The world of rice

Posted on 3 min read

We, humans, have independently domesticated two different rice species about 3’000 years ago – the well-known Asian rice and less popular African rice. The latter is now rarely sold in different markets as it’s being displaced by the more higher-yielding Asian variety which contains two major subspecies: sticky short-grained japonica and non-sticky long-grained indica (and their numerous cultivars which can share both traits). In the world of rice, these two are like mealy and waxy potatoes in the tuber’s world, i.e. their starch contents affect their cooking properties. Sticky rice is also called glutinous. Not because it has something to do with the protein gluten, but because it’s being gluey and its grains are stuck to one another when thoroughly cooked. It’s used in many recipes throughout Asia, for both savoury and sweet dishes. Philippine cuisine is the one that has an impressive number of preparations with the glutinous rice, mainly rice cakes of different forms, shapes and colours. Rice-derived desserts are known under the term kakanin there. Steamed and baked sweets are among the most popular. 

One of the fanciest steamed rice treats is purple puto bumbong. It’s prepared and sold during Christmas time, so get ready! Its colour comes from the special rice that is deep purple, almost black. Rice is soaked overnight, that’s when it’s fermenting just a little to get that distinctive kick to it, then densely packed in bamboo stems and steamed. Resulted cylindrical rice cakes are served on banana leaves, smeared with butter and tossed into brown muscovado sugar and grated coconut. Very lovely dish. Of course, you don’t need that heirloom rice to get it done – a bag of simple glutinous rice flour and a regular colourant will do. There are plenty of videos on the internet with hints and tricks on how to form a proper puto. Or you can always go all-in and order special casings or bamboo sticks from the specialized online shops.  

Glutinous rice is also traditionally used in special gruels, like in Chinese congee. This is comfort food for many people and, in its basic form, it’s just a porridge made from boiling rice with large amounts of water – to get it super soft, sticky, thickened. It’s consumed as a part of a popular Asian meal as a savoury (made with chicken, bone, or veggie broth) or sweet dish. For every 1 cup of glutinous rice, you will need 12 cups of water. Bring everything to a boil, then reduce heat, cover partially, and cook for approximately 60-90 minutes, or until thickened. Then add brown or regular sugar, dates, raisins, nuts, syrup, coconut milk. One of the strangest variants that look too unusual for an European is a champorado – a chocolate rice porridge with dried salted fish on top. Normally, we don’t eat things like this. But who knows, maybe we need to start 2021 with something radically new. The good news is that you can mix coffee or milk right into the champorado dish. Not a dish, a revelation. 

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