"Cutting stalks at noon
Perspiration drips to the earth
Know you that your bowl of rice
Each grain from hardship comes?"
(Cheng Chan-Pao, Chinese philosopher)
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of rice in Chinese culture. To the Chinese, rice is a symbol of life itself. There are many sayings that demonstrate the status of rice. In the south, people commonly greet each other by asking "Have you had your rice today?" A person who loses his job is said to have had his rice bowl broken. And when you are a dinner guest it is considered bad manners not to consume every grain of rice in your bowl.
According to a charming myth, the Chinese were first introduced to rice by a wild animal. A prolonged period of flooding had destroyed all the crops, leaving people with no choice but to hunt animals. One day, a wild dog ran up to them. The people noticed several yellow seeds attached to his tail. The grateful people planted the seeds and rice grew.
Today, in many parts of China rice is a fixture at every meal. And not just boiled rice, either - it is used in everything from noodles to desserts to poultry stuffing. Congee, a type of rice gruel mixed with vegetables, is a popular breakfast dish. And then, of course, rice is a feature of many main entrees.
A Brief History
The precise origins of rice are lost to history, but experts believe the plant probably got its start in India. Certainly, archeological evidence indicates that the southeast Asians were the first people to cultivate rice: artifacts imprinted with rice grains dating back to 4,000 BC have been discovered in Korea.
Rice soon spread outward from southern Asia into China and beyond. It is thought that the Greeks were introduced to rice when Alexander the Great brought it home with him from his travels to India in the 4th century BC. The Moors took rice with them when they invaded Spain, and the Spanish in turn introduced the Italians to rice in the 1400's. From there it quickly spread through southern Europe. While rice wasn't one of the staples the Pilgrims packed on the Mayflower, it has been a staple crop in the United States since the late 1600's.
Speaking of the Mayflower, rice is not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of British cuisine - or even French cuisine for that matter. The reason for this probably stems back to medieval times. Malaria was prevalent in southern Europe in the 1500's and 1600's, and many people believed the swampy conditions needed for rice production contributed to the spread of the disease. Needless to say, this meant northern Europeans were less than eager to make rice a staple in their diet.
Fortunately, the incidence of malaria had no impact on rice's status in China. There are several references to rice in Buddhist scriptures. (The lack of similar references to rice in either Jewish scriptures or the Bible add to the case for rice originating in southern Asia). Today, China is one of the countries that make up the rice bowl, an area that produces the majority of the world's rice.
Rice is a member of the Graminae family. There are two species of cultivated rice, Orzya sativa and Orzya glaberrima, with the former being the most common. There are many local differences within this species. For example, the separation of Australia from New Guinea when a land bridge disappeared means that Australian rice has its own unique characteristics. Similarly, Chinese rice is different from rice grown in South Asia.
When we think of China and rice the image that comes to mind are fields of rice paddies. In fact, the Chinese were the first to develop the idea of growing rice in wet areas such as coastal plains and river deltas. The rice seeds are first sown in beds, and then transplanted to an aquatic environment when they are about 25 - 30 days old. The idea of transplanting seeds is very important to the success of rice as a crop. Lack of water supply is a frequent problem for Chinese farmers, as are weeds that compete with the rice plants for the available water supply. The shorter the period of time the rice seedlings are in this environment, the better their chances of survival.
A harvested rice kernel contains a bran layer, and is enclosed by a hull. White rice has had both the bran and hull removed during the milling process. By contrast, brown rice has had only the hull removed. The result is a much more nutritious dish, containing protein and several minerals. However, parboiled white rice has been processed before milling and thus retains most of its nutrients.
The Chinese normally use long grain rice, which produces a fluffier rice. If you are following a recipe that calls for long grain rice, and need to use medium or short grain rice instead, remember that rice grains have different absorption rates and adjust the amount of water accordingly. (In this case you would reduce the amount of water by 1/4 to 1/2 cup per cup of rice).
In China, glutinous or "sticky" rice is used mainly for snacks and sweets. However, in other parts of Asia it is used in place of regular rice. For example, a reader recently shared with me his experience living in Laos and northern Thailand, where glutinous rice is a staple food. The rice is soaked for at least two hours, and then steamed. People take the steamed rice and knead it in a ball. It is then dipped in one of the courses and you use a finger to collect some of the course. (Glutinous rice is available at most Asian grocery markets).
Two less well-known types of rice are black rice and red rice. Grown throughout Asia, red rice is a member of the glutinous rice family. It is not considered to be very edible, but there is a great deal of interest in the potential health benefits of red rice extract. You'll often find it in health food stores, as it is believed to help lower cholesterol levels and improve blood circulation.
Grown in China and Thailand, black rice is also a type of sticky rice. A layer of bran covers the rice grains, giving them a brown or blackish color. Black rice is used mainly in Chinese, Thai and Phillippino desserts. Like red rice, black rice is considered to have numerous health benefits, particularly the purplish-black variety.
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