For several days at the end of each year, Wendy Kohatsu and about 20 members of her family come together in Los Angeles to beat 150 pounds of dry sweet rice into handmade mochi. It’s a long process, one that requires patience and good conversation as they soak the rice, steam it, and pound it into molten sticky dough that is then meticulously hand shaped into dense rice dumplings. The result is a sumptuous soup of warm mochi floating in a rich miso broth.
But before the meal begins, the family pauses and says grace as an offering to nature and the year to come. “Rice symbolizes the foundation of life,” explains Kohatsu, a visiting assistant professor at Andrew Weil’s Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. “Saying grace before rice is a way of giving thanks to the sun and the earth, to the farmers who till the land, to the cooks, and to the people who serve you. It is a simple but powerfully deep way of feeling connected to rice and the planet.”
Throughout history, this grain has meant more than just sustenance; in many cultures it is a central element in both culinary and spiritual practices. Today, more than half the world’s population is sustained by it, and in many parts of Asia, a meal is not considered a meal unless rice is served. Celebrations are often linked to its harvest and planting, such as the Pongal festival in Southern India, where Hindus, in honor of the new harvest, cook rice in pots until it boils over. Rice worship also takes place each day in places like Tibet, where Buddhists offer a bowl of white rice as a daily offering. And in Indonesia, the rice goddess, Dewi Sri, is much revered, as is rice, which is believed to have a spirit or soul.
As I learn more about this abundant grain and the cultures that honor it, I begin to see how I can infuse new intentions into a bowl of rice—pausing, as Kohatsu does, to remember the source of my meal and to give reverence to nature and all the people who helped bring it to my table. And because of all the different varieties, colors, and ways to cook rice, I’ve also stumbled upon an opportunity to give puddings, stir-frys, and risottos, which are already full of flavor and nutrients, a deeper meaning.
It turns out that available rice varieties are as diverse as the people who eat them. There are 120,000 kinds, according to the International Rice Research Institute—short-grain brown, Japanese white, fragrant basmati and jasmine, dark purple, and red among them—and each type represents the region and culture that grows it.
No matter the variety, whole-grain rice is a bountiful source of B vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants such as selenium and manganese, which help boost immune function. Of course, like any other whole grain, says Kohatsu, who’s an integrative physician and nutrition expert, rice that is less processed retains more of its nutrients. If it’s brown, or any color other than white, the bran (the exterior) coating has been left intact. Pure white rice of any kind has had its bran polished and some of the nutrients taken away, leaving behind the carbohydrate-rich center. Combine rice of any variety with a bit of protein, and you’ve got a great complement to any meal. This may be news to anyone who sees rice primarily as a big bowl of carbohydrates.
“Lately, rice has gotten a bad rap,” says Los Angeles dietician Ashley Koff. “People say they want to avoid carbs, but by avoiding rice they’re missing out on the B vitamins and fiber, which, when depleted, can make people moody and lack energy. In my opinion, we’ve been overwheated, and we could use the diversity of rice in our diets, especially since it’s one of the least allergenic grains and one of the easiest to digest.” Koff offers a good reason to forsake my morning slice of whole-grain toast. I take her advice and put some organic long-grain brown basmati in my rice cooker to make a breakfast bowl.
As the basmati steams, a musky floral aroma fills the house, and I’m surprised that I have never before really noticed its alluring fragrance. I feel boosted when I discover a 2007 study presented at the American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference, which found that rice eaters have more nutritious diets than non-rice eaters and, as they are less prone to be overweight, they have less chance of developing high blood pressure and diabetes. It’s probably no coincidence that rice happens to be an Ayurvedic mainstay, especially white basmati with its sattvic qualities; these enhance clarity, keeping the body light and the mind clear.
With the knowledge that I am eating a healthful grain that is held sacred by Hindus who use it in ceremonies such as weddings and funerals and in celebration of a baby’s first solid food (rice, of course), I take my paddle and put a couple of scoops of my cooked basmati into a saucepan. I add some milk, a little cinnamon, a pinch of cardamom, and a dash of organic demerara sugar. Over medium heat I stir the rice until most of the milk has been absorbed. I finish it off with a sprinkle of chopped raw walnuts and pecans, and sit down to breakfast.
As I take my first few bites, I am reminded of a conversation I had with Rohini Kanniganti, a physician originally from Southern India now based in Boulder, Colorado. As a child, she often heard the phrase annadata sukhibhava. “It fills my belly just to hear it,” she says. “It means ‘God bless the provider of food.’” Anna translates as “rice,” reinforcing the belief that serving rice to guests (especially the needy) is as much a sacred act as one of service. Kanniganti also points out that, in many Indian homes, rice mixed with milk and sugar (not much different from my breakfast bowl) is often offered to deities at home altars. Once the food is blessed, a little bit is given back to each member of the family to eat.
As I continue with my breakfast, I notice the rice is chewy and sweet, with an earthy pungency. Ultimately, it’s a completely satisfying and filling meal. Rice manifests a certain terroir—the quality of the soil in which it grew—that produces a particular aroma and defines the way the flavor changes as the grain is chewed.
Later, when I browse the rice aisle at my local health food store, I am astounded at the number of varieties that I can easily grab off the shelf. Then I begin to think about a Senegalese woman named Sarta, featured in Seductions of Rice, a book of rice traditions and recipes from around the world. Every morning Sarta, like generations of women before her, gathers stalks of rice and pounds them in a large mortar with a heavy pestle. She pounds and pounds until she can winnow away the last of the chaff and bran and all that remains are tiny white pearls. As I drop a few varieties into my cart, I promise myself that the next time I make rice at home I’ll remember Sarta and respect all the labor that went into harvesting this precious grain.
Kohatsu later suggests that I do this by mindfully washing my brown rice before it hits the stove. In that way, you can slowly and respectfully infuse any meal with an intention or offering, as you would at the beginning of a yoga class. “A slow swish of your hand,” says Kohatsu, “stirring the raw grains rhythmically clockwise, then counterclockwise, slowly rinsing off what talc has clouded up the water, then again swishing, rinsing, swishing, rinsing, until the water is clear. That way you pay homage to generations who have survived on rice before, and you fulfill your karma yoga—your duty to get dinner on the table.” And so with gratitude I say, “Annadata sukhibhava.”