Rice (Oryza sativa) is the most "super" of all the "superfoods" in that it helps to sustain more than half of the world's population. It is an ancient grain that has been cultivated for around 5,000 years and now comes in some 2,500 varieties. Most rice species are native to the Indian subcontinent - save for a minor species with red grains that is native to Africa. (The wild rice of North America is not actually a rice but rather an aquatic oat.)
A plant of hot climates, rice only became important in China when agriculture developed in the southern provinces. Some have credited Alexander the Great with introducing the grain in Europe, but it was not until the eighth century that the Muslims grew large quantities of it in Spain. "Carolina rice" came into being in 1685, when rice was introduced into South Carolina.
Today, rice is divided into long-, medium-, and short-grained varieties, and various cultures prize one or another of these over the rest. Long-grained rice is preferred in most Western kitchens and in India. Medium-grained rice is more appreciated in some Asian countries, whereas short-grained rice, with its starch that makes the grains stick together, is the favorite of those who use chopsticks, such as the Japanese and Chinese.
In most industrialized countries, white rice is enriched to replace the nutrients stripped from the grain by milling. Brown rice is far more nutritious because it has only had the husk removed during milling and retains the bran on its outer coating. Parboiled or converted rice is soaked and steamed before milling to drive nutrients into the grain. Instant rice has been fully cooked and then dehydrated.
In addition, there are special rices, such as Arborio, which absorbs much water as it cooks and plumps up well for dishes like Italy's specialty, risotto, and Spain's paella. Basmati rice, grown in India and Pakistan, elongates rather than plumps and is commonly featured in Indian cooking, whereas Jasmine rice is a traditional rice of Thailand.