Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Rice, Glorious Rice!

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!).

Grooved Bowl

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.

I have also read that it is best to freeze the rice overnight to kill any bugs, but I haven't done that.  I tend to buy my rice in 10 or 20 lb. bags, for the most part and they have stayed bug free so far.  I do have a few large tupperware containers in which I store my rice, once the bags are opened.  

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? 


  1. Washing rice looks similar to panning for gold. :)

  2. This is fascinating Bless, I never knew about Arsenic in Brown Rice, as I dont eat much Brown as I prefer white or red occasionally I am not going to worry. I have a friend who is always chiding about how I should eat brown, I will tell her about the arsenic! She is a health freak, lol.
    I cook rice like you do, with the first knuckle as a measuring stick! Although I do it by eye mostly. I actually learnt to cook it from some Columbo Plan Students who had a kitchen in their Halls of Residence (we didn't and were mightily jealous as the canteen meals were gross). My particular friends were from Sabah (Borneo) and as it was then Ceylon (1970). I think that was where I got my taste for Asian food, we used to have to go past their Hall on the way to ours and the smell was fanastic! I am still in touch with my friend from Sabah but lost touch with the two Sri Lankan girls years ago. They were from the Kandy area, which was tea growing I think?
    Sometimes if I am doing rice for an Indian meal I soak Basmati for 20 minutes or so and it shortens the cooking time a lot, the first time I did it I ended up with mush!

    1. Well, there is arsenic in both brown and white rice, but brown rice is supposed to have more. Yes, Kandy is in the hilly area, and most of the tea is grown in hilly areas. The primary tea growing region is further up in the hills, though. My step-father was from Kandy and he had a house there and we'd go up just about every weekend!

  3. Dear Bless,

    Thank you for sharing such an amazing blog about rice and a glimpse into your life growing up. So different from how we live today. You are certainly a very gifted writer and make reading your story such fun while slipping in so much history.

    I have never seen such big bags of rice in the store. I only now am understanding how much rice is a part of your diet. My mum did make "rice pudding" when I was growing up but never cooked as part of the first course. I will not overly worry about arsenic but may try the over night soak and see how it is.

    Once again many thanks😀

    1. Sandy, you are most welcome and thank you for suggesting the post topic! At first, I thought, what is there to say about rice? You just buy it and boil it and that is all there is to it! But then, I began to remember, well, I didn't always buy it, and I know how it is grown (or rather, how it used to be grown, as things might have changed since then, but not by much, I believe) and here was an opportunity to write about my memories.

      I grew up seeing rice being grown, but my daughter has never seen a rice paddy, except perhaps in pictures if she looked on-line. I've watched the farmers plough with the water buffalo, the seedlings being transplanted, the grains being harvested and threshed. I've bitten into unhusked rice, removed the husk with my teeth, and chewed on the raw grains (which I thought was great fun!) I've picked weevils out of the stored rice before it was washed and cooked (which was not quite as much fun, but bugs were a fact of life in a tropical country). I never actually planted rice, myself, but I learned the verses which were traditionally sung during the transplanting (to help keep the rhythm) and harvesting, at school (I really don't think anyone actually sings them, anymore, except during cultural shows!)

      Incidentally, I chose to have sprays of rice in my bridal bouquet, in addition to the flowers (red roses). I had read somewhere that rice was a symbol of fertility and that is the reason behind the tradition of throwing rice at weddings! (There had been some concern if I might be able to have a child because I was marrying at 35; I figured I needed all the fertility help I could get! :D ) The florist spray painted them gold and they looked pretty with the red roses I carried.

      Thank you, again, for suggesting the post!

  4. That was a fascinating read Bless. Who knew ending up with the rice you could eat was so time consuming and a fine art. I have a confession to make, I buy microwave in the bag rice - feel free to block me immediately! We have 2 bags between 3 of us and probably eat it every 7-10 days. I have boiled my own lots of the times in the past though and I just used to rinse it until the water ran clear.

    Do you mind me asking, when your Father died did his wives and children all go their separate ways. It just struck me that you said you had to buy your rice after the paddy fields had been inherited by his children from his first marriage. Do families not stay together if the husband dies? xx

    1. Thank you, Suzanne. Glad you enjoyed reading it. :)

      I once tried something called minute rice, when I first came to this country, as my roommates wanted me to try it. It was, OK, I thought. I haven't tried microwave in the bag rice, but I do know some people who cook their regular rice in the microwave. I've never tried it, myself, though. But I have tried boxed rice mixtures (usually the are mixed with a type of pasta and have flavor packages to add when cooking) and I love them. So, I am sure microwave in the bag rice is fine!

      As for your other questions, well, my father was a widower with 5 young children (4 boys and 1 girl; the youngest was 5 and the oldest 13) when my mother met and married him. (She was a teacher at the school where the 2 youngest sons were enrolled and she might even have been the class teacher of the youngest). Mother had very interesting stories to tell about her step-children (and no doubt they had very interesting stories to tell about their step-mother, too.) :) Apparently, they had been allowed to run wild since Father was busy (he was a doctor), and the servants who were in charge of them didn't dare to correct the kids! When Mother arrived on the scene, she put some rules in place and I am sure that wasn't too popular. But we were more or less united as a family while my father was alive. We were still a family for about an year after his death, as well. But then, my mother met someone and started dating him and nobody liked it! It led to a lot of bad feelings, and one day, there was a big row and a falling out between her and her step-children. We had an uneasy truce of sorts until my half-sister married, but after that, the household was dissolved. I was 10 at the time, so I really didn't have much of a say in matters. It was pretty acrimonious and it took a long time to heal the rift. I didn't see my oldest half-brother for over 30 years, 2 other half-brothers died without us making contact, and so forth. My half-sister kept in touch with me after a fashion (birthday cards, etc.) and eventually, we re-connected. We are a pretty dysfunctional family, when you think about it. *shrug*

    2. No, I don't think you're from a dysfunctional family at all Bless. Losing a spouse, re-marrying, step/half brothers and sistes, arguments, it's all pretty much what goes on in a lot of families really and has done since Biblical times :)

      I just assumed your Father had 2 wives which was a pretty big assumption on my part - I hope it didn't cause you any offence. Your mother must have been quite a woman to marry a man who already have 5 children although being a teacher I can imagine she took it all in her stride.

