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From Basmati to Jasmine, Exotic Rice Boils Over

Along with the traditional white, 120,000 varieties sprout around the globe

IF rice tastes bland to you, if it tends to be your third-favorite starch after potatoes and pasta, you may just need a new recipe.

The way to make home-cooked rice taste like it came from your favorite Chinese, Indian, or Thai restaurant, is to shop where the Asians shop, says Sri Owen, author of ``The Rice Book,'' (St. Martin's Press, 1993, 402 pp., $24.95).

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Asian markets, which have been springing up wherever Asians reside, often have five or six varieties piled to the rafters in 50-pound bags. And you thought rice was just rice; that's just for starters. The International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Philippines, has recently cataloged more than 120,000 varieties of rice worldwide.

Supermarkets are catching on, drawing from the many varieties and providing the right rice for Italian risotto, Spanish paella, and Asian recipes. Try any of these, or even the misnamed ``wild rice'' (it's a wild grass, actually), and you will never go back to those quick-cooking boxed brands that end up having less flavor than the box.

Western civilization first encountered rice during the crusades - perhaps not the best of circumstances. Silk Road traders brought the new grain to the war-torn Holy Land in the 9th and 10th centuries from China, where it had been grown for thousands of years. But it was not until the 14th century that Europeans began to grow rice themselves, in part because Turkish and Arab traders controlled the sale of rice and other ``spices.''

Rice comes in many shapes, colors, and sizes. Long-grained aromatic types such as Basmati and jasmine are a perfect match with the potent curry dishes of India and Southeast Asia. South Asian cooks often add a tablespoon of oil when cooking their rice to keep it from sticking. Some recipes, spiced with turmeric and bay leaf or coconut milk and cardamom, upstage the main course.

People from Northeast Asia favor medium-grained white rice varieties for their stir-fry dishes and sushi. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean recipes often call for plain steamed rice, cooked just long enough to stick to chopsticks, but not too long that it turns to mush. Farmers in the United States have developed brands such as Nishiki and Kohuko, in part because rice is the staple grain for half the world's population.

The chief misconception about rice is that it takes forever to cook. While it is true that humans have been cooking rice for the past 8,500 years, the recipe provided here will take much less time - about half an hour. (Dishes that use brown and red rice can take a bit longer.)

Chefs at Asian restaurants in the US continue an age-old tradition of rinsing their rice before cooking. This gets rid of the dust, talc, or any bits of rice husk that linger after the refining process. American makers of some brands of ``enriched'' rice advise against rinsing, however, since it washes away added vitamins.

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Have no fear: Rice can be cooked on the stove without doing irreparable damage to your pots. Steamed rice is the simplest kind. Drop a cup of rice into a cup and a half of water, and cook with the lid on at medium heat for 20 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Then turn off the heat and leave covered for 10 minutes longer to retain the steam.

If you find yourself cooking a lot of rice, you might want to invest in a rice cooker. Necessity led Japanese inventors to come up with an electric appliance that cooks rice to perfection, every time, and even shuts itself off when all the water has boiled off. Prices range from $50 for a plain Panasonic to $200 for a space-age Sharp. Higher-priced models will keep leftover rice warm for days.

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