Rethinking Rice What's a rice lover to do when the steamy, fluffy stuff has lost some of its appeal? Food writer Pat Tanumihardja set out to expand her rice repertoire — and found some cool alternatives.
NPR logo Rethinking Rice

Rethinking Rice

An assortment of different rices: Thai red (clockwise from top right), jasmine, black glutinous and Japanese sweet (short-grain glutinous), with haigamai in the center. Pat Tanumihardja for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Pat Tanumihardja for NPR

An assortment of different rices: Thai red (clockwise from top right), jasmine, black glutinous and Japanese sweet (short-grain glutinous), with haigamai in the center.

Pat Tanumihardja for NPR

"Planting rice is never fun. Bent from morn till set of sun" — I can still picture my 8-year-old self bending in unison with 30 classmates in a sea of blue pinafores as we planted "rice shoots" in the "mud" and sang the stilted lyrics to this folk song.

It must have been a strange sight to behold — a gaggle of schoolgirls mimicking rice planters in a paddy field during music class in Singapore. Yet it illustrates how deeply ingrained rice is in my Southeast Asian culture. Rice is an indispensable part of my diet like it is for many Asian immigrants.

As a little girl, cooking rice was one of the few kitchen chores I welcomed, probably because it was easy. I'd scoop four cups of rice into a steel rice bowl — purists may balk, but when I was growing up, rice always came out of a rice cooker that was decorated with pink peonies — and place it in the sink. A couple of turns of the tap, and whoosh, a steady stream of cold water would rush into the bowl. When the water reached halfway up the bowl, my tiny fingers swished and sloshed the rice grains until the crystal-clear water graduated to cloudy white. Then I'd tilt the bowl over the sink to drain the water out, cupping my free hand along the container's edge to prevent rice from falling out. I repeated this three or four times — less if my mom wasn't watching — until the water ran clear.

Then, following Mom's lead, I'd stick my index finger into the bowl, its tip barely touching the surface of the rice, and fill the bowl with water until it reached the first joint of my finger. Into the cooker the bowl went, and I'd snap the lid shut. In 20 minutes flat, I'd open it again to fragrant, perfectly steamed rice.

About The Author

Pat Tanumihardja writes about food, travel and lifestyle through a multicultural lens, and especially enjoys covering topics that converge on food, history and culture. She has been published in Edible Seattle, Monterey County Weekly, Sunset and Saveur. Her debut cookbook, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook — Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens (Sasquatch Books) is now available.

The hot and fluffy rice took pride of place in the center of the dinner table, forming the blank canvas of my childhood palate, to be embellished by a stir-fry of bok choy and garlic, and turmeric fried chicken or spicy beef curry. The next day, any leftover rice was transformed into fried rice or thick rice porridge for breakfast.

As much as I hate to admit it, I've turned into my mother — this rice-eating habit has followed me into adulthood. No matter how much protein or how many potatoes I consume, if rice doesn't pass between my lips, my poor tummy comes away from the table not really rumbling, just not quite satisfied.

I do have some rice-eating caveats. When days are pushing 80 degrees, or now that I'm experiencing the joys of impending motherhood that include morning sickness, I hardly want to be slaving in front of a hot stove.

So what's a gal to do when she'd rather be spending time at the spa than in the kitchen and her palate craves foods with a little chill to them? I considered this in the summer just past and found the answer was simple: rethink rice. And so began my quest for no-cook — or as close to it as one can possibly get — rice recipes.

I've been inspired by visits to farmers markets and my favorite cookbook authors, and by experimenting with creative riffs on Asian favorites. The results were spectacular: a mound of rice studded with assorted seasonal vegetables, like gems, seasoned with my vinaigrette du jour; no-cook "fried" rice using the same ingredients but in different guises — grated carrots, shredded Chinese cabbage and crumbled hard-cooked eggs tossed with rice.

Haigamai is a Japanese partially milled rice that is just as nutritious and fiber-rich as brown rice but easier to chew, with only a slightly grainier taste than white rice. Pat Tanumihardja for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Pat Tanumihardja for NPR

Haigamai is a Japanese partially milled rice that is just as nutritious and fiber-rich as brown rice but easier to chew, with only a slightly grainier taste than white rice.

Pat Tanumihardja for NPR

Along the way, I encountered previously unknown rice varieties at Asian markets and specialty grocery stores. While slender ivory shards of jasmine rice were a staple in my childhood, my diligent research led me to discover haigamai, a Japanese partially milled rice that has all the bran removed yet retains the nutrient-laden rice germ. It's just as nutritious and fiber-rich as brown rice, but is easier to chew and very tasty, with only a slightly grainier taste than white rice.

I've grown to love the reddish-brown hue of Thai red rice, some grains with the bran rubbed off to reveal the white beneath. The needle-thin grains are pretty to look at and have a pleasing chewy, nutty flavor.

Then there's good-for-the planet organic rice. Lundberg Family Farms in California, for example, grows jasmine, sushi, basmati and wild (the rice-like seed of a wild grass) rices using sustainable growing practices to enrich soils and improve crops.

I've approached my rice adventures with curiosity and playfulness, and I'm proud to say my rice repertoire has expanded and matured. Yet during the cool Indian summer evenings we are now experiencing in Monterey, you'll find me, chopsticks in hand, alternating between clumps of jasmine rice fished out of a bowl cupped in my left palm, and bites of garlicky bok choy.

