Children growing up in Hawai‘i are well-acquainted with the command to “go home cook rice,” Helping parents with the chore of putting dinner on the table. Even grade schoolers may be tasked with washing the polished grains to get rid of impurities, and taught to master the index finger method of measuring the proper amount of water for cooking.
Hawai‘i’s love affair with rice began with the first Chinese immigrants who found poi and kalo to be poor substitutes for their home country’s staple food. It’s hard to imagine now, but rice paddies and water buffalo occupied Waikiki when they started the first rice production in the islands in the late 1800s.
According to local historian Douglas Chong, Hawai‘i was the third largest producer of rice in the United States in 1889, behind Louisiana and South Carolina. At one time, Hawai‘i had 25 percent of the agricultural lands planted with more than 130 experimental varieties of rice. Sugar was the only crop to surpass rice production.
But the industry was short-lived. The hand labor of Chinese and Japanese field workers was no match for the mechanized production taking place in California. By the 1930s, few rice fields remained. The last rice mill, Kaua‘i’s Haraguchi Mill in Hanalei, closed in 1960.
By then, anyone growing up in a big family was familiar with the 20-pound yellow bags of Hinode and Diamond G rice. Both companies offer California Cal- rose medium-grain rice that has been a household and restaurant staple in the islands since Alister Macdonald—who arrived in Hawai‘i in 1941 to administer a $35 million emergency food fund—started Hinode after World War II.
But there’s much more to rice than California Calrose. More than 127,000 samples of cultivated rice and 4,647 wild species are stored at the International Rice Gene Bank. As diners have become more sophisticated, different types have become grown in popularity. Over the past 30 years, restaurants have introduced such specialty and aromatic rice varieties such as arborio, basmati, jasmine and black rice.
The opening of The Rice Factory (tr-fus.com) in Kaka‘ako two years ago also brought a wave of interest in specialty rice from Japan. The company offers about seven varieties of rice that can be milled and polished on site to one’s preference.
HERE’S A GUIDE TO SOME OF THE VARIETIES OF RICE AVAILABLE LOCALLY:
The choice for risotto, this Italian short-grain rice has a high gluten content. Slow cooking with stock releases its starches to produce the prized creamy, velvety texture of this dish. Get a taste of arborio at Basalt, which recently added a vegetable ver- sion to its menu, featuring edamame, bok choy and baby carrots accented with a Parmesan crisp.
This long, slender aromatic rice is grown mainly in India and Pakistan, and is used in biryani and pilaf- style throughout the Himalayan region. It has a fragrant flavor and aroma and is often cooked with spices to enhance those aromatic properties. It’s available at any restaurant specializing in Indian and Nepali cuisine such as Maharani and Himalayan Kitchen.
This slender long-grain rice originates in Thailand. It has a soft, slightly sticky texture when cooked and is used throughout Southeast Asia. Find it at any Thai restaurant.
Originally from China, it’s called “forbidden rice” because it was once reserved for emperors only. Its fragrant, nutty flavor is a match for both savory and sweet dishes. In Korea, it’s mixed with white rice, resulting in a vivid purple color when cooked. Sample it through the casual fare of O’Kim’s in Chinatown, where it accompanies a specialty of pork belly brûlée.
These plain, smooth grains have a balance of sweetness, stickiness and firmness considered ideal for sushi. The Rice Factory carries Nanatsuboshi from Hokkaido, used at some of the top sushi bars on O‘ahu, including Beniya and Sushi Sho in the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki.
From Niigata prefecture, this chewy, sweet and fragrant short grain is known as the “king of rice,” delicious hot or cold, and well-suited for meat dishes, bentos and Western-style meals. Koshikari from this region consistently receives the Japan Grain Inspection Association’s top “A” ranking. Available at The Rice Factory.