As a staple food throughout much of Asia, rice holds significant historical and cultural worth.
Language in particular can reveal valuable insights into a country’s history and values, and this is exemplified in the words for “rice” and “meal” in many Asian countries. For example, in Japan, the term “gohan” denotes both cooked rice and meal, while in Korea, “bap” is used interchangeably for the same purpose. Similarly, in China, the word “fan” refers to food, meal and rice.
Although rice is a mainstay throughout many Asian nations, its methods of preparation and cultural history vary greatly, resulting in the unique significance of the grain to each country.
Japan has a rich history with rice. One of its most popular types is Koshihikari rice, which was developed after World War II. The short-grain rice’s sticky but chewy texture coupled with its sweet taste has made it the most cultivated rice in the country.
To bring out its texture, the rice is first rinsed with cold water and then soaked for 30 minutes before it is cooked with 10-20% more water than a 1:1 rice-to-water ratio. The rice is left to rest for 10 minutes after cooking before it is fluffed to remove excess water.
Other popular types of rice in Japan include sumeshi, which is used in sushi, and mochigome, which is used to make the popular Japanese dessert mochi.
In China, rice was once considered more valuable than pearls or jade. The cultivation of rice in the country through wet rice farming using paddy fields dates as far back as 5,000 BCE and proved to be more productive and successful than growing rice on dry land. The Chinese character for rice, 米 (mǐ), is the foundation for the Chinese character 氣 (qì), or vital energy, highlighting the importance of rice in Chinese culture.
Since Chinese rice-based dishes typically use sticky, short-grain rice, the method of preparing rice in China is similar to that of Japan’s. One of China’s most popular rice-based dishes is congee, a rice porridge typically eaten for breakfast or when sick.
In Korea, rice was a scarce commodity until the 1960s due to shortages during World War II and the Korean War. Since much of the rice harvested in Korea at the time was sent to Japan, Koreans had to rely on different grain substitutes to meet their dietary needs — even today, many Koreans still prefer to eat japgok-bap, a multigrain rice mix that contains rice, beans, millet and sorghum.
Koreans typically cook rice, or ssal, in ways similar to that of China and Japan, resulting in bap (cooked rice). Bap is always served with side dishes known as banchan, which are placed in the middle of the table for sharing. Bibimbap, a well-known Korean dish, translates to “mixed rice” and features a bed of rice topped with vegetables, meat, eggs and spicy chili paste.
India is the second-largest producer of rice in the world after China, cultivating several varieties of both white and brown rice. More than half of India’s population relies on rice as a staple food source, as it has been associated with fertility and health for generations.
Northern regions of India grow fragrant long-grain rice known as basmati, while southern coastal areas grow more glutinous medium-grain rice. Basmati, which means fragrant or perfumed, is well-known internationally as it pairs well with spices such as saffron, cardamom and cinnamon. Unlike the chewy rice eaten in China, Japan and Korea, basmati rice does not typically stick together. Biryani, a popular Indian dish, consists of flavored basmati rice topped with marinated meat. The dish is typically cooked in an oven, allowing the different flavors of its ingredients to combine together.
In Thailand, rice was traditionally cultivated in the areas surrounding the Chao Phraya River that flows through Bangkok and into the Gulf of Thailand. However, today, most of Thailand’s rice is grown in the northeastern region of the country. “Kin khao,” a commonly used Thai expression for “to eat,” translates to “eat rice.”
Thailand’s most well-known rice is Hom Mali, also known as jasmine rice. To cook jasmine rice, 1.5 cups of water is used for every cup of rice, similar to the water ratio for basmati rice.
Thai glutinous rice, which is native to northern Thailand, is another popular rice variety that has a sticky, short-grain texture and is easy to eat by hand. The classic Thai dessert mango sticky rice is made with steamed glutinous rice, coconut milk and mangoes. Sticky rice is usually soaked in water overnight before being steamed in a bamboo basket, called a teeneung khao neow, although other steamerswork too.
Rice has played a significant role in Filipino culture for thousands of years, as demonstrated by the Banaue rice terraces. These rice fields were created over 2,000 years ago by the Ifugaos, also known as the “people of the hill“. The Philippines are also the fourth largest importer of rice, indicating the importance of rice in Filipino cuisine and diet. The Filipino language has different names for rice depending on its stage: “palay” refers to the unharvested grain, “bigas” is the uncooked grain and “kanin” is cooked rice.
Many Filipinos use a trick to measure the water level when cooking rice. After rinsing the rice, they place their fingers straight into the pot until they can touch the rice. They then add water until the water level reaches the first joint of the middle finger.
Rice is typically served with a variety of side dishes called “ulam,” which range from meats and fish to various vegetables. A popular Filipino dish is adobo, which is often referred to as the unofficial national dish of the Philippines. It consists of meat marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves and black peppercorns, which is served over white rice.
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