ASK ME! rice varieties

• What is green or black rice? Is it like wild rice? — McKenna, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin

Good questions. There are thousands of rice varieties in the world, and technically wild rice is not among them. It’s actually the seed of a water grass grown in North America (one to two grains native to North America, the other being amaranth).

There are several varieties of black rice. Chinese “Forbidden Rice” has a nutty flavor and turns purple after cooking. It was thought to have been a delicacy enjoyed only by the emperors. Sometimes Forbidden Rice is confused with other Asian black rice varieties, which are glutinous or sticky.

In many parts of Southeast Asia, particularly in the northern highlands, sticky black rice is often sweetened and used in puddings and snacks. Sometimes it’s stuffed into bamboo tubes and roasted with coconut milk and/or beans. Just peel the bamboo like a banana, and you’ll find the yummy sticky rice inside. This rice is not served as the main rice of a meal. And it’s not really black. It turns a deep burgundy color after soaking and cooking.

Green rice is something else entirely. It’s rice picked early in the season when it’s still young and green. It’s a particular favorite of the Vietnamese, who have written poetry and stories about com, as they call it, and families have their own secret recipes for making it. It’s so special that parents traditionally don’t teach their daughters how to do it. They’ll teach their sons and daughters-in-law, but they fear a daughter will reveal the family secret to her husband’s family when she marries.

Every autumn, women wander through the streets of Hanoi with bamboo poles across their shoulders and baskets of com dangling from each end. When I was studying in Hanoi several years ago, I sometimes ran down to the street early in the morning before class, bought a banana-leaf packet of green rice and took it to my room for breakfast. My secret recipe: mixed with milk and sugar and eaten like cereal.

It must be said: There is perhaps no other ice cream as divine as kem com.

To read more about the importance of green rice in Vietnamese culture, click here.

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