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The Most Neutral and Warm Grain: An Observation about the Classic White Rice from Southern China

The white rice from south China, my hometown, is oryza sativa, specifically the sticky, short-grained japonica variety.

In all kinds of agricultural merchandise, rice is the third highest production all over the globe after sugarcane and maize, and the white rice is a staple food in many countries. In China, I almost eat rice every day. It is recorded that ores sariva rice originated from the Pearl River valley region in China, based on the study of genome variation. Currently, China is the biggest rice producer worldwide.

 On one hand, white rice is a neutral material in my physical world, it can be light and heavy, hard and soft, transparent and opaque, dry and sticky. On the other hand, it is one of the warmest materials in my mental world.

Harvesting from the Land

White rice, short-grained oryza sativa, is a semiaquatic plant. It is the main grain product in the south of China, where I was born, I am raised by rice. Relying on the Yangtze River, the sub-tropical humid monsoon climate and enough water resource allow white rice growing widely and stably. It is planted in water with soil, which makes its property naturally mild and slightly humid.

After about 3-month growth, the grains turn into yellow and start to drop. Then farmers harvest rice by cutting the rice stalks and separate the grain from the stalk by a mechanized thresher. After that, the rice will be dried and milled to remove the chaff, the outer husks by rice huller. At this point, we get the brown rice. After milling away the bran and polishing, we finally get the white rice as a commodity.

The Moment of Raw Rice 

The white rice before cooking looks like a tiny version of Hetian jade, a type of white nephrite. It is semitransparent, with a little starch on the surface, it looks and feels glossy but not shiny. When I shine a light on rice, half of thelight passes through it, and the rice stores another half of light—just like jade—subtly and warmly.

When I pick up the raw rice, scrolling it with my fingers, the moment of its sharpness interrupts the sense of its gentle look. By holding a single unit of rice, it is so tiny that I can hardly feel any weight, but its density is actually higher than the human body. Grabbing a handful of rice, it becomes obviously heavier. When I pour a cup of rice into the cooker, the grains are hitting the wall of the metal pot and creates a stream of dense echo, the echo of heaviness and hardness.

In the contrast of its smooth look, rice is so dry that it can absorb a lot of moisture and keep the environment dry and clean. A traditional way to dry or store food for a longer time is put it inside the rice jar. The starch attached on rice’s surface it one main factor of being so dry, but it has to be washed away before cooking a perfect pot of rice. The washing water is kind of magical water, which can be used for cleaning vegetables, greasy vessels and our faces, due to the rich nutrition it can be also used to water and nourish plants.

By washing the rice several times, the water becomes clear and transparent so that the rice won't be over sticky after cooking. Then let the raw rice sit in water for half an hour, for leaking the water through the skin of rice, in order to make it more moist and chewy.

The Experience of Cooked Rice

The original property in Chinese traditional medical science is warm. Moreover, in China the most common form of its utility, eating, is warm, whatever it is steamed rice, porridge, or fried rice.

After cooked, the water is fully absorbed by the rice and reduces the density of rice. In the opposite of raw rice, it can help to keep moisture. For Instance, the toast made with cooked rice will taste softer and moister than the ordinary one.

The cooked rice becomes bigger, white, opaque, and sticky. Its stickiness is my most important criteria of its quality, and it is fairly different from other types of grains. Cooked white rice is more adhesive than Jasmine rice but not as smashed and vague as sweet rice, each grain clearly maintains its independency as a unit. The white rice will loosely clump together as the best grain that I can eating with chopsticks without stick into an entire solid or keep falling.

The stickiness makes rice as the main ingredient of making traditional glue, and even the Great Wall was glued by rice mixture. However, rice also acts very firmly compared with sweet rice, which is also called sticky rice. When we make Tangyuan, a classic rice ball mixed with ground sweet rice and white rice, the latter hardens the sticky rice flour and makes it into a chewy and clear sphere form. Only using sticky rice flour will make the ball looks like melted, it cannot hold the shape.

Rice looks and tastes so plain to many people. Yet, it is so related to my personal memory, the richness of rice already rooted in my mind. When there’s the freshly steamed or boiled rice, I can smell corn and slightly floral aroma, and start projecting round shape in my mind, maybe it is the shape of fulfillment and happiness.

It’s time to fill a bowl of rice. To maintain the fulfilling sense, I usually fill the rice taller than the edge of the bowl, make it looks like a semi-sphere rice cap. My first bite is always a chopstick of white rice in order to feel the authentic flavor. While chewing rice slowly, I can feel the sweetness of the starch spread in my mouth. The complicated subtlety of its properties makes me feel warmer. I can even eat an entire bowl of rice with only a pinch of salt or soy sauce, which makes the pure white rice sweeter. However, most of the people usually don't directly eat rice as a dish. There’s a Chinese common expression that a dish can help to consume a lot of rice if it tastes very rich or slightly heavy, which implies rice is more likely to be the supporting role on the table.

I cannot tell if rice is the side dish that makes those main dishes more balanced and delicious. Or, rice is actually the texture that we add to flavors, it makes every dinning moment more concrete. It extends the time of chewing the flavors from dishes and sauces. White rice is so neutral that it can compromise any kinds of tasting characteristics. While chewing it, each pinch of food gradually unrolls layers of the flavors rather than a single taste without rice; the mild cate tends to be stronger and richer in the mouth, and the sharp and spicy bite is tendered by rice.

Furthermore, it is different from other starches. Your taste bud need spend more time with rice, comparing with the processed fine pasta and noodle. However, it won’t consume your patience endlessly like those “healthier” and coarser grains. Rice keeps the beautiful moments of tasting various flavors but ends at an appropriate timing with a slightly sweet aftertaste.

Because my classic white rice is so neutral that it can be the most invisible food for each meal, but it also could dominate the whole table whatever those flavored dishes are complex or simple.

Yunwen Tu