Thailand’s agriculture sector has major problems to deal with right now, as floodwaters destroy large swathes of the country’s farmland. But another recent development will also be hard to swallow for many Thais: Their much touted jasmine rice, the pride of the nation, is no longer considered the tastiest in the world.
That’s the conclusion of a select panel of judges that met in Ho Chi Minh City last week and sampled more than 30 entries from across the world to rank them based on their flavor, color and quality. The contest was started two years ago in conjunction with the World Rice Conference organized by a global rice consultancy, The Rice Trader. Thailand’s popular jasmine rice was the winner in the previous two editions.
But the winner this year was Myanmar’s pearl paw san variety – giving yet another reason for this Southeast Asian country to celebrate after a recent release of political prisoners and other signs of a reforming government.
“We judged the different varieties of rice on a stand-alone basis, for only their intrinsic aspects, and apart from water that is of course essential to cook the rice, no other ingredients were added while choosing the best among them,” said Michael Cross, a chef with Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Sacramento, Calif.
Rice producers around the world have long argued about who has the tastiest grain, and for some countries, it’s a point of intense national pride. There is a vast number of rice varieties available world-wide, with each being special in its own way, said Jeremy Zwinger, chief executive of The Rice Trader. He said one of the grades that narrowly missed the crown in this year’s competition was Venere, a black rice grown in Italy, the other being Thai jasmine.
Not surprisingly, judging all the varieties is a sticky affair. While the tasting of beverages such as wine and tea are common, it’s not as common for rice, even though most people in the world consume it. “It is for the first time that I am a judge in a competition to select the best rice,” said Adam Tanner, executive chef with the Sheraton Saigon Hotel.
Fortunately there are some fairly definitive guidelines, at least compared to the somewhat-subjective standards used to taste wine, said Mr. Cross. He said fragrant types of rice will score higher if they retain their special aroma even after cooking. “I smell the rice both before and after the cooking.”
Overall appearance is also important. “Impurities, yellow dust, broken pieces can be a dampener.”
What may be good for one type of rice, though, isn’t necessarily a strong point for other types. Long-grain aromatic rice types have relatively less starch to ensure they are fluffy and fall apart from one another after cooking, just as they are uncooked.
Japonica types of rice such as Calrose, meanwhile, are sticky. Higher starch content helps them hold together and they are used in sushi, said Mr. Cross.
Even in long-grain aromatic rice types there are subtle differences. Thai and Cambodian jasmine rice is to be sold fresh while it retains its fragrance, said Chareon Laothamatas, managing director of Bangkok-based Uthaiproduce Co. The Indian subcontinent’s premium basmati rice has to go through an aging process, though not as long as the several years needed for rum or whisky.
Quality can be an issue even before the rice enters the kitchen. For rice to taste good it has to be sourced accordingly and that is an important part of a commercial contract. Uniformity in the length of the grain so crucial in the rice trade that cargo surveyors will manually assess samples before shipments. Phaitoon Rasmee, a rice manager for Intertek Testing Services, cites the example of Thai 100% Grade A white rice, in which 70% of all grains in a cargo should be more than 7.0 millimeters in length. Other grades are known for their shorter length.
The Pearl Paw San that won the contest is a bold, round grain and it isn’t very long at 5.0-5.5 millimeters. Nevertheless its length can increase 3 to 4 times the original size after cooking, said Tin Htut Oo, a senior advisor to Myanmar Rice Industry Association. He said it has a unique fragrance, which is retained after cooking.
“It initially looked small, but ended up as a medium-size grain on cooking,” said Mr. Cross from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. There is a firmness in the bite while eating and it has a nice texture, added Mr. Tanner, the chef from Sheraton Saigon Hotel.