Today, many see white rice as an eternal centerpiece of Asian cuisine. But contrary to popular belief, whole grains hold a long culinary history in many of the most important staple dishes across Asia. Below is a snapshot of whole grain foods that have helped shaped the diverse, delicious cuisines in a variety of Asian countries.
Whole Grain Rice
While most rice eaten in Asia today is polished into white rice, colored rices (including brown, red, and black) have a long tradition throughout the Asian continent. In fact, most folks were actually accustomed to brown rice and other whole grains until after the late 1800’s, when steel roller milling made it easy to rub oﬀ the nutritious, colored bran of the grain. But even then, some whole grain rices held a special allure. Legend has it that during the Ming Dynasty, black rice was called “tribute rice” or “longevity rice,” exclusively reserved for the Emperors to ensure their good health and long life. Common people were forbidden from eating it, hence the nickname that persists today, “Forbidden Rice.”
About 7,000 years ago, millet was the staple grain of Asia before rice. Millet was even used to make Chinese noodles before manufacturers started using wheat, and about a decade ago, archeologists uncovered a 4,000-year-old fossilized bowl of millet noodles, which is the oldest known example of noodles in the world. Millet also has a long history in India, as it was the staple grain of the region until around the 1960’s, when rice and wheat came into favor. But today millet is seeing a revival in Indian food culture and agriculture.
Long, thin noodles made from buckwheat, called soba, are a staple of traditional Japanese cuisine. This humble food is often served simply (either chilled with a dipping sauce or warm in a bowl of broth), to let the subtle ﬂavors of the buckwheat shine. Sometimes, soba is also served with vegetables, tofu, or an egg. Drawing on the popularity of global ﬂavors and bowls in general, soba bowls are beginning to be featured on a growing number of menus around the US.
Whole Wheat Chapatti (Roti)
More and more American diners are familiar with India’s naan bread, but upon closer inspection of most Indian restaurant menus, you might also ﬁnd its whole grain cousin: whole wheat chapatti, also called roti. Chapatti is an unleavened ﬂatbread made with whole durum wheat ﬂour, called Atta, and it is the perfect accompaniment to the spicy curries and saucy masalas eaten in this region. According to the Assocom Institute of Bakery Technology and Management, the popularity of whole wheat and other whole grain ingredients is so enduring that 60% of the wheat ﬂour milled in India is whole wheat ﬂour.
Although globalization is threatening the traditional diets of communities around the world, governments and health boards across Asia are revisiting whole grains with renewed vigor. The Health Promotion Board in the Philippines encourages people to “be RICEsponsible” and choose brown rice instead of white, while the Health Promotion Board of Singapore partnered with local food stalls (called Hawker Centers) to oﬀer brown rice and whole grain noodles on their menus. In India, millet has been included in the Public Distribution System (a country-wide assistance program that distributes food and nonfood items to disadvantaged people) since 2013, for both nutrition and food security reasons. And in China, home to the largest economy in Asia, nutrition experts and industry leaders are voicing an urgent need to shift back to whole grains.
For a taste of authenticity on your next Asian food experience (at home or abroad), venture oﬀ the beaten path and give one of these delicious whole grain foods a try. After all, centuries of culinary expertise won’t steer your taste buds wrong.
Kelly Toups, Program Director, Whole Grains Council; Oldways Staﬀ RD