Rice is the principal food of the majority of the world’s population. All edible rice comes from only two species, Oryza sativa (Asian rice) and Oryza glaberrima (African rice), with the Asian type vastly surpassing the African one in use and in variety. It is also the staple grain that needs the least processing to prepare for cooking.
Rice is actually the seeds of the Oryza plant grown seasonally in tropical countries. While there are varieties that can withstand climate conditions outside the tropics, rice loves sun, humidity, and water. When the seeds are mature, the plants are cut down and threshed to separate the grains from the rest of the plant, much like wheat. The grains are sun-dried for a few days, then milled to remove the husks. They may be milled again to polish the grains for a whiter product, but essentially that’s it. The rice is ready for use.
Rice can be eaten in many ways. In millions of homes all over Asia, rice is simply boiled or steamed daily to provide the carbohydrate bulk of every meal. This is the usual way rice is prepared. After boiled rice has cooled, it can be sautéed with any combination of ingredients. Fried rice is the simple term for this yet sinangag (seasoned with crushed garlic and salt) is different from kiampong (sautéed with pork bits, peanuts, onions in chasyu sauce). Or rice can be further boiled in a meat stock to make lugaw or congee (rice porridge), to which is added meat, vegetables, and spices. There is a variation to lugaw common in former Spanish colonies: champorado, where the rice is boiled with milk, sugar and cocoa.
A sticky variety of rice is used to make pastries. Whole grain rice mixed with different proportions of coconut milk, brown sugar, and local flavorings turn into suman and biko, both a kind of heavy rice cake. Using rice flour with the same basic ingredients makes puto, a finer-textured cake. Much like the word cake, suman, biko, and puto are generic terms with countless variations.
The adaptability of rice is apparent in Asian cuisine. Rice flour is used to make noodles and edible wraps for spring rolls and native candies. As a thickener, it gives a creamy texture to both savory and sweet sauces. Toasted and flattened grains serve as toppings for puddings, chocolate beverages and ice cream. Popped rice stuck together with raw sugar syrup is a popular mobile snack.
For Asians, rice is the staff of life. Gluten-free, easy to cook, filling but not overpowering, rice completes a meal. Anything from gourmet lechon to the humble tuyo is more satisfying when eaten with a bowl of rice.