There are many varieties of rice and culinary preferences tend to vary regionally. In some areas such as the Far East or Spain, there is a preference for softer and stickier varieties. Rice cultivation is well-suited to countries and regions with low labor costs and high rainfall, as it is labor-intensive to cultivate and requires ample water. However, rice can be grown practically anywhere, even on a steep hill or mountain area with the use of water-controlling terrace systems. Although its parent species are native to Asia and certain parts of Africa, centuries of trade and exportation have made it commonplace in many cultures worldwide.
The varieties of rice are typically classified as long-, medium-, and short-grained. The grains of long-grain rice (high in amylose) tend to remain intact after cooking; medium-grain rice (high in amylopectin) becomes more sticky. Medium-grain rice is used for sweet dishes, for risotto in Italy, and many rice dishes, such as arròs negre, in Spain. Some varieties of long-grain rice that are high in amylopectin, known as Thai Sticky rice, are usually steamed. A stickier medium-grain rice is used for sushi; the stickiness allows rice to hold its shape when molded. Short-grain rice is often used for rice pudding. Instant rice differs from parboiled rice in that it is fully cooked and then dried, though there is a significant degradation in taste and texture. Rice flour and starch often are used in batters and breadings to increase crispiness.
Rice is cooked by boiling or steaming, and absorbs water during cooking. Rice (or any other grain) is sometimes quickly fried in oil or fat before boiling (for example saffron rice or risotto); this makes the cooked rice less sticky, and is a cooking style commonly called pilaf in Iran and Afghanistan or biryani (Dam-pukhtak) in India and Pakistan.
Rice is the staple food of over half the world’s population. It is the predominant dietary energy source for 17 countries in Asia and the Pacific, 9 countries in North and South America and 8 countries in Africa. Rice provides 20% of the world’s dietary energy supply, while wheat supplies 19% and maize (corn) 5%.