which are used as a vegetable.
Broken Rice Grains that are broken in the milling process are used for dishes such as Upma and Pongal in South India. Some reports say that the milling of rice produces 50% whole rice, 16% broken rice, 20% husk, 14% bran and meal. Grains also break before and after milling in transport. Mechanical separators are used to separate the broken grains from the whole grains
Alternatively, grains can be pounded to form broken rice.
Poha Poha is steamed and rolled/flattened rice – make sure that you get this and not puffed rice. Poha comes in different thicknesses – Nylon (very thin and crisp), Paper, Thin, Medium, Thick and Dagdi (thick and chewy). The thicker types are soaked before use. There are also poha types made from red rice and brown rice.
Rava Rice Rava and grits refer to the coarse state of ground rice or wheat. In general it refers to wheat but can be used to describe rice. Grits are made with rice and other cereals.
Rice Flour This fine powder is made from ground rice. Rice flour is used to thicken sauces and curries or binds mixtures. It is also used in desserts. Cornflour or besan can be substituted, but doesn’t impart the same texture.
There are maybe half a dozen other Indian Rice varieties which are used in Indian cooking. These vary in fragrance and grain size and are generally only available in India or in very specialist shops (or online of course).
I think this concludes some of the best of Indian rices!
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