In Sanskrit there are myriad words for rice describing their many states of being, presentation, and consumption. One common word is अन्न, “anna,” which can translate to mean rice that is ready to eat. This word is also seen dancing through the Vedas relating to the external body, or that which pertains to food. Rice, then, is understood to be the basis of the external self. It is food, it is the body, it is a container for the deeper, more subtle variations of life.
Rice (“anna“), The Holy Grain
In Maya Tiwari’s book, A Life of Balance, she dedicates an entire chapter to food sadhana – otherwise known as the practice of interacting with food as sacred. Ayurveda understands the physical world and our physical bodies to be variations of each other, like mirrors reflecting light between them. Maya dedicates pages and pages of her gorgeous text to Anna, rice, which she titles, The Holy Grain. Grains, like us, contain universes within them. Each seed planted will multiply by the thousands as they mature into healthy stalks.
White Rice Or Brown Rice?
Every kernel and presentation offers variations of nutrition and thus, each variation has a collection of specific and supportive effects. Mostly we think of rice as either white rice or brown rice. What are the differences between them?
In general, brown rice contains the external bran, or husk. This external layer is sweet and rich in oil, fiber, and minerals. White rice is brown rice that has been husked. When grown and cared for organically (and without the aid of GMO seeds) white rice is sweet, cooling, tonifying and easy to digest. In terms of the physical body, both the brown and the white presentation will aid in the building of tissues due to their innate sweet natures.
Your Ayurvedic Diet + Rice
In terms of the dosha, white rice is often recommended for those who struggle with issues of Air and Space (Vata). This is because external bran of brown rice, though full of fiber and more “whole” can be difficult to breakdown for those who have irregular digestion.
Additionally, those who struggle with complaints of Vata may feel they do not have enough time to cook brown rice as it can take up to 45 minutes. White rice however, can be completely cooked in 15. This is important because rice that is eaten without completely steaming, or is removed from the refrigerator without warming, can add to the complaints of Vata – gas, bloating, and constipation to name a few.
These same suggestions can apply to those who wrestle with issues of Fire and Water (Pitta) – though their digestive fire can usually manage the external husk. It can depend on whether this particular person grapples with the Fire element of Pitta or its water component. This is because the bran can add some extra work for the digestive fire. Those who have extremely fast metabolism can benefit from the extra work as it will help slow the system down. However, when fire is high, so can be impatience. In this case, the cool, sweet, and quick aspect of the white rice can be a supportive tonic. If the water element of Pitta is higher, but digestion is working well, this lucky person can choose whichever fits their palate!
Due to rice’s innate building nature, those who have high Earth and Water elements (Kapha) will benefit from it in small quantities at lengthy intervals. If their digestion is good and they process food without nausea or a feeling of sluggish digestion, then brown rice, like with Pitta, can give their body some work to do and may kindle the digestive fire a little better.
As with everything, our beloved Anna can be adjusted and specified with the appropriate spices to balance personal and ever-changing needs of time, place and circumstance.
Rice And Balance
Just like all beings, rice is born in a diversity of forms. Each form carries its own innate constitution which imbues it with a natural inclination of service. In the west we often say, “you are what you eat.” Ayurveda expresses something similar with, “like becomes like and opposite balances.” This is to say that whatever we consume through the five senses, our tissues will likely gather and use.
Edible food is one method of balancing ourselves. There is a catch here of course. When we are imbalanced, often we crave that which will make us more imbalanced. We can easily experience this when we begin to consume too much sugar – once ingested we will crave more. Thus, planning what and how to eat is truly a wisdom art. It often requires deeper understanding of what cravings innately communicate. Often we desire the sweet taste because we are experiencing feelings of lightness or instability which expresses as fear and attachment. Thus, the craving for sweet is actually quite wise. The desire to select sugar as a substitute is where things can go awry. Modern palates require a re-education into what is actually sweet. And this is where our beloved grains can offer a warm and generous hand.
According to Ayurveda, the Sweet taste (madhu rasa) is composed of the elements Water and Earth (Jala and Prithuvi). Thus, anything that is sweet is composed of these qualities in some proportion. Rice is comprised of Water and Earth. It is sweet inherently. Anything that is madhu is made for building, sustaining, and absorbing – all the qualities that are present in Earth and Water as we see them in Nature.
As stated above, we learned the differences between brown and white rice – notably, that one contains the husk (brown) and the other has the husk removed and is polished (not bleached) – (white). Depending on where we are in the world however, rice variates into even more specific varieties.
Types Of Rice
Basmati rice is a beautiful, long, slender and aromatic grain. Her name translates to, “queen of fragrance.” Even once it is steamed, she maintains her lean shape and emits a smell that is likened to the jasmine flower. Often this grain is aged up to 2 years, which supports its ability to maintain its elegant form when eventually steamed. Basmati is easy to cook, easy to digest and is often recommended when using rice to heal digestive imbalances.
Jasmine rice is quite similar to her Basmati sister, though her origin is Thailand. This grain is generally not aged. This means it will likely expand to a plumper size than Basmati. It is cooling in energy, and can be supportive to cleansing like Basmati as well.
Another rice familiar to our palates is Sushi rice. This is a short grain sister. When it is cooked it becomes soft and…sticky! It’s high starch content support this ability. Thus, for those who suffer with sluggish digestion, this rice could pose problems as the stickiness can continue within as without!
