Rice: Nature’s Answer To Hashem’s Blessings

Kashrus Kurrents, Winter 2023

It has been touted as nature’s most versatile food. There is no single grain that feeds more people around the globe and, because it is free of gluten and allergens, can be tolerated by most everyone. It is the most widely consumed staple for over half of the world’s human population.[1]

When the Gemara in Brachos discusses the brachos that are made before and after eating this versatile grain, the mnemonic used to remember the poskim’s conclusion is אמן: Orez, Mezonos, Nefashos. The grain we are discussing is Oryza sativa, which the Gemara refers to as orez.[2] We know it, simply, as rice.

There are over 7,000 varieties of rice grown worldwide. Rice is mostly consumed in the Asian regions from Japan in the east to Pakistan in the west and, after sugarcane and maize, is the third most produced agricultural crop in the world.[3] China and India account for more than half of the rice produced globally. By the end of 2022, it is estimated that about 515 million tons of rice will have been produced worldwide.[4] The global rice market had an estimated value of USD 247.2 billion in 2020, and with surging demand, that number is projected to increase to USD 274 billion by the end of 2027.[5]

A Brief History

Historians concur that rice was known and grown in the Far East thousands of years before Alexander the Great, who lived during the time of the second Beis Hamikdash.  Alexander discovered rice during his invasion of Asia Minor. Subsequently, rice was brought to Spain by the Moors in the 700s C.E.  It was the Spaniards who introduced rice to Italy in the 1400s, and to the West Indies and South America in the 1600s. 

Although rice is grown in many U.S. states (including Arkansas, Texas and California), Crowley, Louisiana, ranks as America’s rice capital.

Basic Rice Facts

Rice is a cereal grain and is related to the other main cereal grains (i.e., wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt), all of which are considered to be main staples in the food pyramid.[6] While halachic literature refers to these cereal grains as being ‘maizin,’ – a basic staple of sustenance (mazon) – the different types have fundamental differences.

 The main cereal grains are distinguished from rice both by their ability to rise and produce breads and cakes, and by their vastly different growing environments. Rice, lacking gluten, can’t rise; and only rice grows in paddies and climates that are not conducive for growing the other cereal grains.

What follows is a brief discussion of a rice kernel’s intriguing journey from planting to harvesting, and from processing to production. We will also address some of the halachic issues and ramifications concerning rice manufacturing along its route from plant to plate.

Rice grows in warm climates and requires a constant supply of water. A rice plant will grow to a height of two to six feet, at which point the grain develops from spikelets, the flowers on the head of the plant. The rice grain, known as rough rice, is comprised of an outer husk called the hull. The hull covers seven layers of bran that lie directly beneath it, which in turn cover the endosperm, otherwise known as the kernel.

Milling: The Cleaning Process

When the rough rice comes to the mill, the kernel is dried and left intact, with the hull in place. If the hull is removed but the bran layers remain, we get brown rice. Brown rice is a more nutritious form of rice because the vitamins and nutrients are contained in the bran layer.  Once the bran layers are removed, through a process called pearling, the nutrients are also removed, and we get white rice.

Another byproduct of the milling process is rice flour. Rice flour is a very versatile product and is used in baby foods, baking products and cereal manufacturing. A popular use of rice flour is in the dried fruit industry. Dried fruit pieces, especially apricots, are shipped to bakeries or used for other food applications. In order to prevent these dried fruit pieces from sticking, they are rolled in rice powder. (Similarly, dates are commonly rolled in oat flour.)

For this reason, dried fruit requires a strict and reliable Kosher for Passover certification to ensure that the dried fruit is not rolled in powder and does not come into contact with any other fruit in the packaging areas.

Milled rice comes in many sizes, the most popular of which is long-grain, used to make pilafs, salads, and side dishes. Popular long-grain rice types include white and brown rice; and aromatic rice varieties like jasmine and basmati.

Brown rice’s light brown color is a result of the bran layers covering the rice germ. Due to its natural and highly nutritious state, prolonged shelf life is always a concern (see side bar).

Aromatic rice is naturally aged to develop its rich full-bodied flavor. There are no kashrus problems associated with aromatic rice since no additional flavorings are added. Persian rice dishes like tahdig are exclusively made with basmati rice.

Second-head rice, discussed above, is used for a myriad of products, including cereals, beer, and manufactured rice products, such as enriched rice.

Medium-grain rice is wider than long-grain. It is about half as wide as it is long, and results in soft, chewy grains that stick together when cooked. Indian biryani, Italian risotto and Spanish paella are dishes that typically use medium-grain rice.

Short-grain rice has a wide, squat shape; it is wider than it is long, and is used for recipes that call for the rice to clump or stick together. Sticky rice and sushi rice are types of short-grain rice. They are preferred by Japanese sushi chefs and are the rice of choice in Chinese cuisine.

