Sunday, May 17, 2009

Everything you ever wanted to know about rice (and more!)

I am always amazed at how much some Americans know about their favorite food and drinks. Beer and wine lovers are walking encyclopedias of beer and wine trivia, and have invented their own language to discuss the various qualities of different breweries and vintners.

I do not drink alcohol, but — like most Asians — I know a lot about rice. Unlike many Asian restaurants, True Thai doesn't take advantage of the fact that most Americans know very little about rice. These restaurants will serve you long grain rice. It's OK, but it's not as good as Thai jasmine white rice, which often costs up to three times as much as plain long grain rice. If you've ever eaten really good bread from an excellent bakery, that would be like jasmine white rice with long grain rice playing the role of Wonder Bread.

There are two undisputed premium kinds of rice: Basmati rice from India, and Jasmine rice from Thailand. WiseGeek explains the differences:
Jasmine rice has been cultivated in Thailand for centuries, and it is considered the rice of choice by many Thais. The rice is very aromatic, with a characteristic slightly floral scent which enhances many dishes; most people eat hulled jasmine rice. Basmati rice is an ancient Indian aromatic rice variety which has also been in active use and cultivation for centuries. In some parts of the world, these rice varietals are protected, which means that only rice from a certain region may be labeled “jasmine” or “basmati.”

If you are a fan of Thai food, you know that we also serve another kind of rice: sticky rice. Sticky rice is glutinous, but that does not mean it contains glutens, only that the cooked rice is very sticky. Most Lao rice is sticky rice. In Southeast Asia sticky rice is eaten with the hands because it is very hard to eat with a fork or chopsticks. If you order la'ab, you may use lettuce or a slice of cucumber to pick up the sticky rice and beef or chicken.

Sticky rice did not just happen. Sticky rice was created by Asian farmers through selective growing, just like American farmers have created hybrids of corn. Sticky rice also has a very important difference from regular rice: it contains amylopectin, a starch.

The Thai eat sticky rice with la'ab and other protein-rich dishes, but we also use it in our desserts. I often talk about Thai food being sweet and salty and spicy and sour, but sticky rice has a fifth kind of flavor: umami. That's a Japanese word that does not translate well into English but for Americans umami is like the taste of mashed potatoes and gravy, very filling and satisfying. Thanksgiving turkey would be another good example of umami, as well as being a very good example of sticky rice's secret ingredient: tryptophan!

Yes, the same amino acid that makes you fall asleep during your Thanksgiving Day football game is present in sticky rice. So much so that sticky rice is now considered to be a natural cure for insomnia.

In another post I will teach you the difference between making sticky rice and jasmine rice. The cooking methods are as different as the rice!