Why do Americans use long-grain rice instead of short or medium-grain...
June 26, 2018 8:12 AM   Subscribe

...even in dishes that were originally meant to be made with short- or medium-grain? Is long-grain rice cheaper? Easier to grow in the US? Easier to cook? Easier to "keep" after cooking? More shelf-stable beforehand?

As a child I was often very confused by why the rice in Americanized-Chinese food seemed so off. I don't think my parents really understood either, because they explained it as due to the cooking process. Eventually I finally learned about the different "lengths" of rice, but what I still don't understand is the motivation for substituting long-grain rice in the place of short- or medium-grain.
posted by inconstant to Food & Drink (13 answers total)
I don't know about restaurants, but until pretty recently long grain was all that was available in most supermarkets. Even now that there are other types on the shelves, yes, long grain is still cheapest.
posted by Kriesa at 8:14 AM on June 26, 2018 [8 favorites]

I think it's just cultural inertia. As a white suburban kid in the 90s, long grain rice was the only rice there was. I didn't even encounter brown rice until my teens. Other lengths of rice still seem somewhat exotic to me, although I appreciate their qualities, and 99%+ of the rice that's grown or imported to the US is probably still long grain.

So it's probably a matter of cheapness and availability, plus meeting the expectations of white American customers, plus a healthy dose of This Is Just The Way Things Are.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:40 AM on June 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Long grain rice is more widely available and less expensive. But I think that's more due to culinary history than because long grain rice is an "easier" rice to grow or cook.

As for why restaurants still use it now that medium grain and short grain rice are more common, I don't know. American Chinese food is its own genre, and restaurants could be still using it due to tradition. Or it could just be a price decision.

I do know that some American Chinese restaurants serve short grain rice because I've eaten it... so they're not all making the same decision about their rice.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:40 AM on June 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Climate. Indica rice is long grained & grows more readily in tropical climates & was grown in Africa & came to the USA through the slave trade, also grown in places like Vietnam. Indonesia & Southern China (these are your Jasmine & Basmati type rices). It grows well in the hot swampy states in parts of the South in the USA. Japonica rice grows more readily in cooler climates so is grown in Japan, Korea & around much of the Mediterranean (these are your sushi rices & risotto rices).

Then of course California developed Calrose rice which is sort of a medium sized grain. Which grows very well in Australia & was the rice I grew up with.

I am not a rice expert so happy to be corrected, just someone that loves rice of any type.
posted by wwax at 8:55 AM on June 26, 2018 [23 favorites]

I grew up in Hawaii, so I had literally the opposite experience, where I didn't even know that non-sticky, long-grained rice existed until I moved to the mainland. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by tobascodagama at 8:58 AM on June 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Americans somehow expect rice to be "fluffy" (i.e. the last instruction in rice "recipes" is to fluff the rice with a fork, which is nonsense if you are used to shortgrained varieties). I don't know where this expectation came from.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:52 AM on June 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

At least two of the tastiest and most desirable varieties are long grained: jasmine and basmati.
posted by jamjam at 10:07 AM on June 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

I too can't speak for restaurants, but as a home cook who tends to make a lot of rice dishes but doesn't want to bother with storing a bunch of different kinds of rice, jasmine rice is generally the universal choice for me. I also like basmati and buy that occasionally if I plan on making a bunch of Indian food.

Unless I feel like starting a rice collection at some point, I'd probably only bother getting a short-grained rice if I needed it for something very specific where jasmine rice would just seem wrong, like risotto.
posted by bananana at 10:55 AM on June 26, 2018

Rice isn't very important across American cuisines, even in dishes inspired by cultures where rice is very important. It's just a vehicle ingredient for other stuff, more or less. Ultimately whatever is paired with the rice takes precedence, since it'll be masking or giving the rice some real flavour. The only food I can think of where rice is key is Sushi, and even then, I'm there for the fish, the rice is just there.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:00 PM on June 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm fascinated by this because I have not experienced this where I live in the US, don't cheap Chinese places always have that ubiquitous sticky short-grain white rice? I am also the sort of person who keeps four kinds of rice in the pantry so perhaps I am unaware.

My guess would be the popularity of converted/parboiled rice, e.g. Uncle Ben's, in the midcentury period. This was (and maybe still is) the only kind of rice anyone could buy in big supermarkets and women's magazines in the 1950's-1970's promoted it for recipes, which then got clipped into home recipe binders, etc.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:01 PM on June 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

I remember when it was a semi-big deal in the late 90s that you could get arborio rice at a regular grocery store instead of a gourmet or Italian specialty store. I also remember learning that Italians typically made risotto with carnaroli, which stunned me because why would you go to the trouble of importing arborio if not to make risotto? So I am firmly on team inertia here as far as explaining the rice situation. When I was a kid there were two kinds of rice, both were white, long grain, neutral in flavor, and the only difference was, one of them was Uncle Ben's.

If you lived in a place with a significant immigrant community, sure, you would get basmati or jasmine or sushi rice at a restaurant. But you'd have to buy it at an ethnic grocery if you wanted to cook with it.
posted by wnissen at 4:07 PM on June 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Then of course California developed Calrose rice which is sort of a medium sized grain. Which grows very well in Australia & was the rice I grew up with."
Child of the 80's, I'm guessing? ;)

Odd that it may seem now, before the 70's Australia mostly grew Japonica varieties - the traditional "SunWhite" sold here was a short-grained rice. They started growing long-grain here in, I think, the 70's, and Calrose in the late 70's/early 80's (Ord River, I think).

Just in time to get a few seasons in before getting caught up in the US's rice trade wars with the rest of the world, and having to save their arses by marketing the hell out of it locally…

Short version is, Australia at least flipped from mostly short-grain to mostly long-grain rice in the space of about 10 years.
posted by Pinback at 12:32 AM on June 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

OK It's off topic a bit, but yes I was totally a child of the 1980's Calrose was everywhere, I remember my mother lamenting not being able to get the right rice to make her baked rice puddings. By the time I left Australia in the 2010's even in my tiny country town you could get a huge range of rices, from sushi, to basmati & even wild rice. But Calrose always makes me think of my mums attempts at exotic stirfry dishes (ie frying up some meat & veg with soy sauce) as a kid growing up and is the rice I eat when I miss home. Funny that something as simple as rice can have such complicated histories both personally & on a national/international level.
posted by wwax at 12:24 PM on June 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

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