Processing: The Myriad Transformations of Ordinary Rice

Rice’s versatility knows no bounds.  Rice can be cooked, seasoned, popped, fermented, instantized, enriched, used as a milk substitute or made into wine. The possibilities are endless. Each manufacturing application has its own set of concerns. Let’s begin.

There are two common manufacturing methods used to replace the nutrients in a pearled kernel of rice: enriching and parboiling.

Enriching: One method is to coat broken pieces of rice, known as second-head rice, with vitamins and minerals, and then mix them into the pearled white milled rice. This is what is meant by enriched rice. The second-head rice is sent to an enrichment company, where vitamins are sprayed directly onto the rice pieces. These are then returned to the rice producer to be blended along with the long white grains as they are being packaged.

U.S. law requires white rice to be enriched with additional vitamins and nutrients to compensate for the nutritional deficiencies created through the milling process. Obviously, enrichments have to be kosher approved. But since domestic white rice generally cannot be produced enrichment-free, and vitamin enrichments are only certified for year-round use and exclude Pesach, the Sephardic Jewish community, whose custom permits kitniyot (i.e., legumes such as rice, beans, and corn) on Pesach, cannot purchase enriched rice for Pesach.[7]

Parboiling: The second method used to replace the nutrients is parboiling. While the rice kernels are still in their hulls, the kernels are steamed in large kettles so that the natural nutrients are locked into the rice kernel. After parboiling, the rice is dried to its previous state of moisture – in a dry kernel at 11% – and the hull is removed. If the bran layers remain intact, the product is termed converted brown rice.  If the rice is pearled, it is termed converted rice or parboiled rice.

Consumers often call and ask whether there is a problem of bishul akum with parboiled rice. Rice is unquestionably a grain that is olah al shulchan melachim, fit to be served at a banquet, wedding or state dinner.[8] Halacha has mandated that an observant Jew must perform an integral part of the cooking process, such as turning on the fire, regarding certain products such as rice.  This process is known as bishul Yisroel

Parboiling, however, does not require bishul Yisroel for the following reasons:

  1. Rice grain in their hulls are not fit to be served at a fancy banquet (or at a regular meal, for that matter).[9]
  2. Parboiling does not steam the grain to an edible state.
  3. The rice kernel is steamed only so that the nutrients will be absorbed. Once the dried kernel is hulled and pearled, the criteria of bishul Yisroel would apply.

Precooking and Instant Rice: Instant rice is a long-grain rice product that has been precooked and re-dried. It can be sold as a boil-in-bag product, minute rice, or simply as instant rice. Instant rice does not require thorough cooking – in fact, it does not need to be re-cooked at all. By letting the instant rice sit in cold water for a few minutes, it will re-hydrate into a perfectly edible product. This discovery raised bishul akum concerns.

Incontrovertibly, rice requires bishul Yisroel. There are halachic opinions that if a fully cooked product requiring bishul Yisroel is dehydrated and requires a second cooking, it is considered bishul Yisroel if a Yehudi recooks it.[10] This was the common assumption about instant rice, which changed once it was discovered that instant rice could be hydrated in cold water.

Today, the policy is for the mashgiach to light the boilers that provide the steam to cook the instant rice.  However, there still remains a discrepancy among kashrus agencies as to whether instant rice requires bishul Yisroel. Furthermore, lighting the boiler is a solution for Ashkenazim, who follow the Rama’s position that lighting the fire fulfills the bishul Yisroel criteria.[11] Sephardim, who follow the opinion of Maran Beit Yosef, require that a Yehudi actually place the rice into the cooker before lighting the fire at the beginning of the process.[12]

This cooked rice product is not the only item that has gained popularity in the contemporary kosher marketplace. Mediterranean diet delicacies, such as dolmas (or stuffed grape leaves, the Sephardic version of stuffed cabbage) are now widely available. Brined grape leaves are used instead of cabbage leaves, and the filling is a combination of cooked rice, herbs and spices. Most productions take place in Mediterranean countries such as Turkey, Greece or Bulgaria. Some organizations require hashgacha temidis during specialty productions, while others allow the rice cooker or boiler to be turned on prior to the production. Though these manufacturers do not typically deal with non-kosher ingredients, bishul akum has become a front burner issue with pre-cooked rice products.

Rice Blends: A very popular rice combination is long-grain rice and wild rice. ‘Wild’ rice is not actually a variety of rice, but rather a grass that blends well with rice. These simple combinations have no kashrus concerns, provided they have no seasonings.

Then there are varieties of rice blends and pilafs that have become very popular, made by combining rice, sometimes with pasta, and seasonings. Any seasoned rice product requires reliable kosher certification. Spices, seasoning blends, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, oils and oleoresins must be carefully reviewed. Often, rice producers flavor their seasoned rice with dehydrated meat or chicken, as well as non-kosher cheeses. Although the seasonings are blended cold, the same fill lines are used for both kosher and non-kosher blends. Careful production scheduling, cleaning and kashering of equipment, and labeling of finished goods have to be set in place before certifying any seasoned rice product.