Black, purple, and red rice also maintain a glutinous, or sticky quality to them when cooked. In terms of nutrients, red rice contains iron and zinc in the husk. Black and purple rices have high protein, fat, and basic fiber.
Wild rice is another favorite. It has a rich nutty flavor and this may be due to the fact that it is not a grain, but a seed from a midwestern grass. It is known to have a pungency to its flavor profile and thus is most supportive to those who need more heat in their diet.
In general, short grain rices tend to stick together and so are a bit more difficult to digest. Examples of this are those like Arborio, which is often used in risotto type dishes. Long grain rice is known to remain long and separate after cooking. It remains fluffy and light, and thus is easier to digest over all.
Long grain rice like Jasmine (Thailand), Basmati (India and Pakistan) is met in the United States by a grain called Texmati. This grain is a hybrid of Basmati and American Long Grain. It is aromatic like Basmati but tends to be a bit stickier. This is due to the fact that Texmati rice is not aged. This fact increases its building quality and so though it can be used for cleansing, over time will increase a feeling of robustness.
Due to their watery nature and ability to absorb, hold, and expand, rice is also a food that can deliver nutrients and qualities to the tissues. Therefore, no matter what types of rice are taken, the portion and spices it is prepared with will truly determine the service she provides.
Rice Cooking Methods
As with everything, preparation is equally as important as what is being prepared. Rice is a generous gondolier whose purpose is to carry flavor and nutrition into the body. The mode of preparation changes the boat, and there are a variety of boats.
Steaming is a common method of cooking. Steaming is a gentle warming of the rice. The steam coaxes the cells of the rice open by its heat. Graciously the pores of the grain then absorb the surrounding water particles. It is clear through description why steaming rice allows it to remain structurally intact, firm, fluffy and light. When we want spices to enter steamed rice, the water particles absorb the oils of the spices and deliver them to the rice to be held and delivered. The transition is smooth, gentle, nourishing, and thus it will do the same inside us.
Boiling is a more aggressive practice to the grains of rice. Rice with stronger husks, or stronger rices in general can benefit from the forceful persuasion of the boiling water. This is because the extreme heat breaks open the exterior of the rice allowing the water to penetrate deeply into the grain. This releases more contained starch. Thus, the finished grain is usually stickier, mushier, and “starchier.”
It is interesting to note, however, that how we often think of steaming is actually a hybrid of steaming and boiling. In a rice cooker and on the stove, rice is literally sitting in water which we then heat to a boil. Once boiling, we cover the pot and turn the heat down and allow it to simmer, where the rest of the rice is cooked via steam. This method can become steaming as long as the heat is turned down in time. If not, the rice is “over-cooked” and will have the soupier quality of boiled rice.
The amount we wash the rice will also effect its presentation when either boiled or steamed. Sufficiently washed rice removes excess starch from the exterior. This encourages the rice to retain its natural shape in steaming and will be less sticky in boiling. When rice is inadequately washed, the starch on the exterior layer of the husk will dissolve into the water. Naturally, excess starch floating in the water will make the water more likely to have the quality of oatmeal. This leads to the wonderful point though, that boiled rice can be a delicious way to replace or supplement for oatmeal as a breakfast option. Additionally, rice gruels and soups can be keys to nourishing a tired or clogged digestive tract. Boiling with excess water is the entryway to this culinary feat!
Frying rice is a sumptuous method to bring out a strong, nutty flavor in our dishes. Water and Oil are very similar and in Ayurveda there are oily qualities to water and watery qualities to oil. Oil makes things smooth, plump, soft, with the ability to hold and absorb. Water similarly makes things smooth, plump, soft, and with the ability to absorb and hold. Both are unctuous and have innate surface tension. Oil is like refined water in many ways – its a stickier cousin. Thus, when we fry rice, the oil is absorbed the same way the water would be. This means the building content of the rice is increased greatly.
There are a variety of oils with which to cook. Like rice, each oil has its own properties. Some are light and fluid – more like water. Some are dense, hot, and sticky. Whatever properties are present in the oil, the rice will deliver those properties to our insides. Deep fried rice means that rice is completely saturated in the oil and as with boiling rice, the heated oil breaks down the casing of the rice so that more oil absorbs. This is partly why health professionals do often recommend diets filled with deep fried rice. Fried rice whether deep fried or shallow fried – meaning in less oil – is delicious and sweet because it is filled with oil. Unctuousness is a quality which increases Pitta and Kapha doshas and thus those who suffer from issues like cholesterol, clogged arteries, and high blood pressure may find eating fried rice also aggravates these experiences. This said however, those who suffer from weakness, debility, or weight loss, if properly spiced and in the appropriate oil can find shallow fried rice is a supportive tonic.
Blanching means to quickly boil rice and then remove it from the heat and water, thus halting the cooking process. The purpose of this is to remove the excess starch from the external hulk. This process prepares the rice for dishes that require a soft and creamy character as with risotto and rice pudding.
Sautéeing rice causes the outer grain of the rice kernel to “gellate,” which means it absorbs the surrounding moisture of the oil. This allows each individual grain to maintain its structural integrity but still stick to each other. The rice in this way, is slightly “overcooked” and is common in Rice Pilaf.
Different varieties of rice grain prefer differing cooking methods. Like in any relationship, we can learn what our rice likes, what its built to do naturally and support it through its preparation. From here it will nourish us in kind.