What time-honored edible has all of the following: the warmth and comfort of hot bread; the fragrance of a baking cake; the staying power of potatoes and gravy; the beauty of a painting in creamy whites or vivid hues and accent colors? Clue: Half the world's human population is sustained on a daily basis by this food.
Rice. We know it in stir fries, stuffings, pilafs, puddings, salads, soups. Even served plain as it comes out of the pot, rice is not a boring grain. Consider basmati (meaning "queen of fragrance"), jasmine, or popcorn rice, three examples of aromatic varieties savored for their rich smells. Medium-grained Italian rices (arborio, carnaroli, padano) are valued for their chewy centers. Long-grained rice, glutinous rice, converted rice, instant rice, rice bran, rice flour; all have their uses.
Rice is inexpensive, but people eat rice not because they can't get anything else, says one Chinese cook, but because of their satisfaction with its flavor and texture.
A typical Burmese eats 416 pounds of rice a year, a Thai 329, a Chinese 243. Americans consume on average only 22 pounds a year-with four of those pounds accounted for in the brewing of American beer. However, consumption is on its way up as the rice-based cuisines of Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, and others gain popularity here. We are just now learning what others have known for about 7,000 years: Rice is delicious and life-giving.
A fair source of protein, rice contains all eight amino acids. (It is low in the amino acid lysine, which is found in beans, making the classic combination of beans and rice particularly healthful.) Rice, especially brown rice with its bran layer still intact, is an excellent source of B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron, and others.
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