Asian-American Forum
Fall 2010 Issue no. 7

FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD!!!

            For months, I struggled with developing a Food-theme based curricula. My misgivings centered around its physicality as opposed to abstractions. The "art" in food seems as fleeting as GW canned food drive displays, as Warhol's Campbell Soup posters, as the doughty Baker dressed in white and pink and housed in Portland Art Museum. It is as tasteless as my "Thanksgiving Party" (in Places) at the end of which everyone devolves into conversation about past meals replete with phantasmagorical details about making the best slow-cooker chilies or drinking decades old port: the great psychic burp with all accompanying odors. My goodness, I think, only trained, paid chefs should talk about food all day; they who live and breathe it for the sake of their employers, nobility who take in minuscule amounts with white-laced tea, while discussing pressing family trivia. Surely no one at Mass discusses food; the essence of articles transmuting into heavenly matter designed to ensure our spiritual well-being is for contemplation and prayer only. So by default, food and its abstractions seemed a bit antithetical to the development of critical thinking, especially with regard to society, culture, or philosophy.

            Here, I stand corrected. True, a Food-themed based curricula is rich in matter, but it can be defined and corralled into acceptable topics; true, it is easy to become ensconced in trivet details, but how else are narration and description enriched; true it is tacky to relive meal upon meal while loading your plate, but even this age's best writers have condescended to penning award-winning articles, books, and screens movies on the food issue. Journalists' devoting of their energies on the food themes, the implications of mass-feeding in our society, its influence upon contemporary culture, and the very philosophy of food production--immediate versus ultimate costs--are not just raising hairs, but eyebrows. I read all of this month's articles in UTNE ("Food Fight" by Michael Pollan; "The First Family's Fallow Gardens" by Heather Rogers; "The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Go Hungry" by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton; and "In Praise of Fast Food" by Rachel Laudan) with greatest interest. Meanwhile, I was penning away my own essays for lesson plans.

            By now when I think of Food, the song from the hit musical, Oliver Twist, "Food, Glorious Food!" plays tackily in my head. What is it that makes food compelling in its immediacy, but the common urge to receive nourishment, the communal desire for enjoyment, the satiety substantial food lends, and the well-being we hope for: all this overlies our baser instincts for survival, acceptance, and love. Is this not the basis for books become blockbuster films such as Eat, Drink, Man, Woman by Ang Lee, or Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert? In the Far East, food, wealth, and fortune are often signified by pot-bellied gods and goddesses. Even today, people buy into the image of a lucky bare-bellied Buddha even when, as in the essay "Trying to Classify Rice?," one wonders just what kind of rice to serve.

Trying to Classify Rice?

 by Christine H. Wong

According to the Free Dictionary Online, "It has been estimated that half the world's population subsists wholly or partially on rice" ("PK-386 White Long Grain rice"). This cereal grain, grown and consumed throughout Asia, has been a dietary staple for millennia. However according to Penny Hess of Uruhu News, agricultural grains are the latest source for speculation:

With the dollar tanking and banks and corporations going bankrupt (and being bailed out by the government and the Fed), commodities, such as grains and agriculture are the hottest Wall Street investment sector today! For investors they are a safe haven the falling dollar and the loss of faith in stock markets (Energyandcapital.com).

Many in Haiti and other third world countries were forced into foreclosing their small family farms, when the U.S. dumped rice exports into their markets at prices lower than what farmers themselves could produce (Hess, par.18). Evidently rice is still such a valuable and essential food in developing countries that speculation has operated to control whole labor markets. But what of rice's nutritional, dietary, and health value?

            They say diet is habitual; a Native American lives on corn, an Asian subsists on rice, and Europeans are connoisseurs of cheese. Since I come from an American-Chinese family, it is safe to assume that I grew up eating a lot of rice; in fact, our family probably ate rice with victuals at least five days a week. However over the years my family's diet has changed. Several of my older relatives no longer eat rice because they are pre-diabetic and worried about their insulin levels. Others eat only brown rice. I still enjoy white rice, but as a vegetarian, notice that many vegetarian websites only recommend eating brown rice. Is white rice no longer a healthy food?

            To construct a basic classification of types of rice required research online. Initially, I was enchanted by articles at Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong.com, such as "Nutrition Information on Rice." However, I wondered about where such information originated. No article at the website seemed quite complete; if anything they were inconsistent or difficult to verify. Also, I was most interested in information about the glycemic index, since my relatives claim that rice is unhealthy. At Nutritiondata.self.com, the technical charts and tables are attractive, but the data does not correlate well at all with the table published under "Rice" at Wikipedia.com, even when adjusted from 100g to 175g servings. Tables at both these websites reference the USDA (or USDA SR-21), so I decided to also see what I might under the Nutrient Database. Unfortunately this week Release 22 (SR-22), the latest nutrient data program (which provides data on over 7,500 different food items), was down. Nevertheless, I decided to conduct my own research from my kitchen. I retrieved and compared Nutrition Fact labels of Jasmine Rice Premium with Three Elephant Brand long grain white rice, and with published data at Rice-Trade.com, a major marketplace supplier. The nutrition data were comparable, and therefore I decided to use Rice-Trade's information (which incidentally also references USDA Nutrient Database). Table 1 is a summary of my findings:

 

Table 1 - Comparison of White Rice and Brown Rice (1/2 cup (90g) raw, unenriched)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facts/Nutrition

White Rice- long

Brown Rice

Parboiled

 

Calories

320

342

344

 

Carbohydrates (g)

72

72

76

 

Glycemic Index (GI)*

44

55

38

 

Protein (g)

7

7.3

6.2

 

Fat (g)

0.62

2.7

0.52

 

Fiber (g)

1.2

3.24

1.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources: Jasmine Rice Premium, Rice-Trade.com, *Fifty50.com, USDA Nutrient Database

From the table above, everything seemed verifiable except the Glycemic Index. Fifty50's Glycemic Indices do not correlate well with Nutrition Data's. For one thing, Nutrition Data's Glycemic Load is calculated from Nutrition Data's carbohydrate estimate of 37 grams per 174 grams of cooked rice. Since most of the nutrition data retrieved from the web is based upon raw (uncooked) rice, it's hard to verify.

