Food History: The Secret Life of Rice

Food History is a new column in which Best of Vegan Editor Saqera Kokayi studies and shares the history of some of her favorite plant-based ingredients and dishes. Her first piece in this column is dedicated to rice. 

There are thousands of varieties of rice and no shortage of ways to prepare it

Rice and peas, jollof rice, arancini, risotto, paella, pilaf, biryani, jambalaya, steamed rice, sticky rice, stir-fry, pudding, and noodles. The list goes on. There are thousands of varieties of rice and no shortage of ways to prepare it. 

With a blizzard in full swing and Covid still on our necks here in the Northeast, I’ve been giving more of my attention to my indoor world. Namely to the goings-on of my kitchen. The other week, I opened a tub of California Jasmine rice to find a grain different from its Thai counterpart, a fragrant grain with slightly more stickiness. Instead, the Cali variety swelled up plumply and grains fell apart from each other as I removed it from the rice cooker. 

It was my first time purchasing California Jasmine rice since 2013 when I moved to Southeast Asia for a year. Prior to my time there, rice was simply rice; brown or white, sometimes red or black. Sure, I knew about sticky rice and I knew risotto was a little different, but I hadn’t quite cracked the code on why it was sticky or why risotto came out as creamy as it did. This year’s quarantine season has given me a lot of room to do some digging. My hope is that by the end of this piece, you’ll feel a little more informed about the distinctions between the varieties and how to go about choosing one for your next meal. 

history of rice
Image credit: Thoa Ngo (via Unsplash).

A little background about this beloved grain

First a little background about this beloved grain. Of the whopping 40,000 kinds of rice we know of, all of our domesticated rice owe their origin to two varieties, Oryza sativa, from Asia, and Oryza glaberimma, from Africa. Asian rice have been cultivated for about 13,500 years while African varieties have been for about 3000. Most of what we eat today comes from the higher-yielding Asian varieties. And even though it is a better producer, and more than half the world consumes it on a daily basis, it isn’t an easy crop to produce. Rice kernels, unlike corn and wheat, need to be handled delicately to ensure they remain whole and maintain their premium status and competitive pricing. Rice is truly a common delicacy.

Rice is truly a common delicacy.

When it comes to making a distinction between the varieties, starch is the biggest player. And while we needn’t bog ourselves down with scientific terms, just know that there are two types of starches found in rice, amylose, and amylopectin. The amounts of each starch molecule effects the outcome of the cooked version. It determines whether the rice will be creamy, fluffy, sticky, or if the grains will separate and roll apart. 

Amylopectin is the starch form that causes the rice to become gelatinous and sticky. Higher amounts are usually found in short to medium grain rices like sticky rice, sushi rice, and rices used to make risotto like carnaroli and arborio. The more these rices are stirred and moved during the cooking process, the more the starch is released into the water forming a thicker consistency. 

Long grain rice like basmati and jasmine rice have higher contents of amylose whose starch formations are long and prevent the grains from sticking together. These rices are ideal accompaniments to stews, curries, and as the star ingredient in biryanis, pilafs, and stir-fries. 

history of rice
Sticky rice cooked in a kabocha squash. Image credit: WoonHeng. Click on the photo to see the recipe.

Feel free to venture away from the typical browns and whites

When creating a dish, color is really important to me. I am someone that absolutely tastes color. A plate of too much yellow and white needs green, red, or a night shade. Sometimes those colors come in the form of a heavy garnish or a side. But we can also use rice in that way. Feel free to venture away from the typical browns and whites. Red rice is a really nice long grain option, offering a mildly sweet and nutty flavor. It’s similar to brown rice but slightly less nutty. Black rice is another way to go. However, black rice takes more preparation so patience is a must. It’s also not a true rice, but rather a grass. The kernels have a chewier bite than what we’re used to, but makes for a jazzy looking plate.

Will the rice be the main ingredient? If so, you really want a star on your plate. Fragrance is another added bonus. Basmati and Thai jasmine are two of my favorites. Premium jasmine rice is able to don the “premium” tag because of its amazing pandan-like aroma. And that aroma is stronger when the rice is fresher. Smoky rice is another option. The rice undergoes a smoking process shortly after harvest, creating a wonderfully smokey and nutty aroma. 

history of rice
The Notorious R.B.G.: rice, beans, greens. Image credit: The Korean Vegan. Click on the photo to see the recipe.

The last thing I want to highlight, which I feel deserves an honorable mention is par-boiled rice. I feel it’s worth mentioning because I have long been put off Uncle Ben’s racist imagery. I’ve equated par-boiled rice with the racist giant. But here’s why par-boiled rice is worth mentioning – par-boiling is a process whereby the rice is partially cooked while it’s still in its husk and germ. That is where the nutrients live. So when it’s cooking, it’s essentially drinking in the tea of its own nutrients before the germ is removed. Pretty impressive, huh? 

There are so many kinds of preparations and varieties to choose from. I’m a big fan of experimenting especially if it doesn’t break the bank. I encourage you to pick up a new variety, prepare it simply and see how you’d like to incorporate it into future dishes. 

Author: Saqera Kokayi



rice history

If you loved learning the history of rice…

You might want to explore different cuisines from around the world that rely heavily on this wonderful versatile grain:

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Japanese Cuisine

Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Jamaican Cuisine

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Kurdish Cuisine


  1. I was familiar with all of the rice types except the smoked one. Very interesting! Good explanation of the different types of starches – thank you. It does help with preparation to know this. ­čÖé I found red rice makes an excellent vegan cabbage roll, paired with onion and spices, maybe some lentils. I’m thinking of adding cooked quinoa in place of lentils to see if I like it.


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