As a nutritionist, I know the health benefits of rice, but I had no idea there were over 40,000 varieties until I went into my local India Bazaar.

Rice, a staple grain that feeds more than half of the world’s population, has a rich history that spans thousands of years. With numerous varieties cultivated across the globe, each type of rice has its unique texture, flavor, and nutritional value.

The history of rice cultivation dates back to 5000 BC in the Yangtze River valley in China.

Over time, the cultivation of this hardy grain spread across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, resulting in thousands of distinct varieties, each shaped by local culture, climate, and cultivation techniques. Today, rice plays a vital role in nutrition and cultural traditions, religious rituals, and social structures in many societies worldwide.

 

Varieties of Rice
There are more than 40,000 varieties of rice, which can be broadly categorized into three types – long grain, medium grain, and short grain.

Among the rice varieties, the most commonly consumed ones include white, brown, black (or purple), red, and aromatic types such as jasmine and Basmati. Each variety finds its preference in specific ethnic groups owing to taste, texture, and culinary adaptability.

White rice

White rice, typically polished to remove the outer hull, bran, and germ, is widely consumed in many East Asian and Western cuisines. In contrast, brown rice, which retains its bran and germ layer, is a staple in health-conscious diets due to its high fiber content and lower glycemic index.

Basmati Rice

Originating in the Indian subcontinent, Basmati rice is cherished for its aroma and long, slender grains. The term “Basmati” means “fragrant” in Sanskrit. It has a nutty flavor and a floral scent reminiscent of jasmine or pandan. Basmati is an essential component in Indian and Pakistani cuisines, often used in dishes like Biryani, Pulao and as a simple accompaniment to curries.

Jasmine Rice

Jasmine rice hails from Thailand and is known for its fragrant, floral scent, similar to that of the jasmine flower, hence the name. Its grains are shorter and stickier compared to Basmati. Jasmine rice is a staple in Southeast Asian cuisines, starring in dishes like Thai fried rice and Khao Pad and as an accompaniment to various Thai curries.

Arborio Rice

This Italian variety is renowned for its high starch content, which renders a creamy texture when cooked. Arborio rice is a crucial ingredient in traditional Italian dishes like Risotto and Rice Pudding. Its short, plump grains can absorb flavors while maintaining a slightly chewy consistency.

Japonica Rice

Japonica rice, often associated with Japan, includes varieties like Koshihikari and Calrose. These short to medium-grained rice have a sticky texture when cooked, making them ideal for sushi, onigiri, and other Japanese delicacies. They are also used in Korean and Chinese dishes.

Red Rice

Red rice gets its unique color from its anthocyanin content. It has a nutty, earthy flavor and is often eaten for its perceived health benefits, as it retains its bran layer, which is rich in nutrients. Bhutanese red rice and Camargue red rice from France are some popular varieties.

Black Rice (Forbidden Rice)

Black rice, also known as “Forbidden Rice,” has a deep black color that turns purple when cooked. It’s packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber. Historically, it was reserved for Chinese royalty, hence the name. It’s now used in various cuisines for salads, puddings, and as an accompaniment to meat dishes.

Glutinous Rice (Sticky Rice)

Despite the name, glutinous rice does not contain gluten; the term ‘glutinous’ refers to the glue-like sticky texture of the rice when cooked. It’s widely used in East and Southeast Asian cuisines for mochi, mango sticky rice, and zongzi dishes.

Wild Rice

While not actual rice but a seed from a grass species native to North America, wild rice is often included in discussions about rice, it has a chewy outer sheath, tender inner grain, and slightly nutty flavor. Wild rice is used in salads, stuffings, and as a pilaf.

 

Regarding the healthiest variety, brown rice often tops the list.

It is rich in fiber and vital nutrients like magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, thiamin, and niacin. Its high fiber content aids digestion, promotes a feeling of fullness, and helps maintain stable blood sugar levels.

Additionally, brown rice is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

However, there’s an emerging contender for the title of the healthiest rice – black rice.

Though less commonly consumed than brown rice, black rice boasts higher antioxidant content, specifically anthocyanins, which are linked to several health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer.

Regardless of which rice variety you choose, moderation is key. Even the healthiest grains can contribute to weight gain and other health issues if consumed excessively. Balancing rice with other whole grains, protein sources, fruits, and vegetables can help maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle.

The next time you cook, consider experimenting with different rice varieties to bring a world of flavors to your plate.