            Regardless of the rice variety, most writers and experts agreed that plain rice is best served with other vegetables or victuals to provide necessary B-vitamins and minerals such as iron. At Livestrong.com, Michele Turcotte concludes: "Rice is high in energizing carbohydrates and is a good source of protein, although it is an incomplete protein source, meaning it does not provide all essential amino acids" ("Nutrition in Rice"). Compared to potatoes, rice has a higher carbohydrate content but lower glycemic index. This presumes simple cooking methods such as boiling as opposed to frying which would increase the fat and cholesterol levels proportionately. Rice also provides a modest array of B-vitamins--more so than potatoes, particularly peeled potatoes. According to the Washington State Potato Commission, "potatoes with the skin are an excellent source of fiber," and "leaving the skin on the potatoes retains all the nutrients, the fiber in the skin and makes potatoes easier to prepare" (1).

            Nowadays, however, many health food websites recommend eating brown rice, a fact that concerns me as a colorectal cancer survivor. I can't eat brown rice because my digestion system is very sensitive. If I eat indigestible foods, I tend to develop small bowel irritation and days later, see the indigestible food trickling into my ostomy bag. Nevertheless, for people with normal digestion systems, brown rice is presumably healthier because the husks provide more dietary fiber and minerals than white (milled and polished) rice. However, I was surprised to discover that brown rice also contains twice as much fat, although unlike potatoes, rice contains no measurable starch (Wikipedia, "Potato"). As for my fiber intake, I generally use digestible supplements such as wheat germ added to yogurt and cereals, or eat fresh fruits or vegetables.

            No matter what, eating white rice is still my old favorite. Evidently the data I found on the web does not adequately substantiate rice as a food that would elevate levels of glucose or increase other health risks. Because I am a vegetarian (or trying to be), white rice is also a staple which complements vegetables and all-around adaptable vegetable products such as tofu (soy-bean curd), which itself supplies valuable minerals and proteins. Of the white rice varieties, long grain jasmine rice is most popular at haute cuisine Asian restaurants. Short-grain rice is more of a specialty rice for Japanese sushi, Chinese zong (chinese tamales), Nuomi Fan (sticky rice), and other New Year's dishes. Since I don't know how to prepare these, I hardly ever buy short-grain.

            A recent exotic rice food discovery for me is Basmati rice, which is a part of Indian cuisine. But the prices at the store always surprise me--the average unit cost is six dollars a pound. At that price, it is tempting to dine out instead. When I cook basmati rice, it doesn't seem to turn out right. Either I have bought a cheaper genetically modified strain, or I don't bother to soak the rice overnight, or I am not quite used to the taste. One thing is clear: Basmati rice has a fragile, delicate aroma that pairs best with Indian cooking and its equally complex flavors.

            A final consideration nowadays is buying organically-grown rice. Whether the seed rice is non-genetically-modified (non-GMO) or not, I can hardly guess, because even at the organic food stores here in Washington DC,  a city which according to the PETA Files ranks number one in the nation as a Veggie-Friendly city ("July 14, 2010"), the labels do not provide identifiers other than "organic." One thing is for certain: organic generally means that the food item was grown without use of artificial chemicals and without the application of carcinogenic pesticides. This is definitely worth it, because the amount of artificial chemicals floating around the ecosystem is alarming. For instance, when I looked up white rice at What's On My Food website, it displayed no less than 13 pesticide residues from tests by the UDSA. Whether or not they were all from the same rice sample, or where the samples were taken is unknown. But under potatoes, 37 pesticide residues had been detected, although frozen potatoes had only 24 pesticide residues listed. Thus, there is some incentive for trying to buy organic and from the farmers markets, since smaller farms are more likely to certify as organic.

            Whenever I have had the opportunity to view rice paddies, my impression has always been one of awe at the intense labor it requires. In Japan, I remember seeing field upon field of rice paddies under water; in Kowloon, my mother told me to stop staring at the man driving a very strong ox through rice fields; in California I was amazed that so much water was diverted for rice-growing in Northern California. When I read Pearl S. Buck's Good Earth, it made me sad to think about how farmers can spend the majority of their lives "gang-tin," tending the rice paddies. Their feet constantly underwater, bending over, they are subject to back ailments, fungal diseases, and parasites. It is hard to believe that after nine months of such back-breaking hard work, their crop might be wiped out by a single natural mishap, or subject to exploitative price-cuts. When I view on T.V. how the stricken Pakistanis elbow one another for just a bagful of flour so they can prepare bread for the evening at a camp above their flood zone, it saddens me to think how we Americans waste so much food. If every single college student spent even one week picking fruit or doing menial farm labor, they would better appreciate the hard lives of farmers.

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Internet Sources

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_rice
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice
http://www.livestrong.com/article/135244-nutrition-rice/#ixzz0yDGkGpFn
http://www.lowglycemicdiet.com/ricegi.html
http://blog.peta.org/archives/2010/07/the_most_veg-friendly_cities.php
http://www.potatoes-online.com/Nutrition.cfm
http://www.rice-trade.com/rice-nutritional-facts.html
http://uhurunews.com/story?resource_name=world-food-crisis-and-starvation-made-in-america
http://www.utne.com/table-of-contents-september-october-2010.aspx
http://www.whatsonmyfood.org/food.jsp?food=RI

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