Popping Rice, Rice Cakes, and Puffed Rice Cereal: Rice cakes are a seemingly simple, healthy and kosher rice snack. Rice kernels are placed in a disc-like popper. To produce a single rice cake, steam is applied to the rice kernels, putting pressure on the rice and causing it to pop; the popped rice assumes the shape of the disc and forms a ‘cake’ of rice.

Rice cakes can come in a variety of flavors, which require certification. Flavorings are added directly into the rice cake disc so that the flavor will be blended as the rice pops.

To produce puffed rice cereal, the rice kernels are heated as loose grains (in contrast to the disc-like popper described above), and steamed under pressure. The grains will puff up as single pieces of puffed rice. Rice Krispies are also puffed in a puffing tower but are subsequently baked or toasted into what is known as crisp rice.

Rice Milk: This beverage has become a popular milk alternative for those who are lactose intolerant and follow a FODMAP diet. It is manufactured by boiling either brown or white rice and strained. Rice milk can come in unsweetened, sweetened and flavored, and fortified varieties. Flavored varieties require certification.

Fermenting: The process of fermenting rice can yield an impressive gamut of products, including beer, rice wine, rice vinegar and miso.

Brewing – Many breweries use brewer’s rice as well as barley to make beer. Brewer’s rice is essentially second-head rice (mentioned above), the broken shards of rice created during the milling process. Some beer beverages are made from brewer’s rice and sorghum.

 Rice Wine – Sake is Japanese rice wine that is fermented but not distilled. It resembles beer more than wine. Since it is not carbonated, its taste is similar to that of wine. Even though the rice is cooked in the brewing process, there is no issue of bishul akum because the intention of the cooking is to consume the liquid rather than to eat the rice.

There are five types of sake produced in Japan, but only one, junmai, is sold in the U.S. Junmai is pure sake, which means that only rice is used in its production. Other varieties add a small amount of distilled alcohol to the blend and are taxed at such a high rate that it would make the cost to import them prohibitive. Sake can therefore be used without special kosher certification.

Rice vinegar – is a popular vinegar used in both Chinese and Japanese cuisines. It is fermented from glutinous rice or rice wine. The style of rice vinegar changes depending upon the variety of rice used in the fermentation process – black rice vinegar is derived from black rice, red rice vinegar from red, and white rice vinegar from white.

Seasoned rice vinegar is a combination of sake and rice vinegar. Rice vinegars vary in their acidity and taste. They are milder than distilled grain vinegar and have specific applications in Chinese, Japanese and other Asian cuisines. Of course, all varieties of rice vinegar require reliable kosher certification.

Miso – is a thick fermented paste made of soybeans, salt and rice. It is used as a flavoring agent in Japanese cuisine, such as soups and sauces. In order to ferment the soybeans to create miso, cooked rice fermented with a special fungus called koji has to be added to the cooked soybeans. This mixture then ferments for a period of six months to a year. The rice must be cooked to initiate the process.

As with sake, since this is an intermediate step in the whole process of miso production, and one has no intention to eat the rice, there is no concern of bishul akum.

The Quandary About Orez

The Talmud provides a brief discourse regarding the correct bracha one makes before eating orez.  If one chews the kernel, the blessing made is the same as for vegetables, Ha’adama.  However, if the orez is ground, baked or cooked, the bracha is Mezonos, the same as for cakes and cookies.

The first question the poskim grapple with is the type of grain being discussed. Rashi maintains that orez is millet. Tosfos takes issue with that interpretation and maintains that orez is rice.

Based on the fact that rice was not introduced into Europe until the 1400s, it is possible that neither Rashi nor the Baalei Tosfos actually saw rice. Furthermore, when the Shulchan Aruch discusses this issue, the more contemporary commentators are split regarding the identity of orez.  The Vilna Gaon holds that orez is rice, which is consistent with the Mishna Brura’s conclusion.

Real Blessings in Disguise

The poskim offer many opinions about the bracha that one should make on conventionally cooked rice, whether Ha’adama or Mezonos. Likewise, they discuss the proper bracha acharona one should recite, whether Al Hamichya or Borei Nefashos.

In the end, as we mentioned at the start of our journey, the Hebrew mnemonic of אמן – Aleph, Mem, Nun – holds the final key: Orez, Mezonos, Nefashos.

Amen! It’s a real blessing in disguise.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice.

[2] TosfosBrachos 37A,  D”H Rashi.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice.

[4] https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/rice-production-by-country.

[5] https://www.globenewswire.com/en/news-release/2021/01/26/2164005/28124/en/Global-Rice-Market-Report-2021-A-274-Billion-Opportunity-by-the-End-of-the-Year-2027.html.

[6] Orach Chaim 208, Mishna Brura 28.

[7] O.C. 453:1.

[8] Y. D. 113:1.

[9] Ibid., 2, Rema.

[10] Ibid., 12, Yad Efraim.

[11] Ibid., 7, Rema.

[12] Ibid., 8.