Rice is a grain that is cultivated in more than 100 countries and is one of the world's staple foods. It can be grown on hillsides, in soil, or in irrigated waters, either deep or shallow. The different cultivation techniques, as well as cross-breeding, have resulted in thousands of varieties of rice, including sticky rices, wild rices and fragrant rices: all can be categorised as long-, medium- or short-grain. Long-grain rices such as basmati are thin, dainty and pointed. Medium-grain and short-grain rices are plumper, starchier and more absorbent. Examples of medium-grain rices are risotto and paella rices such as arborio and calasparra. Short-grain rices include pudding rice and sushi rice.
While many people in the West think of rice as a simple side dish, it's exciting when cooked as a meal in its own right and readily absorbs other flavours. In some cultures, rice is considered so sacred that it is served as the main part of the meal and cooked as plainly as possible.
There are thousands of varieties of rice. Sticky (or glutinous) rice does not contain gluten; the name refers to its texture once cooked. The grains hold together, making them easy to mould into sushi and pick up with chopsticks. Fragrant rices, such as Thai fragrant rice, have a mouthwatering scent and are popular throughout Asia. Red, green, brown and black rices are all wholegrain - that is, they retain the nutritious outer layer of skin, but the starchy interior is always white. Purplish-black 'wild rice' is not rice, but an aquatic grass from North America. Difficulty in harvesting it makes it expensive, but the grain's colour, elegant shape and subtly nutty flavour make it a luxurious base for a special stew or salad.
While it's tempting to leave it in the packet you bought it in, rice, like other grain products, should be transferred to an airtight container and kept in a cool, dark place to optimise its shelf-life and prevent infestation.
Since consumers are not told the date of harvest, it's best to use rice within one year of purchase, and ideally within three to six months. For this reason, it's preferable to buy it little and often rather than in bulk.
Cooked rice that's left standing around can cause food poisoning because the large surface area of each grain acts as a breeding ground for bacteria. Store cooked rice in a sealed container in the fridge for a maximum of one day.
The cooking time of rice varies according to the specific shape and variety, the age of the grain, the degree of processing, and the type of dish in which it is being used. The best advice is to follow recipe instructions, or the method on the packet - in which case test whether the rice is done a few minutes before the time specified, as its cooking time will often be overestimated. If cooked properly, long-grain rices will stay separate and fluffy, as in a good pilau. Because wholegrain rices retain their outer layer, they take anything from 10-30 minutes longer to cook than white rices, and the grains remain separate when boiled. On its own, 'wild rice' takes 45 to 50 minutes to cook; when cooking a ready-made blend you should follow the packet instructions as the wild rice will have been specially selected or treated to ensure it is done at the same time as the other grains in the packet.
If you're cooking rice in advance, cool it down as quickly as possible using cold running water; store in the fridge for no more than one day. Cold, cooked rice can be thrown into salads or soups, or used to stuff vegetables such as peppers and aubergines. Pre-cooked risotto can be made into fritters or the classic Sicilian dish arancini (stuffed and deep-fried rice balls).
As with other grains, rice is high in protein and therefore a valuable part of vegan and vegetarian diets.