I use the term Indian Rice to differentiate from other types of rice which are used around the world such as the sticky rice used in Japan or the stuff we use in the west to make glutenous rice puddings. The rice used in most Indian cooking is long grained rice and there are a few common varieties. And since it is possible that this species originated in Northern India, the term Indian rice seems appropriate.
The various kinds of rice form the staple food for about half of the world's population. It is eaten extensively all over the South and East of Asia as well as in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the West Indies. In terms of grain production it is second only to maize. As a rough guide to its importance, the Chinese word for rice is the same as their word for food.
It is believed that the basic plant (oryza sativa, like you're interested) has been growing in Asia for as much as 5,000 years and maybe more. In India it first appeared in the north east and it can still be found growing wild as a perennial grass in Nepal and some parts of Assam. The plant may also be indigenous to China and other Asian counties or may have been spread by trade.
It was almost certainly domesticated over 4000 years ago and then spread throughout India, then Asia and then to the rest of the world (by 1700 it had reached America).
Anything this old and this important always has cultural as well as culinary significant, and rice is associated with fertility and prosperity (which is why we throw it at weddings).
It is a member of the grass family (like wheat and barley but it grows anywhere from 3 to 6 feet high) so it is a cereal grain.
For its cultivation all rice including Indian rice needs fairly specific climatic conditions or the ability to simulate them. The seedlings are often planted underwater, or the fields flooded shortly afterwards. This is to protect the growing plant from weeds and vermin and is simply the cheapest form of weed and pest control; it is not actually essential to growing the crop. The plants do, however, require lots and lots of water in the early part of growth, followed by continuous hot dry weather (so we've not a cat in hell's chance of growing it in the UK).
Types of Indian rice
Outside India countries have many different varieties often to suit local culinary tastes, For example Japanese sushi and sashimi use a short grained variety (Japonica) which becomes sticky when cooked. Other short or medium grained varieties are used for various purposes in America, the UK, the West. I will just stick with the common Indian rice varieties here.
For a food that is essentially quite bland, there are an astonishing number of different varieties. You may think Basmati is a variety - no there are about a dozen variants of Basmati. It is thought that there are over 40,000 varieties of cultivated rice as the scientists continually try to improve flavour, yields, disease resistance and so on.
It can also be bought with or without the outer skin; with the skin it is brown, if the skin is removed (by mechanical polishing) then this is the usual white variety that people are most familiar with.
To avoid being too encyclopaedic (and boring) we will just look at the major categories here.
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 if 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.
If you want to be purist when making idlis this variety was developed in Southern India and is specifically used for idlis. The only time I have tried it was when I was in India and my Indian colleagues pointed out over breakfast that my idlis were made with a special type of rice. It does contain less starch than most varieties of Indian rices.
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 will write more about these later.
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.
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.
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