Rice: Natures Answer to Hashems Blessings

Published Summer 2008

It has been touted as nature’s most versatile food.  There is no grain that feeds more people worldwide, and can boast that it is free of gluten and allergens.  When the Gemara in Brachos discusses the blessings that are made before and after eating this grain, the mnemonic used to remember the Gemara’s conclusion is Amen,אמן : “נפשות ” , “מזונות ”, “אורז ” – “Orez”, “Mezonos”, “Nefashos”.  If you haven’t guessed by now, the grain we are discussing is Oryza Sativa, otherwise known in Talmudic terms as 1Orez“, “אורז ”. We know it simply as rice.

Believe it or not, there are over 7,000 varieties of rice grown worldwide.  Most of the world’s rice supply grows in the Far East, where rice is the main staple.  Rice consumption in the Orient is so great that it has to be imported from other rice growing centers, such as the U.S., where it’s popularity is growing.  However, it is nowhere near India’s daily consumption of ½ to 2/3 lbs. per person.

In fact, 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 Bais Hamikdash.  Alexander discovered rice during his invasion of Asia Minor.  Subsequently, rice was brought to Spain by the Moors in the 700’s.  It was the Spaniards who introduced rice to Italy in the 1400’s, and to the West Indies and South America in the 1600’s.  Legend has it that in 1629, a damaged Spanish ship bound for Madagascar docked in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.  A sack of rice seed onboard was given as a gift from the captain of the damaged ship to the governor of South Carolina.  The rice seed was planted in fields in South Carolina, which became the leading rice producer of the U.S. for the next 200 years.  Although rice is grown in many states (such as Arkansas, Texas and California), today Crowley, Louisiana is known as the rice capital of the U.S.

Rice is a cereal grain related to the other main cereal grains e.g. wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt, all of which are considered to be main staples in the food pyramid.2Halachic literature refers to rice as being a “maizin”, basic staple of sustenance, with some fundamental differences.  A distinction is made between the ability of rice and the other cereal grains to rise and produce breads and cakes.  The growing environment of rice is quite different, as well.  Rice grows in land and climate that are not conducive for growing other cereal grains.  It is intriguing to follow the journey of a kernel of rice from planting to harvesting and from processing to product production, as well as visit the halachic issues and ramifications along the route from plant to palate.

Rice is grown in warm climates and requires a constant supply of water.  A rice plant grows to a height of two to six feet, and the grain develops from the flowers on the head of the plant called spikelets.  The rice grain, known as rough rice, is made up of an outer husk called the hull which covers the layer directly beneath it called the bran.  In fact, there are seven bran layers that cover the endosperm, otherwise known as the kernel.  When the rough rice comes to the mill, it is still intact with the kernel dried and the hull in place.  If the hull is removed but

the bran layers remain, this is known as 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. 

Cleaning Process

There are two popular manufacturing methods used to replace the nutrients in a pearled kernel of rice.  One method is to coat broken pieces of rice with vitamins and minerals and mix them into the pearled white milled rice.  This is what is meant by enriched rice.  The broken head rice (rice pieces) is sent to an enrichment company, where the vitamins are sprayed directly onto the rice pieces.  They are then sent back to the rice producer to be blended along with the whole grains as they are being packaged.

Obviously, enrichments have to be kosher approved.  In the United States, the law requires rice to be enriched with additional vitamins and nutrients to compensate for the vitamin deficiencies created through the milling process.  Due to the fact that the vitamin  enrichments are certified for year round use only, and have not been certified kosher for Passover, domestic rice generally cannot be produced enrichment-free.  For this reason, the Sephardic Jewish community whose custom permits kitniyos,3 i.e. legumes such as rice, beans, and corn on Passover, cannot purchase rice off of the supermarket shelf for Passover use if it contains nutrients.   

The second method used to replace the nutrients is known as parboiling.  When 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 then dried to its previous state of moisture in a dry kernel at 11%; the hull is then removed.  If the bran layers remain intact, the product is known as converted brown rice.  If the rice is pearled, the product is known as 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.4 Our Rabbis have 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 does not require bishul Yisroel for the following reasons.  First, rice grain in their hulls are not fit to be served at a fancy banquet or at a regular meal, for that matter.5; Second, parboiling does not steam the grain to an edible state.  Third, 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.

Milled rice comes in many sizes, the most popular of which is long grain.  That is the size that is produced for typical consumer use.  Medium grain rice is shorter and is a more ethnic variety.  Rice that is broken in the milling process is known as second head rice, which is used for a myriad of products including cereals and manufactured rice products.  Furthermore, the enrichments are sprayed on second head rice and are blended into the long grain kernels, which are now known as enriched rice.

Medium grain, sticky rice or sushi rice are various sizes and varieties of milled rice. These varieties are popular with different ethnic groups.  Sushi rice is self-explanatory.  Sticky rice is the rice of choice for Chinese cuisine.  Indian curries, puddings and other ethnic dishes use medium grain rice.

Brewer’s rice is composed of the small rice pieces of broken rice kernels used in the brewing industry.  Many breweries use rice, as well as barley, to make beer.  In Japan, a rice wine known as Sake is made from fermented rice.  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.  For this reason, the cooked rice is not disqualified. 

Similarly, a question was raised regarding rice used to make miso.  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 will then ferment for a period of six months to a year.  The rice must be cooked to initiate the process.  Since this is an intermediate step in the whole process of miso manufacturing, and one would not want to eat the rice itself, there would not be a question of bishul akum.

