Creative chefs are starting to explore and exploit the intrinsic qualities of different strains of rice, using the contrasting colours, shapes and textures as well as the diverse flavours. Jane ram takes a close look at this staple of the Asian kitchen.

Rice, one of the world’s oldest grains, is the staple food of about two-thirds of the world’s population. Its enduring appeal is easily understood: the neutral taste partners well with almost any type of cuisine, yet it is palatable on its own without demanding much additional flavouring. Asians tend to regard rice as the main point of the meal, except at banquets, while accompanying dishes are regarded almost as condiments.

Most rice eaters nowadays demand white rice, regardless of the fact that the polishing process leaves little but starch that turns into sugar and fat once digested. A cup of cooked white rice amounts to 200 calories and Asia’s seemingly insatiable appetite for white rice has been linked to the growing rise in diabetes and other medical issues.

The good news is that Sri Lankan scientists have discovered that a simple change in the way rice is prepared can halve its calorie count. Before rice is added to the cooking pot, coconut oil (approximately three percent of the weight of the uncooked rice) is stirred into the boiling cooking water, explained Sudhair James, when he presented his preliminary research at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in the spring of 2015. After cooking is finished, the rice should be refrigerated for about 12 hours before eating hot or cold.

Rice Rules

Reporting on the new breakthrough in the Washington Post in April 2015, Roberto A. Ferdman explained the seeming magic in scientific terms. “Not all starches are created equal. Some, known as digestible starches, take only a little time to digest, are quickly turned into glucose, and then later glycogen. Excess glycogen ends up adding to the size of our guts if we don’t expend enough energy to burn it off. Other starches, meanwhile, called resistant starches, take a long time for the body to process, aren’t converted into glucose or glycogen because we lack the ability to digest them, and add up to fewer calories,” as in the case of the rice cooked with coconut oil.

It may be a while before low calorie, pre-cooked rice is commercially available, but in the meantime, the Sri Lankan researchers continue to experiment with different types of rice and oil to find the most effective combination.

The International Rice Bank holds samples of some 90,000 wild and cultivated varieties from many parts of the world. With mixed degrees of success, scientists in China and the Philippines have been experimenting with new types of rice from high-yield varieties (that have generally been less than successful on account of their high dependence on expensive chemical fertilizers) to rice that will flourish in salt water.

Creative chefs are starting to explore and exploit the intrinsic qualities of different strains of rice, using the contrasting colours, shapes and textures as well as the diverse flavours. Ranging as it does from purple-black to pure white, almost spherical to long in grain shape and an infinite range of textures. Plain rice has its own flavour, depending on how fresh it is and the method of cooking, but for many chefs the great pleasure of working with rice is its ability to absorb the taste of whatever is cooked with it.

Spirits distilled from rice are commonplace in japan, Rice bran oil is the oil extracted from rice germ and chaff. It has a high vitamin E content and is known for its high smoke point of 232 °C and mild flavour, making it suitable for deep-frying.

Scientists are working on many rice-related projects. Chinese scientists are developing new strains of high-yield rice that can grow in saltwater, a major challenge for coastal regions that are routinely subject to flooding by sea water. Large-scale success will have a major impact on food security and supply in China and beyond, Ren Wang, assistant director general for agriculture at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, told Business insider.

Scientists in the Philippines have been successfully cultivating Green Super Rice in salty water. Requiring less fertilizer than other high-yield rice. It has high-quality, reddish grains, according to the International Rice Research Institute, and is said to contain more calcium and other micronutrients than rice grown in non-salt water.

Deciding Factor

Flavour is the final deciding factor when it comes to changes in any staple food. It remains to be seen how consumers will react to unfamiliar tastes. Meanwhile scientists continue to pursue their own paths, but chefs are also experimenting, wooing customers with rice prepared in diverse new ways.

At the Intercontinental Grand Stanford, Chef Leung Fai Hung has reinvented eight popular dishes for the 40th anniversary tasting set menu in Hoi King Heen Restaurant. This is chef’s 40th year in the hotel’s kitchen and he regards this recipe as a tribute to four decades of culinary evolution. “Steamed Rice with Minced Beef and Dried Citrus Peel is a rustic home-style dish loved by everyone. I top it with pork fat and Australian Wagyu to make it special. Since 2018 is my 40th year in the kitchen, as a tribute to four decades of culinary evolution at Hoi King Heen, this 8-course tasting set menu will be available until 20 December.

At 3-Michelin star Chinese restaurant, The 8, executive chef Joseph Tse combines rice from Japan and from Thailand in his signature Seafood Fried Rice Topped with Sakura Shrimp. “Thai rice is soft and slightly sticky while Japanese rice is more chewy. They are mixed together with different types of shrimp and topped with Sakura shrimp, which our customers really enjoy.

Chef Balbi from innovative Japanese restaurant, Haku, draws on his Spanish heritage to please his Hong Kong customers with his version of arroz caldoso. This rice-based stew was a childhood favourite when his grandmother cooked it for him. “I put that dish on the menu because it is delicious and also has so much emotion associated with it,” says Balbi. “People like the way I do it with added Japanese ingredients that make it unique.”