Monday, February 1, 2010

Much Ado About Rice

Much as with pasta, the conversion to brown rice in my house has been greeted with reluctance, at best. The nutty, rich taste of brown rice is completely lost on my family, who though they will eat it grudgingly if put before them with no starchy alternative within sight, will always choose white rice when they order their chicken-onion rice bowls at Fu Shing.

The reasons for attempting the switch to whole grain rices are similar to those in favor of using whole grain bread - the grain still has the bran and germ which provide the bulk of the health benefits. The refining process removes not only the brown color, but the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that help keep us healthy. Compelling as these arguments for brown rice are, if it doesn't also taste good, I can't sell it at home. I think they figure that since I practice yoga, my appreciation for brown rice is inevitable, and therefore, not at all persuasive. I will say that the simple act of serving it repeatedly without offering a white rice alternative has at least stopped the complaining. However, I want to do better. I want to convert their taste buds.

By experimenting with a variety of brown (and other whole grain) rices, I've found a few that are more pleasing to my family's taste than regular old brown rice. One type I like is brown basmati rice which is a little lighter in both color and taste than shorter grain. As a complete aside, white basmati rice, seems to be a marginally better choice, in terms of sugar conversion or glycemic load, than other Asian white rices, including sushi rice, as the starch content is lower. Brown basmati is flavorful and aromatic, but not quite as nutty as other brown rices.

Brown Kalijira rice, which is ridiculously challenging to find, but which my Harris Teeter carries (I have asked my local organic market to order it!) has been the biggest revelation. It is a tiny, pearl-like, heirloom grain that has a little of the hearty, nutty flavor of standard brown rice, but which is much more delicate and rich. Cooked in some chicken stock or with a little olive oil in the water, it is a standout side dish. Cooked right in the pan for a one-dish chicken dish, it is stellar. So far I've only seen Lotus Foods brand. An additional benefit of the small grain size is that it cooks in half the time of regular brown rice.

Lotus Foods also sells a black rice, generally know as "forbidden rice," although I was unable to figure out what is forbidden about it. This is more widely available than the Kalijira, and available in other brands as well. When I first bought a package some years back, I had no idea what to do with it and it sat in the pantry cabinet for months before I finally made some underwhelming dish with it. Recently, though, I came across a fried rice recipe that piqued my interest and actually was a big success with the doubters. I simplified it a bit and I'm providing my adaptation below. You can also cook it just like other rices on the stove top. The taste is a bit nutty and the grains have a little bite to them, and most importantly, my family has liked this combination of taste and texture. Black rice is actually dark purple and colors the water a deep purple as it cooks so watch out for staining of dish towels or white rubber spatulas. Like brown rice, it's also a whole grain, and like the brown Kalijira, it's also an heirloom variety.

Lundberg brand sells many types of rice but my favorite is the Jubilee blend. Though not quite as light tasting as the Kalijira, it is also a mix of several types of smaller grained rice including russet colored Wehani and purplish-black Japonica rices (both created by Lundberg domestically) in addition to a few types of brown. This mix provides for a slightly reddish-hued, multicolored blend that brightens up both your taste buds, and the look of your plate. No blah brown color here.

An additional option is the pre-cooked bags of brown rice that you can find in the freezer sections of Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. They are not quite as rich and nutty tasting, and are probably have slightly less of the healthy vitamins and minerals, but they microwave up in about two minutes and are great in a pinch.

I've been making fried rice with brown rice for a while thinking that since it has a little soy sauce in it anyway, no one would immediately realize that it was brown rice. That only sort of works. I hear "is this brown rice?" with a knowing look passing between them, as though they are on to me and will continue to eat, but only grudgingly. With the black rice, it's immediately apparent that this is a different animal, so no rhetorical questions. And, since it tastes so good, chewy and nutty, I also don't get much of that eyeball rolling.

Try some of these other types of rice. You might find that the flavor of brown Kalijira appeals to your teen in a way that Uncle Ben's brown rice does not. Or that your six year old daughter who loves only pink and purple will actually eat the plum colored forbidden rice. Or maybe not. I think we might have an easier time converting the white rice eaters if we treat these grains as completely different items, rather than as a substitute for what we're all used to.

I've actually played around with this recipe using a couple of ounces of diced up bacon or pancetta or some slivered shiitake mushrooms. This is an easy recipe to use as a base and experiment a little. I particularly like it with seafood and fish. Roast some shrimp and broccoli (see my earlier post) to top it off or serve it alongside some salmon. One the initial cooking of the black rice well before you want to make the fried rice so it can cool. You could even make the rice the night before and refrigerate it, which would make prep the next evening extremely quick.

Fried Forbidden Rice

(adapted from chef Sang Yoon and Food & Wine)

(serves 4 - 6 as a side dish)

1 cup black ("Forbidden") rice
1 - 2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
1 medium onion, diced (I particularly like red onion in this)
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
4 scallions, thinly sliced

1. Prepare 1 cup black rice according to the directions on the package. I throw a teaspoon or two of oil into the water before coooking so it doesn't stick. Once cooked, set aside to cool, uncovered.

2. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and then the onion. Cook the onion until it gets soft and translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add in the garlic and cook for 2 - 3 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Add the rice into the pan and cook until warmed through.

4. Stir in the soy sauce.

5. Once arranged in serving bowl, garnish with scallions.


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  2. I must credit where credit is due. The kalijira rice was excellent!