Harvest Red Rice Salad

This could also be called the whatever-is-fresh-at-the-farmers-market-now rice salad. Thai red rice is unmilled (like brown rice) and takes longer to cook than polished rice like jasmine. However, because the grains are slender, they cook more quickly than other unmilled rices and use less water. Use a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid to ensure the steam is retained in the pot during cooking. One cup raw rice yields about 3 cups cooked rice. Measurements and times vary according to rice type, so follow the package directions. Jasmine rice takes 15 to 18 minutes. Find red rice at Asian markets or specialty markets, or substitute brown rice.

Pat Tanumihardja for NPR
Harvest Red Rice Salad
Pat Tanumihardja for NPR

Makes 4 salad servings

1 cup Thai red rice

1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water

1/3 cup canola oil

1/4 cup fresh lime or lemon juice (about 2 large limes or 1 lemon)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 heaping tablespoon honey

1 cucumber, peeled and chopped

2 green onions, using green parts only, chopped

1/2 green or red bell pepper, chopped (1/2 cup)

1/4 small red onion, finely chopped (1/4 cup)

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Wash the rice well and drain. In a heavy-bottomed pot, combine the rice and stock. Bring to a boil over high heat and let boil for 1 minute. Stir the rice to prevent sticking. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and simmer until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let stand covered for 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, whirl the canola oil, lime juice, soy sauce and honey in a blender until smooth to make the vinaigrette.

When done, fluff the rice with a fork and combine the rice and vegetables in a large bowl. Add the vinaigrette and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let the salad sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.

Wasabi-Sesame Rice Cakes with Mascarpone Dip

This recipe from Grains, Rice and Beans by Kevin Graham (Artisan 1995) was inspired by Japanese rice balls or onigiri. Graham uses short-grain Japanese rice (sushi rice) that has a gummier, stickier texture compared with long-grain rice, which is why it is sometimes called sticky rice. I use Japanese partially milled haigamai available at many Asian markets. Or substitute white Japanese short-grain rice.

Pat Tanumihardja for NPR
Wasabi-Sesame Rice Cakes with Mascarpone Dip
Pat Tanumihardja for NPR

Makes 6 appetizer servings

1 1/2 cups haigamai

1/4 cup rice vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

Pinch of kosher salt

1 (1.7-ounce) bottle nori furikake (Japanese seaweed and sesame seed rice seasoning, available at Asian markets)

Sesame oil

Mascarpone Dip (recipe below)

Cook rice according to package directions.

In a small pan, heat the vinegar, sugar and salt over medium heat, stirring constantly until the sugar dissolves.

Place the cooked rice into a large mixing bowl and spoon in the seasoned vinegar, mixing well with a flat wooden spoon or spatula until the vinegar is evenly distributed and the rice takes on a sheen. Set aside until the rice is cool enough to handle with your hands.

With wet hands, divide the rice mixture into 12 equal portions. Form each portion into a ball, then press tightly between your hands to form a disc 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter. Set the discs aside on a clean dish. Wet hands often to prevent the rice from sticking to your fingers.

Pour the nori furikake onto a flat plate. Press each rice disk lightly into the mixture, coating each side evenly. Refill the plate as necessary.

Coat the bottom of a nonstick skillet thinly with sesame oil and heat over medium-low heat. Pan-fry the cakes in batches until golden brown on both sides, turning very carefully with a spatula, about 1 to 2 minutes per side. If a cake breaks, carefully shape it back into a disc. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels. Repeat until all the cakes are done.

Serve immediately with mascarpone dip.

Mascarpone Dip

1 cup mascarpone cheese

1 tablespoon wasabi paste (or to taste)

2 teaspoons honey

Whirl all the ingredients in a blender until mixed thoroughly, about 1 minute. Serve at room temperature with the wasabi-sesame rice cakes.

R(ice) Cream

This recipe is based on David Lebovitz's rice gelato (gelato di riso) recipe in his book The Perfect Scoop (Ten Speed Press 2007). Instead of Italian Arborio rice, I used Japanese sweet rice (mochigome). This short-grain glutinous rice is fat and opaque when raw. Once cooked, it turns translucent and clumps together. Available at Asian markets, glutinous rice's mildly sweet flavor is excellent in desserts and gives the ice cream a creamy, sticky texture interspersed with whole grains of rice. If unavailable, stick to Lebovitz's original recipe and use Arborio rice.

Pat Tanumihardja for NPR
R(ice) Cream
Pat Tanumihardja for NPR

Makes 6 servings

1/2 cup Japanese sweet rice (or Thai glutinous rice)

3 cups whole milk

3/4 cup sugar, divided

Pinch of salt

1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise

5 large egg yolks (save the whites for use later)

1 cup half-and-half or cream

Pinch of nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a 2 to 2 1/2-quart baking dish, mix together the rice, milk, 1/4 cup sugar and salt. Add the vanilla bean.

Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove the rice from the oven and remove the foil. Stir in the remaining 1/2 cup sugar, then continue to bake the rice, uncovered for another 30 minutes.

Remove the rice from the oven a second time, and remove the milk skin that has formed on the surface, followed by the vanilla bean. Immediately whisk in the egg yolks briskly. Then whisk in the half-and-half and nutmeg.

Whirl half the rice mixture in a blender or food processor until pureed (when you can't see anymore whole rice grains). Stir it back into the rest of the cooked rice, mixing thoroughly.

Chill the mixture in the refrigerator, then freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions.