Black rice, also called forbidden rice or "emperor's rice," is gaining popularity for its high levels of antioxidants and superior nutritional value. Forbidden rice earned its name because it was once reserved for the Chinese emperor to ensure his health and longevity, and forbidden to anyone else. Forbidden rice is a medium-grain, non-glutinous heirloom rice with a deep purple hue and a nutty, slightly sweet flavor. This whole-grain rice is rich in anthocyanins, which are antioxidant pigments that give the rice its unusual color. Relative to other rice varieties, forbidden rice is high in protein and iron; according to Chinese medicine, it is considered a blood tonic.
One crop of rice created in China about 10,000 years ago is the ancestor of hundreds of types of modern rice. Black rice, however, is unique. Its purplish black color is a result of its high concentration of anthocyanin; this is the same antioxidant responsible for the color of eggplant, blueberries, acaí berries, and concord grapes, as well as purple cauliflower, purple corn, and blood oranges.
Most cultivated rice produces white grains, but the color of black rice is caused by a gene mutation. Japanese researchers found that a change in a gene that controls anthocyanin rearranged to create black rice; this mutation occurred in a subspecies of rice. Since then, the rice has been replicated and transferred to other rice species through cross-breeding.
Black rice is not as easy to grow as other rice varieties because it only yields about 10 percent of the harvest that other rice varieties do. That makes the rice very expensive, which is why it was initially reserved only for the richest of the rich—which meant Chinese royalty at the time it was first discovered. The grain is cultivated in Southeast Asian countries such as India, Indonesia, Thailand, and China. Owing to its popularity in Western countries, it is now also grown in small amounts in the Southern United States as well.
The Nutritional Value
In comparison to other varieties, black rice has more fiber and protein than red, brown, or white rice. This, combined with its high level of anthocyanins, makes it a nutrition powerhouse. A 1/2 cup serving of prepared black rice, made from about 1/4 cup of uncooked rice, contains 160 calories, 1 1/2 grams of fat, 34 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, and 4 percent of iron.
Where to Buy Black Rice
Black rice previously was only available in gourmet grocery stores and Asian specialty markets. But now, with its increased popularity, you can find it at Whole Foods, Target, and Walmart, as well as on online at Amazon and other retailers. It is also worth checking to see if your neighborhood grocery store carries it. And keep in mind that black rice might be called forbidden rice or emperor's rice on restaurant menus.
How to Cook Black Rice
Cooking black rice is similar to cooking other kinds of rice. You will use a 2 to 1 ratio of water to rice, and after the water comes to a boil, add the rice and simmer, covered, until the rice is tender and the water has been absorbed. One difference with black rice is that it will take about 10 minutes longer to cook than other types of rice.
You can simply replace white rice in recipes and dishes with black rice for a more interesting presentation as well as a nutrition boost. Forbidden rice is also delicious in a Thai black sticky rice pudding, a dessert that is not only sweet and satisfying but also good for you.
Oikawa T, Maeda H, Oguchi T, et al. The Birth of a Black Rice Gene and Its Local Spread by Introgression. Plant Cell. 2015;27(9):2401-14. doi:10.1105/tpc.15.00310