Variety: the spice of rice; American growers are offering consumers more than the familiar plain white grain

Blame it on sushi, refried beans and risotto, but America is becoming a rice-eating nation. Per-capita rice consumption in the United States has gone from 8.3 pounds in 1980 to 16 pounds in 1997.

And the growth shows no signs of stopping.

As immigrants from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean settle here, they create two markets for rice: one made up of the immigrants themselves and the other of the people who become seduced by the cuisines of China, Japan, Thailand, India and the islands - people who won't eat plain white rice once they've tried basmati and jasmine rice.

"It's all based on immigration," said Richard Meyers, senior vice president of the USA Rice Federation. "Southeast Asians, Indians, Thais are opening more restaurants, and rice is a basic component of all those cuisines."

American rice growers, who supply 90 percent of the nation's rice, are being increasingly undercut by imports from Thailand and Vietnam, which are both cheaper and more familiar to many immigrants.

In response, American growers have begun producing new varieties here. Arborio rice, used in risotto, was once grown only in Italy. But farmers in California have developed their own arborio. Texas also grows its own variety.

Jasmine rice was once exclusively grown in Thailand. Now new varieties of this fragrant rice are being grown in Texas and Louisiana.

"It's taken a while to get there," said Meyers, "but they've got some very good varieties."

Actually, the companies may not be there yet. RiceTec Inc., one of the largest producer of aromatic rices such as American jasmine and basmati rices, is struggling to gain widespread acceptance for its jasmine rice among Southeast Asian immigrants.

"It is very difficult for us growers to reproduce jasmine rice to the liking of immigrants," said Mark Denman, vice president of sales and operations for Texas-based RiceTec.

"Everything has to be the same, not just the taste, but the color and the smell of the raw rice, feel of it, the texture as they chew it," he said. "All of that has to be perfect or they will not accept it."

Why do the growers try? "There is a huge market for it," he said.

For the most part, however, RiceTec is aiming to sell its rice to the same folks who buy plain converted. "We don't pretend to think we're selling to the immigrant population," said Denman. "Our market is the people trying to move up to a rice with a better flavor, people who have bought up to the aromatics."

Still, rice preferences are extremely personal, said Naomi Duguid, co-author with her husband, Jeffrey Alford, of a new cookbook, "Seductions of Rice," (Artisan, $35).

America's rice tradition, said Duguid, began in the 18th century, when a British ship brought a long-grained Asian rice to Charleston, S.C. This became Carolina Gold, which was grown along the Carolina and Georgia coasts by plantation slaves from western Africa and became a much-valued rice. By the 1930s, rice cultivation had moved along to Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri and northern California.

However, the industry already had established a legacy of Southern rice dishes such as hoppin' John, etouffee, red beans and rice, and jambalaya.

For many people in the United States, converted (also called parboiled) is the standard for rice. Advertisements for Uncle Ben's rice in the '50s and '60s boasted that the grains would cook up "separate every time."

Parboiling is a process developed in India centuries ago. Rice is boiled while still in its husk, driving nutrients from the bran to the center of the rice. The benefit is that it is more nutritious and holds up better in soups.

Aromatic rices, such as jasmine and basmati, give off a fragrance as they cook. There are two families of aromatic rices: Thai jasmine, which cooks up slightly soft and clingy, and Della-type, which has a drier and fluffier texture.

Brown rice describes any rice that has been removed from its husk, but not been milled (to remove the bran). It contains more fiber, calcium, iron, protein and B vitamins than milled (white) rice. However, it also contains phytate phosphorus, which interferes with absorption of calcium and iron. Wild rice is not a rice at all. It is an aquatic grass that is harvested in Minnesota and the surrounding areas.

Rice in general is high in starches and low in fat. It also contains protein, calcium, iron and B vitamins.

Indian Rice

Serves 8

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups basmati rice

4 cloves

4 cardamom pods

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups boiling water

a few threads of saffron (optional)

1/2 cup toasted almonds

1/2 cup raisins

Heat oil in saucepan and saute onion and garlic on medium heat until soft. Stir rice in lightly to coat. Add cloves, cardamom, bay leaf, salt, water and optional saffron.

Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes or until water is absorbed.

Remove from heat and remove spices. Garnish with almonds and raisins and serve immediately.

Risotto Vecchia Roma

Serves 6

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 1/2 cups arborio rice

2 tablespoons brandy

1 tablespoon tomato paste

about 6 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade, hot

1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 cup heavy cream

In 4-quart heavy saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, over low heat until onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add rice, stir, and cook until well-flavored, 2 to 3 minutes. Add brandy and let evaporate.

Blend tomato paste into 1/2 cup of broth, stir into rice, and cook briefly. Continue cooking rice, adding broth 1 cup at a time, until the rice is al dente, about 20 minutes. Wait until each addition is almost completely absorbed before adding the next.

While rice is cooking, cut 3 shrimp lengthwise into 6 halves; set these aside. Dice remaining shrimp.

Heat 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon oil in 9-inch skillet. Add shrimp halves and cook, stirring, a few seconds, then add diced shrimp and continue to cook, stirring, until they turn red. Do not overcook. Sort out 6 shrimp halves and set aside but keep warm.

Add diced shrimp to rice, stir, and add cream. Cook just to heat through. Use shrimp halves to decorate risotto.

Chocolate Rice Pudding

(Arroz con Leche Achocolatude)

Serves 6 to 8

2 quarts milk

1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1 (4-inch) piece true cinnamon bark or 1 cinnamon stick (cassia)

1/2 cup imported short-grain or California pearl rice

2 large egg yolks

cocoa for garnish

In large, deep saucepan over medium heat, bring milk, chocolate, 1 cup of the sugar and cinnamon bark to a boil, stirring frequently. Lower heat and add rice. Stir frequently with wooden spoon to prevent grains of rice from sticking together. Don't be concerned if milk appears speckled with chocolate at first; this will change as cooking progresses.

Simmer, uncovered, over gentle heat about 1 hour, stirring mixture, and every 5 or 10 minutes, removing film of albumin that forms on surface. When ready, a grain of rice squeezed between the fingers should feel tender.

Whisk egg yolks and remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar in small bowl until well mixed. Add 1/2 cup cooked rice to beaten yolks and mix vigorously with a fork to avoid cooking eggs. Add warm yolk mixture to cooked rice all at once and cook, stirring another 5 minutes. Pudding should be consistency of soft custard. (It will continue to thicken as it cools.) Discard cinnamon bark.

Transfer pudding to bowl and set aside to cool, stirring occasionally. When it is room temperature, chill in refrigerator several hours. Dust with cocoa and serve cold, with lots of hot coffee. This dessert is much better when eaten the same day it is made, so encourage seconds.

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