SandyExPat had asked me some questions about rice and the presence of arsenic in rice, and had suggested that maybe I could do a blog post on rice, storing it, cooking it, etc. I couldn't refuse such an invite, now, could I? :D
I am South Asian by birth. Rice is our staple food. We eat it, or dishes made from it or from rice flour, often three meals a day. We rarely ask, "Have you eaten?"; almost always the phrase we use is, "Have you eaten rice?" When I was a child, all the rice we consumed in our household were grown in my father's rice fields, or paddy fields as they were called, paddy being the name for the unhusked grains of rice. The rice was grown and harvested twice a year.
Back then, the paddy fields were ploughed using water buffalo to drag the plough, although now, tractors are also used. However, some paddy fields, which are terraced on the sides of hills, are very narrow, so tractors can't always be used.
The fields are flooded with water and the unhusked seed rice (or paddy) is scattered, usually by hand (at least, that's how it was done when I was growing up; I've no idea if that has changed). Once the seedlings have grown to several inches high, they are uprooted and transplanted in rows, usually by hand and often by women who bend over and walk backwards, in a line, in the mud and water of a flooded field. There will be several women in a row, each planting one seedling of rice in front of her, in a straight line, then, taking a step back to plant the next seedling, all the way down the length of the field. They carry the seedlings to be planted in a bundle in one hand and there are people who will replenish the bundles as needed. These days, there might be mechanized planting; I really don't know.
Once the rice has grown and is ready to be harvested, it used to be cut by hand, using a type of sickle. The harvested rice is then threshed to remove from the stalks, husked, and winnowed. The traditional way to winnow was to scoop a pile of threshed rice in a triangular woven basket, narrow and about 2 or 3 inches deep at one end and wide and flat at the other end and allow the rice to fall from a height. The heavier grains of rice fall down in a pile and the lighter chaff is blown away by the wind. Rice is also winnowed by shaking and tossing the rice up and down using this same basket, catching the grains of rice in the basket as they fell while the chaff gets blown away.
The resulting rice is unpolished or brown rice (or, in Sri Lanka, red rice) and is considered more nutritious. White rice has the inner husk removed and is called polished rice and has a better keeping quality, especially in a tropical country.
The harvested rice used to be stored in what we called gunny sacks (burlap sacks). Some of the harvest was stored in the rice box, a big wooden chest that was in the kitchen. The one in our kitchen probably measured 5 feet in length, and was about 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep. It came up to about waist height of the adult women in the household. My mother had it custom made and lined with zinc to keep out bugs. She had it painted blue, I remember.
After my father died, the rice fields were inherited by his children by his first wife as they had been a part of their mother's dowry. Once the household broke up, for the first time in my life, my mother and I had to buy rice. This was at a time when rice was rationed and we could only get what was available through our ration cards, which was usually not the type of small grained rice called "samba" that I grew up eating and preferred. My mother would buy it on the black market, for me! Yes, I was spoilt!
Sandy's question pertained to the presence of arsenic in rice. Arsenic is a known poison and a carcinogen; it is present in the soil and, often, in water. Rice, grown in flooded fields, absorb the arsenic. Often, it accumulates in the brown husk, so unpolished or brown rice will have more arsenic than white or polished rice. That makes it hard because brown rice is considered more nutritious than white rice.
The amount of arsenic ingested depends on how much rice one consumes, of course. The more rice one eats, the more arsenic is consumed.
I have read articles that say to soak the rice overnight, before cooking, in a 5:1 or 6:1 ratio of water to rice (5-6 parts water to 1 part rice), drain the water, and then, cook as usual. Some articles I've read say to cook the rice in 5 to 6 parts water (rather than the usual 2 parts water to 1 part rice) and drain the excess water as one would boil pasta and drain the excess water. I really don't know about that as I haven't tried it. I generally rinse my rice in about 3 or 4 changes of water.
Back when I was growing up, the rice, having been threshed and winnowed on the bare ground, would contain small bits of stones and grains of sand! Preparing the rice to cook involved first spreading the rice out and picking out as many stones as one could see and then, washing the rice by swirling it around in a bowl which had grooves carved around the inside. These bowls were originally earthenware pottery, but later, there were aluminum bowls, as well. The one I have is aluminum (and it needs a good cleaning!).
I only know the Sinhalese name for these bowls; I don't think there is an English name.
Close up of the grooves:
|Groovy! :D (You are allowed to groan!)|
One would gently move the bowl back and forth to let the water flow out of the grooved bowl, along with the top layer of rice into a bigger basin filled with water. Then, add more water to the grooved bowl and repeat until most of the rice has flowed out of the bowl. The stones and sand, being heavier, would sink to the bottom of the bowl and get trapped in the groves. Usually, the rice was washed at least twice like this, sometimes thrice or however many times it took until no grains of sand would be left behind in the grooves. And then, cooked. If the rice had been properly washed, one could eat the rice without any problems. If it hadn't been properly washed, then, it was common to suddenly crunch on a piece of grit! LOL!
These days, the rice rarely has sand and grit; just rinsing it is sufficient. Conventional wisdom is to cook the rice in 2 parts water to 1 part rice. I am afraid I have never actually measured out 2 parts water to 1 part rice. The "rule of thumb" I grew up with said to rest the tip of the middle finger on top of the rice and the level of water should reach the first knuckle. As a result, I've never measured how much water I add! I just eyeball it - approximately 1/2 inch of water above the layer of rice seems just about right to me. Maybe, the next time I cook rice, I'll measure the amount of water I put!
These days, I usually use a rice cooker to cook my rice, although I have cooked it on the top of the stove, as well. When cooking in a pot on the stove top, the way I learned to cook rice was add enough water to reach the 1st knuckle, then cover and boil until it starts to boil over, then, move the lid so the pot is partially uncovered and let it cook until the rice is fully cooked, by which time, all the water is absorbed. Traditionally, rice was cooked in an earthenware pot, so there was some water evaporation through the pot, as well.
The way to tell if the rice is fully cooked is to take a couple of cooked grains between your thumb and forefinger and mash them. If there is a grainy bit in the middle, then, add just a bit more water and cook a bit longer. :)
It is how I taught my daughter to cook her rice, too. She, too, cooks it in a rice cooker, but she will dip her finger in to gauge the level of water.
Occasionally, if one wants a fluffier texture, the washed uncooked grains of rice are sauted in a little ghee (clarified butter), butter, or even oil. Then, water is added (and sometimes, spices and flavorings) and cooked. We do this when we make yellow rice, rice pilaf, etc. The sautéing coats the grains of rice in a film of oil which prevents them from sticking together.
So, am I worried about arsenic in my rice? Not too much. Not enough to start soaking my rice overnight, but maybe I should be and do so? Would that long soaking change the cooking time, I wonder? How about you? Do you soak your rice overnight?