On one of my trips to Thailand, a friend of Mam’s had arranged a tour of a rice processing factory for me. The friend, Yong, was a rice exporter by day and owned a language university by night. We headed north of Bangkok, past Bang Pa-In and Ayutthaya, and met at his office building, set amid electric green rice fields near Ang Thong. A 10-minute ride away was the processing facility: a huge concrete pad covered with mountains of just-harvested rice, adjacent to a large rambling building reverberating with the sounds of rice processing machinery.
We went inside to find a maze of conveyor belts hauling a steady stream of rice from station to station, until it ended up at one end of the huge complex, perfectly polished and gleaming white. The most intriguing stage was the one where the bran is removed from the kernel. I asked Yong what became of the leftover bran, and he ran down a list of uses, one of which was pressing the bran coating to extract rice bran oil. I had never heard of rice bran oil, and asked what it was used for, and then the whole car erupted with a litany of applications for the oil. Yong and Mam proceeded to tell me about how Thais use the oil for cooking, explaining that it was very healthy. I decided to make a quest of finding the oil upon my return to the States.
Not long after my return I was at a cooking event with Hiroko Shimbo, a well-known Japanese cooking expert, teacher, author, and culinary tour guide, and mentioned that I was interested in rice bran oil. She explained that it has many uses in Japan, and that she was a consultant for a Japanese importing company that had a brand of rice bran oil. A week or so later, and a bottle arrived at my door for review.
Rice bran oil has a light, clean flavor profile, and feels less oily on the tongue than most cooking oils. It has a slight buttery taste component, and a mild, nutty flavor. It can be used for any application that any other culinary oil can be used in: grilling, sautéing, stir-frying, baking, dressings and emulsified dressings, etc. It is especially effective in deep-frying (it might cost a little more than vegetable oils in bulk packaging, but lasts longer in use). The Japanese have always used it for frying tempura, as it gives a nice crisp finish and color to the food being fried. The smoking point is 490-500º, which is beaten only by safflower oil (510º) and refined avocado oil (520º); almond oil is rated at 495º and grape seed oil is 485º. Many Asian food manufacturers fry in rice bran oil because the products have a much longer shelf life without degradation of taste or spoilage in the package, due to the extremely high levels of anti-oxidants found in the oil. These same levels cause the oil to last longer in the deep fryers before it has to be replaced. Many top flight US restaurateurs are now using rice bran oil for their deep fryers for these very reasons.
For a long time, there has been a tradition in Japan that women rub rice bran in or put rice bran oil on their face to keep their skin smooth. These women, having smooth and shiny skin, are called “Nuka-Bijin” (“Bran Beauty” in English). People there don't know the reason why rice bran or rice bran oil is effective in keeping skin smooth but they know it works. The same is true in Thailand: women use it in their hair to keep it soft and lustrous.
High levels of oryzanol, a component of rice bran oil, decrease bad cholesterol while raising good cholesterol. Tocotrienol, another component, is highlighted as the most powerful vitamin E existing in nature, and research shows it to have an anti-cancer effect. As a vitamin E source, rice bran oil has the highest amount of tocotrienol in liquid form vegetable oils. Phytosterols are nutrients with many health benefits and are abundant in rice bran oil. Scientific research suggests that phytosterols reduce cholesterol, provide anti-inflammatory effects and promote healing, inhibit the growth of cancer cells, improve the immune system, and have other health benefits. There are 27 different phytosterols in rice bran oil. Research in India showed that tocotrienol reacts with liver enzymes in animals in such a way that it clears toxic substances from the organ, and reduces or stabilizes liver tumors. Researchers in Europe concluded that long-term use of tocotrienol could reduce overall cancer risk. Not too shabby for a cooking oil.
There have been some pretty high profile articles lately on healthy cooking oils, and not one of them has mentioned rice bran oil, which just goes to show what the big time food writers know. And even if you don’t believe a bunch of egghead scientists’ research claims, or hundreds of years of tradition in Asia, at least believe me when I tell you that it tastes great. You can find rice bran oil at Whole Foods and at any Japanese food market, and you can order both organic and all-natural versions online, in a number of different sizes, through Amazon.com. Restaurant-sized containers are available for food brokers or restaurant buyers through http://www.californiariceoil.com/, among other sources. This is great stuff!
Mick Vann ©