I will never forget my first taste of Jasmine rice.
At one of Hong Kong's finest restaurants, it was the last dish of a feast that had included whole steamed fish, flash-cooked garoupa, roasted goose and ginger-scallion lobster among other delicacies.
I was stuffed. I intended to take a single taste of the plain white rice to be polite, but the nutty fragrance that wafted from the steaming bowl was almost overpowering. I couldn't resist putting my face almost inside the bowl to take a deep breath to savor the smell. The longish grains were firm but tender to the bite. Rice had never tasted this good!
I found myself eating half the bowl.
It was just as well the rice didn't go to waste: I discovered later that despite the enormous expense of the meal, the restaurant had charged us a dollar extra for each rice bowl.
I was no stranger to different types of rice at this time. As a child, I had been weaned on Uncle Ben's converted, but after 3 1/2 years of living in Asia, studying Chinese cooking and the Mandarin language, I had tasted the subtle nuances of different varieties.
In Taiwan, we subsisted on the shorter, slightly sticky variety of Chinese rice that the Taiwanese favor. I had also enjoyed the slippery, sticky texture of sweet or glutinous rice in desserts and snacks. In Japan, I feasted on the shortish grains in sushi that were seasoned with rice vinegar and sugar, and in Hong Kong and China, I tasted the longer, less starchy rices that are commonly eaten there. But the flavor of all of these types was pretty much the same to me: It was plain. I had not yet traveled to Thailand or Vietnam, where the intoxicating flavor of Jasmine makes it the rice of choice.
These days, greater numbers of Americans are finally coming to appreciate and enjoy different rice varieties too. "Arborio rice," reports the National Restaurant Assn., "which was considered exotic a few years ago, is now a mainstay, and wild rice doesn't seem so wild when compared with the new strains such as Jasmine, Wehani and Texmati rice."
Have you looked at the rice section of your local supermarket? A few years ago, it consisted of white rice in the form of instant or Carolina (long-grain). Today, there's likely to be an impressive array of different varieties, including white and brown Basmati, Jasmine, Texmati, Pecan and wild rice. And don't be surprised to find the extensive line of organic rices being grown and harvested by California's Lundberg Family Farms in Richdale.
The Lundberg family has been growing rice since the '30s. About 20 years ago, the family started growing Wehani, a red-colored unmilled long-grain rice. In the early '90s, in anticipation of the increasing demand for specialty rices, the family began cultivating Arborio (the Italian rice preferred for risotto) than added California Basmati, Jasmine, Japanese sushi and black Japonica, a mahogany-red rice.
Grant Lundberg, CEO of Lundberg Farms and a third-generation rice grower, recalls Lundberg Farms' innovative decision to start growing Wehani rice. "Back in the '60s, my Uncle Harlan thought that rice was a very unique product. In the natural foods industry, people are always interested in new ideas and products. He felt that an aromatic, long-grain red rice was an interesting idea, so he started working on it."
In those days, Lundberg says, rice with a different taste and texture and a color other than white or brown was pretty radical. Today, Lundberg Farms grows 27 varieties. They're sold in natural food stores and well-stocked supermarkets, gourmet specialty shops and health food stores all over the country.
Kalustyan, a specialty shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is like a fabulous Near Eastern bazaar. The shelves are crammed with spices, grains, coffees, dried fruits and all types of gourmet products. And the selection of rices is dazzling, even overwhelming.
Aziz Osmani, the store's co-owner, has witnessed the explosion of popularity in specialty rices. In 1995, he estimates, the store sold five varieties of rice. Today, the rice section has expanded to include about 30 strains from Italy, Spain, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Egypt, the Philippines, Nepal, Turkey, China and Japan.
In addition to obvious varieties such as Jasmine, Basmati, wild rice and brown Basmati (not to mention a number of the Lundberg rices), you can find Himalayan and Bhutanese reds, a black "forbidden" rice from China, Calasparra rice for paella from Spain and tiny needle-shaped grains of Gobindavog (nicknamed the "prince of rices") from Bangladesh, which is used for pilafs and rice puddings.