We often tend to refer to whole rice as brown rice, but in fact there are many varieties of this rice that are different colours – red, black, purple, burgundy. Even within the brown coloured category there are variations – some are golden, some slightly brown and some have a creamy hue – all depending on the variety. Brown rice is a category of rice from which only the outer layer or hull has been removed and, like all other whole rice whether red or black or purple, has retained its complete nutritional value.
When polished most rice will turn white and the kernel loses its main nutritional value, resulting in a simple refined starch that is largely deprived of its original nutrients.
In the sixties and seventies brown rice became the symbol of the counterculture, which was devoted to eating it. My own first personal encounter with a bowl of brown rice in 1975 was almost an epiphany, and it set off my relationship to food and eating in a completely new and adventurous direction.
Rice is endemic to Africa and I like to entertain the thought that since human beings also come from Africa, even if several million years later, it had already in its genome, the purpose of being one of the ultimate and most precious foods for the evolution of consciousness. That idea might be far-fetched, but I still like to imagine it could be so!
Rice has been cultivated for about 10,000 years in Asia, on both sides of the Himalayas. It was brought to Greece and Sicilia from India by the armies of Alexander the Great and was then distributed to the whole Mediterranean area and the middle east by the Arab seafarers. Later, in the 1500s, the Portuguese and Spanish took it to the Americas and, as time went by, it became one of the main cereals to be cultivated at all latitudes. In Africa, the original wild grass was cultivated as early as 3,500 years ago and, as did brown rice, it played a significant role in the history of west Africa up to 1400.
There are something like 8,000 cultivars of rice, of all shapes, colours, textures and flavours, growing on all types of soil in many climates, both humid and dry. For most of this long relationship that human beings have had with rice, it is only within the last 200 years that people began to systematically polish rice and transform it from being a gift of the Gods or Nature to an almost harmful artificial poison.
As the use of white rice began gradually replacing brown rice, thiamine deficiency (or Beriberi) spread over countries where rice was a staple food and, ironically, artificial vitamins had to be added to it.
So, what are the benefits whole brown rice (or what could be called “not-white” rice)?
- It’s a powerhouse of a food, packed with healthy lipids (in its most outer layer), with plenty of manganese, phosphorus, selenium, Vit B3, B6, B1, iron, and dietary fibre. It has at least 10 essential nutrients (which are lost during the refining process to create white rice).
- It provides a large range of rich and subtle flavours and has been praised and revered for thousands of years! Although we now know that whole rice, like most whole cereals, is missing two amino acids (Lysine and Cystine) people in ancient times discovered that it was simply a matter of combining it with other foods like pulses, fermented foods and seeds to create healthy and nourishing recipes.
- It offers a symphony of savours and aromas, such as the nutty Bhutan red rice, the sweet black rice from Camargue, and a range of textures going from the crunchiness of Wehani rice to the gentle creaminess of an Arborio or a Canaroli, (Wehani rice is an American Rice)
- It is a dream of a food for both gourmets and cooks as it opens up an endless field of creativity and inventiveness.
I could not today imagine not having ever encountered brown rice and I have developed an almost intimate relationship with it. I have a passion for discovering new varieties to taste and cook, serving it in a thousand ways, and yet I always come back to the wholesome simplicity of the first bowl of perfectly cooked short grain brown rice that I had the immense privilege to be introduced to as a young man.
Below I have shared two of my favourite brown rice recipes, I trust you will enjoy creating these simple dishes in your own home.
Should you be inspired to begin or deepen your own journey with this magical grain, I invite you to join me for my forthcoming online cooking series: Short Grain Brown Rice: The Essentials, starting on 12 May. Click here for the details.