The word rice found its way into the English dictionary only in the mid—13th Century, from strains of Old French ( ris ), Italian ( riso ), Greek ( oryza ), Dutch ( rijst ) and Macedonian ( oriz ). However, classical Europe itself was introduced to the word, because Alexander the Great and his team during their expedition to India in 326 BC noted and possibly took back ‘a strange plant, standing in water and sown in beds; the plant four cubits in height, has many ears and yields a large produce’, which the locals called arisi — the Tamil word for uncooked rice.
Today, this small grain is at the centre of a debate, on whether eating it makes people gain weight. Countering this concern is the recent research conducted across 136 countries by Professor Tomoko Imai of Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts, Kyoto, Japan, which suggests that the obesity rate is low in countries that eat rice as a staple food. They confidently state that a Japanese or an Asian-food-style diet based on rice may help prevent obesity.
“Let’s first understand that rice is a cereal. Eating any whole grain cannot lead to obesity. It is the sedentary lifestyle of urban people, who are chained to their desks yet eat quantities like farmers, that leads to them becoming obese,” explains Vidhi Beri, a Kolkata-based health coach.
“Try the red or black heritage rice varieties: they make you feel full even if you eat small quantities. Black rice variants, such as chakhao poireiton from Manipur, or karuppu kavuni from Tamil Nadu, are suitable for weight loss as they are also high in fibre and have an increased satiety value,” elaborates Sreemathy Venkatraman, clinical nutritionist and dietician, Brains Neuro Spine Centre, Bengaluru. She elaborates that heritage rice is rich in flavour, taste and texture and can also be used as table rice for making salads and desserts.
Biodiversity on your plate
Many are still unaware that India was once home to over 1,00,000 varieties of indigenous rice. Farmers would categorise them into ‘summer rice’, ‘autumn rice’, ‘winter rice’ and ‘rainy season rice’, and through this unwritten calendar avoided a monoculture and ensured biodiversity on the farm. Some grains were cultivated exclusively for biryani , like mullan kazhama from Kerala (its distinct fragrance is said to permeate across the field just before harvest season). Gobinda bhog , from West Bengal, was reserved for special occasions and offered as prasad to Lord Krishna during Janmashtami. “It is always good to include regional grains on our plate — they are nutritious, less expensive and lessen food loss. Rice can be chosen according to the meal. For example, the red grain kullakar works really well for idli ; seeraga champa is ideal for biryani ,” explains M Menaka, assistant professor, Department of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, Ethiraj College for Women in Chennai, who has done extensive research on heritage grains.
Charulatha Newar, a homemaker from Delhi, believes in buying local produce directly from farmers. She explains that for her table rice, she has been sourcing brown rice from farms in Uttarakhand and Karnataka; to make idlis she wanted to shift from white rice to a healthy heritage rice option. “I’ve been using the kaatuyanam rice from Tamil Nadu to make idlis and dosas at home. Red rice is high in iron, and this particular variant is not heavy on the stomach when eaten.”
Black, red and brown
“All unpolished rice, whether red, brown or black, is ideal for weight loss, because the fibre and nutrients satiate one much more than white rice would. You’d only need to eat about half or less than half the quantity. Therefore you get more nutrients and fewer calories,” explains Dr Nandita Shah, founder of Sharan and author of Reversing Diabetes in 21 Days .
Unlike white rice, in brown rice, only the hull of the rice kernel is removed, keeping the layer of bran, which has nutrients like calcium, potassium, zinc, important fatty acids and essential vitamins, intact. Rice varieties like kullakar , kaatuyanam , poongkar , karunkuruvai , thavala kannan matta are a good source of iron, zinc and vitamin B6. Black rice has the highest levels of anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant that protects cells, tissues and vital organs. In fact, black rice has a higher level of anthocyanin than blueberries.
To strain or not to strain
Whole grains take longer to cook, be it on an open pan, electric cooker or pressure cooker, explains Menaka. “By soaking the red and black rice for at least eight hours and the brown rice for at least an hour, the cooking time is reduced,” she says.
There is no clear evidence to suggest open pan-cooking is better than pressure-cooking rice; they are different cooking techniques, and today a matter of convenience. Though researchers point out that the strained rice water has a lot of health benefits. Add some salt or jaggery to a glass of strained rice starch and drink up, it is a revitaliser and perfect to beat the heat.
A cup of rice or whole grains, can be transformed into a series of appetising food — starting from a simple kanji, to a creamy risotto. Clearly, portions matter when eating rice; ideally, doctors suggest that rice should take up just one-fourth of your meal. So, serve yourself a heap of heritage rice, surrounded by curries, vegetables, lentils, beans and maybe even a bowl of meat — and don’t feel guilty about it; because without doubt, rice is nice.