Rice is an important aspect to Asian cuisine and culture. While it’s not as pronounced in dim sum, where the focus is on self sufficient individual dishes that rarely rely on rice, dim sum restaurants do offer many other non dim sum dishes as well and many of these can include rice.
Rice is as important to the eastern hemisphere as wheat and bread is to the western hemisphere. In fact, it’s so important, the word rice is also the same word for meal or food in many eastern languages. For example, in both Cantonese and Mandarin, it’s "fan" and this means both cooked rice and food/meal in general. In Japanese, it’s "gohan". And in Korean, it’s "bap". Obviously, wheat, bread, and pasta are commonly available nowadays thoroughout Asia and wheat was traditionally (and still is) a cultural aspect in Northern China, but rice is especially note-worthy.
The rice of Asian cuisine comes from the Oryza sativa species. In fact, this species is commonly known as just "Asian rice". The Oryza sativa species was first domesticated in the Yangtze River basin in China around over 8,000 years ago. And the rest, as they say, is history. We are a foodie and kitchen tech blog after all, so let’s continue on to more important topics!
Rice doesn’t just come in the individual white grains of rice that everyone’s used to. With a little mashing and processing, you can get a lot out of the humble rice grain. In the vast realm of cooking, rice can come in noodle form, pudding form, cake form, and even beverage form among many others!
There are also many varieties of rice with the most common forms being white and brown rice. The difference between these two can be boiled down to processing. Brown rice is a rice grain with only the inedible outer hull removed. White rice, on the other hand, is a rice grain with not only the outer hull removed, but also with the bran layer and cereal germ removed as well.
As a result of this extra processing, white rice differs nutritionally from brown rice. While both white and brown rice have similar amounts of calories and carbohydrates, brown rice contains a wider range of nutrients. These nutrients include vitamin B1, B3, iron and others. White rice isn’t entirely lacking in nutrients though and still naturally includes a good amount of manganese, pantothenic acid, and selenium. Many brands also enrich their white rice by adding back missing nutrients.
White rice is more popular and there’s a reason for that. The extra processing helps extend its storage life, prevent spoilage, makes it easier to cook, easier to digest, and generally makes it more tender. For example, brown rice requires lots of extra time to soak in water before cooking in order for the grains to be tender enough to easily chew. On the other hand, white rice does not require this extra step. Traditionally, these above aspects have been very important, but more contemporary interests in better health and nutrition are causing brown rice to increase in popularity.
Going beyond white and brown rice, there’s an entire world of exotic rice varieties. These include black rice (which turns purple when cooked), wild rice, multi-grain rice (which is rice mixed with other grains), etc. Even within white and brown rice, there are many different varieties as well. So rice has a huge amount of variation. It’s really incredible.
Rice also comes in different lengths. We classify them as short, medium, and long grain rice. Asian cuisine mostly revolves around short and medium grain rice. These tend to be moist, tender, slightly chewy and stick to each other when cooked. For example, sushi basically always uses short grain rice. In fact, some short grain rice is literally just marketed as “sushi rice”. Long grain rice, on the other hand, tend to be drier and usually don’t stick together when cooked. One place you’ll find long grain rice is in Western pilafs and salads.
Cooking rice is a fairly simple process. Some varieties of rice will require a pre-soak step that is required to get the rice tender while some will not. For example, brown rice usually requires a pre-soak step. You can cook rice by boiling it in a pot over the stove, in an electric rice cooker, or in a container with a microwave. Additionally, you can steam it over the stove or even bake it in the oven. With most Asian cultures though, it will usually be boiling with an electric rice cooker.
Check out our how-to article here on how to cook the perfect rice with step by step instructions!
Nothing beats the convenience of an electric rice cooker. This is a staple kitchen appliance in almost all Asian households. The various types of electric rice cookers around the world can be classified into a few categories. We have the traditional rice cooker at its most basic, the Japanese style rice cooker with more features, the pressure cooker type which uses pressure to cook rice faster, and portable types which can be used while traveling.
For more information about the different types of electric rice cookers and what sets them apart, check out our in-depth article about them here!