      I'm glad you re-connected with some of your half siblings and sorry to read you didn't have the opportunity to do so with the others.

      Thank you for your reply. The children running wild while your Father worked brought a smile to my face. xx

    3. No, my father didn't have two wives at the same time. Or even an ex-wife. :) I don't know what my mother was thinking, marrying a man with 5 young children! My mother used to say that the tutor would come to the house to help the children with their homework and they'd assure him there was no homework and say, "Let's go see a film", and take him along with them! (The car and the driver were there at their disposal, the driver didn't dare to refuse to take them where they wanted to go, and, apparently, the tutor didn't care that it was his job to tutor them as he was getting paid, anyway.) Mother put an end to that and many other things they were allowed to do prior to her arrival. The servants would leave the children's morning milk poured out into glasses on the table - the boys would wake up early and drink their milk and go about their days, while the sister slept in. One of the boys would then notice her glass of milk still left on the table and drink it! Then, sister would wake up and complain that someone had drunk her milk! Mother bought them individual glasses and wrote their names on them so they each knew whose glass of milk it was! One of her step-sons got so angry with her once that he threatened to hit her, but Mother said her step-daughter intervened. The youngest step-son used to chase my mother around the house and garden with a broom stick, threatening to hit her, and grab her by her sari - Mother would let her sari unravel and run in her underskirt and blouse; then he'd tear her sari in a rage! Later, he'd tell her he'd buy her lots of saris when he was grown up. The children's aunt (their mother's older sister) lived in the house next door; Mother said she would look over the wall at Mother being chased and shake her head and tell her that any other woman would have left Father by then! These are some of the stories my mother used to tell. There were many more!

  5. Very interesting reading. I think we forget these days how labor intensive processing food used to be. I'm not sure that's a good thing.

    1. Thanks, Live and Learn. Yes, food preparation used to be quite labor intensive, as just about everything had to be prepared from scratch. And, in the days before refrigeration, everything had to be prepared more or less on a daily basis as well.

  6. I loved this blog post, it was so interesting, Bless. I knew about the arsenic in the rice but I don't think we eat enough of it to worry about it. However, I have switched to brown rice for myself so I will try to remember to rinse it as I don't right now.

    The way I cook it is in the microwave. 3 cups of water to 1 cup of rice, cover, cook on high for 5 minutes and then for 20 minutes (15 if white rice) on 50% power. Let it sit for a few minutes. I do measure the water as if I use even a little too much, the rice will be watery and I hate that. We eat our rice plain. Sometimes the kids add butter or/and Parmesan to theirs, but Greg and I just add salt and pepper to it.

    1. Thank you, Nathalie. It takes 15-20 mins. in the rice cooker (as long as I remember to press the "cook" button! Occasionally, I forget and then, after about 30 mins., I wonder why the rice hasn't boiled! LOL!) One of my friends introduced my daughter to having butter on her rice when she was a little girl (I don't like it like that, so I didn't think about introducing it to her) and daughter just loved it! I cook plain rice, but I won't eat it just plain - always mixed with some curry or something. :)

  7. Just now, Vietnam proudly reports they are the largest exporter of rice, replacing Thailand. In China and Vietnam rice is still planted and harvested as you've described but it's starting to see the farmer, halting his ox to talk on his cell phone in midst of a giant field.

    1. Ha, ha, Hon, sounds like progress has arrived! :D

  8. Yes, really interesting. You probably already know this, but "rice" and "meal" are interchangeable, for the most part, in Japanese too. I planted rice in Japan, in the way you describe. I didn't have the special shoes for walking through the mud, so I went in barefoot and I remember being scared about the possibility of standing on a snake! (Well, I would have been worried about that either way.) Anyway, no harm done and I enjoyed it.

    I didn't know rice contained arsenic. If it comes from water, I guess soaking it before cooking is not much use, but mum soaks her rice to cut down the cooking time. Her rice is perfect every time. I'm a bit hit and miss. Anyway, never heard of anyone dying from rice poisoning!

    Sorry to hear your siblings made you buy rice after your father died. Even if the paddies and crops were theirs to eat/sell, it's a shame they didn't at least give you enough for personal use. But when people are hurting or feel wronged, sometimes it's hard to be kind.

    1. Glad to hear that you survived the rice planting! I'm sure I'd have been worried about stepping on a snake, too!

      I guess the soaking water should be cleaner than the water being used to irrigate the paddy fields. But, I would assume one would have to consume a lot of rice to get poisoned!

      Well, it was a pretty acrimonious parting of the ways and I think that they felt very vindictive towards my mother. In fact, they tried to take away things from her that she had bought with her own money, but, couldn't prove because she hadn't kept the receipts. She felt very bitter about that for years and I've often wondered if my tendency to hold onto papers and receipts originated from that experience. :)


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