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.  Another popular use of rice flour is in the dried fruit industry.  Dried fruit pieces, especially apricots, are usually 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 the powder and does not come into contact with any other fruit in the packaging areas.

Aromatic rice, such as basmati or jasmine, is a variety of long grain rice that has been naturally aged to develop its rich full-bodied flavor.  Aromatic rice has become very popular. Since no additional flavorings are added, there are no kashrus problems associated with aromatic rice.

Manufacturing Processes

Rice’s versatility knows no bounds.  Rice can be cooked, seasoned, popped, fermented, instantized, 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.

1.  Instant Rice
Instant Rice is a long grain rice product that has been precooked and re-dried.  It is sold as a boil-in-bag product, minute rice, or simply instant rice.  Instant rice does not require thorough cooking; in fact, it does not need to be re-cooked at all!  Just let the instant rice sit in cold water for a few minutes and it will re-hydrate into a perfectly edible product.  This discovery was an incredible eye opener.  Incontrovertibly, rice requires bishul Yisroel.  There are Halachic opinions stating 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.6 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 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 Ramah’s position that lighting the fire fulfills the bishul Yisroel criteria.7 Sephardim, who follow the opinion of Maron Beit Yosef,8 require that a Yehudi actually place the rice in the cooker before lighting the fire at the beginning of the process.

This cooked rice product is not the only item that has gained popularity in the contemporary kosher marketplace.  There is a growing popularity in the mainstream marketplace for Mediterranean diet delicacies, such as dolmas (the Sephardic version of stuffed cabbage).  Brined grape leaves are used instead of cabbage leaves, and the filling is a combination of cooked rice, herbs and spices.  Most productions, as you might guess, take place in countries rich in Mediterranean cuisine such as Turkey, Greece and even Bulgaria.  Some organizations require hashgacha temidis during the specialty production; other agencies allow the rice cooker or boiler to be turned on prior to the production.  These companies typically do not deal with non-kosher ingredients.  However, bishul akum has become a front burner issue with these products.

2.  Rice Blends. 
A very popular rice combination is long grain and wild rice.  Wild rice is not a  rice variety, but rather a grass that blends well with rice.  Rice pilaf is a combination of rice, pasta and seasonings.  Certification is a must for the seasoned product, as we will soon see.

3.  Seasoned Rice
Any seasoned rice product requires reliable kosher certification.  Spices, seasoning blends, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, oils and oleoresins must be carefully reviewed.  Typically, 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. 

4.  Rice Cakes
A seemingly simple healthy and kosher rice snack is a relatively new invention called the rice cake.  Brown rice kernels are placed in a disc-like popper.  Steam is applied and puts pressure on the rice, causing it to pop, taking on the shape of the disc and – voila – you get a healthy rice cake. Rice cakes come in a variety of flavors.  Flavorings are added directly into the rice cake disc so that the flavor will be blended as the rice pops.  One rice cake manufacturer introduced a new line of cheddar cheese flavored rice cakes.  Their machinery could not be kashered; hence, their kosher certification was revoked.


5.  Sake and other fermented rice products
Sake is Japanese rice wine that is fermented but not distilled.  It resembles beer rather than  wine; however, it is not carbonated so its taste is similar to that of wine.  There are five types of sake produced in Japan.  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.  All sake sold in the U.S. is Junmai.  Other varieties are taxed at such a high rate that it would make the cost prohibitive.  Therefore, sake can be used without special kosher certification. Rice is also used as an additional ingredient in the production of beer, along with barley.  Some beer beverages are made from rice and sorghum.

Rice vinegar is a popular vinegar that is used in both Chinese and Japanese cuisine.  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.  Believe it or not, black rice vinegar comes from black rice, red rice vinegar from red rice, and white rice vinegar from – you guessed it – white rice.  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 Oriental cuisine.  Of course, all varieties of rice vinegar require reliable kosher certification.

Ingrained Identity Crisis

The Talmud provides a brief discourse regarding the correct bracha one makes before eating orez, אורז .  If one chews the kernel, the blessing made is the same as for vegetables, Hoadama.  However, if the orez is ground, baked or cooked the bracha made is Mezonos, the same as for cakes and cookies.  The first question the commentaries 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 1400’s, 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 opines that orez is rice, which is consistent with the Mishna Brura’s conclusion.

The poskim, halachic authorities who determine Jewish law, posit many opinions regarding the bracha one should make on conventionally cooked rice, whether it is Hoadama or Mezonos.  They also question the proper final blessing for rice, whether it is the specific blessing one makes on baked goods of the five grains, “Al Hamichya”, or the generic final blessing for other foods and beverages, “Borei Nefashos”.   As we mentioned at the start of our journey, the Hebrew mnemonic of Amen, אמן – Aleph, Mem, Nun – bears the final key:  “נפשות ” , “מזונות ”, “אורז ” – Orez, Mezonos, Nefashos – a real blessing in disguise.

1. Tosfos Berochos 37A,  D”H Rashi
2. Orach Chaim 208, Mishna Brura 28
3. Orach Chaim 453:1
4. Yoreh Deah 113:1
5. Yoreh Deah 113:2, Rema
6. Yoreh Deah 113:12, Yad Efraim
7. Yoreh Deah 113:7, Rema
8. Yoreh Deah 113:8