All about carbs: 10 white rice alternatives to consider (that’s not brown rice)
You’ve heard of couscous, barley and millet. But what about farro, freekeh or orzo? How about "rice" made from broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower or konjac? We break all these down for you.
Whether you’re having an indulgent spread of zi char, nasi padang, briyani or a humble packet of economy rice, the meal can feel incomplete without rice to soak up the umami-redolent gravy.
Sometimes, it’s the canvas needed for the rempah’s rich flavours to play out for your taste buds. There’s also that satisfying, belly-warming sensation that protein, fibre or fat can’t quite match.
But in recent times, rice has been gaining quite a bad rap. "Food coma" and "too carbohydrate-rich" are some of the common refrains. More serious health assertions include the blood sugar spikes that can potentially cause diabetes.
READ: There’s now a list of Asian foods to look out for if you're worried about diabetes
Or maybe you’re simply curious about the new entrants that people have been embracing as alternatives.
And it’s not just brown rice. Fascinating varieties such as farro, freekeh, konjac rice (no, we’re not making these up) and the more familiar barley, couscous and quinoa are trickling onto supermarket shelves and restaurant menus. And has anyone tried those online recipes for broccoli or cauliflower “rice”?
It all inevitably leads to the questions: Nice or not? Are these alternative carbs keto- and diabetic-friendly? What dishes can you pair them with?
CNA Lifestyle puts those questions to some nutrition experts, so you can decide if you want to try them for lunch or dinner tonight.
Nutrition: Farro is actually a mixture of three grains – spelt, emmer and einkorn – and comes in wholegrain, pearled (bran has been completely removed) and semi-pearled, according to Jaclyn Reutens, a dietitian and the founder of Aptima Nutrition and Sports Consultants.
Right off the bat, farro has more calories and carbs than rice – not the best option for keto fans, even though it has protein, unlike rice.
But despite its high-carb content, farro is diabetic-friendly, said Reutens. "Diabetics still need carbs, just not too much. Foods that are low in glycaemic idex are carb-friendly because they do not cause spikes in sugar levels."
She added that farro is also “an excellent source of protein, fibre, vitamin B3, magnesium and zinc” as well as high in carotenoids, selenium and polyphenols.
Taste and texture: “Farro has a nutty flavour and chewy texture,” said Reutens, that is more similar to brown rice than white rice. “It feels grainy in your mouth."
How to prepare: Wash the farro first, then cook it like you would pasta, meaning you boil them in salted water, said Reutens.
Farro can be added to a beef stew to make a hearty one-dish meal, or combined with cucumber, feta cheese and cherry tomatoes to make a salad, she suggested.
It can also be a breakfast food if you add dried fruit and nuts during boiling, she said.
Nutrition: “Freekeh is made from green durum wheat that has been roasted to give it its unique flavour,” said Reutens.
Like farro, freekeh is calorie- and carb-dense, and not keto-friendly. "Some keto diets allow only 50g of carbs a day or none at all", she explained, compared to the daily recommended carb intake of 225g and 325g.
“But freekeh is a good source of protein, fibre, iron, phytosterols and carotenoids."
Taste and texture: Freekeh has a dense and chewy texture that reminds one of white rice, said Reutens. But its nutty, smokey, savoury taste is not the same as rice.
How to prepare: Like farro, the best way is to boil it in salted water, said Reutens. But before cooking, soak it in cold water for about 5 minutes, drain and rinse again.
If you enjoy Middle Eastern cuisine, you’ll love freekeh added to a pumpkin-and-nut salad, chicken stew, chickpeas and yoghurt, or a roasted cauliflower salad with a tahini sauce, suggested Reutens.
Freekeh can also be cooked with pilaf rice and served with yoghurt and mint, she said.
3. KONJAC RICE
Nutrition: What is this food that almost resembles water nutritionally? “Konjac rice is made from konjac or konnyaku, a root plant from Japan that is high in fibre, and low in calories and carbohydrates,” said Constant Tong, the CEO of Ketomei, a ketogenic-meal delivery service.
Other than being keto-friendly, konjac rice (also known as shirataki rice) is also suitable for those who want to control their weight and blood glucose levels, he said.
“However, it’s best not to eat konjac rice at every meal as it can inhibit the absorption of nutrients such as iron and calcium,” cautioned Tong.
Taste and texture: The shape and texture of konjac rice is quite close to white rice, especially when it is cooked until soft. However, said Tong, konjac rice is typically cooked al dente for a better bite.
How to prepare: Konjac rice is usually bought pre-rinsed, said Tong. “Pan-fry for up to five minutes, stirring continuously. Or boil it in water for five minutes, then drain and serve.”
Konjac rice can be served with Asian dishes like steamed fish or curry, he said.
4. BROCCOLI AND CAULIFLOWER RICE
Nutrition: Broccoli or cauliflower rice is basically finely chopped broccoli or cauliflower. Both have very low carb contents, and would be suitable for diabetics and those on a keto diet, said Reutens.
But while such "rice" is an interesting way to eat broccoli and cauliflower, it cannot replace rice itself. “The nutritional profiles are very different from rice, other grains or starchy foods such as quinoa and potato. Cauliflower and broccoli are vegetables and should be regarded as that when it comes to eating a nutritionally balanced meal,” she said.
Moreover, chopping up the vegetables increases their exposure to heat and raises their oxidation rate that can rob them of nutrients such as vitamins C and B1, and thiamine, she explained.
Taste and texture: Broccoli rice and cauliflower rice have a grainy mouthfeel. Both can have a crunchy bite when pan-fried or a soft texture when steamed, said Reutens. "It feels very different from rice and might have a slight sweetness as compared to rice."
How to prepare: Wash the vegetables well before putting them in a food processor to mince to your desired consistency. You can then steam, bake or stir-fry them.
Broccoli rice, said Reutens, can be accompanied with a tofu stir-fry and brown rice, or made into a baked dish with parmesan cheese and garlic.
Cauliflower rice can be made into a chicken burrito bowl, stir-fried with peas, corn and chickpeas, or paired with grilled prawns, parsley, tomatoes and lemon juice, suggested Reutens.
5. SHREDDED CABBAGE
Nutrition: When it comes to cabbage, raw is better. “Raw cabbages have close to three times the vitamin C you need for the day,” said Mary-Ann Chiam, a dietitian with Allium Healthcare.
Cooked or raw, shredded cabbage is “very low in carbohydrates” and is “a healthy fibre source”, so it is both diabetic- and keto-friendly, she said. It also has iron, potassium, zinc and vitamin A.
Taste and texture: There are four main types of cabbages – green cabbage, red or purple cabbage, savoy cabbage, and Chinese or napa cabbage – and they taste differently when cooked or raw.
For instance, cooked green cabbage is sweet; the raw version tastes peppery, said Chiam. Red or purple cabbage can be bitter and is not as tender as the green cabbage. Savoy cabbage is quite mild and earthy, and tastes best when cooked.
“Chinese cabbage can be eaten raw or cooked, and is softer and sweeter than the other varieties,” she added.
How to prepare: Other than as coleslaw, shredded cabbage can also be made into cabbage meat balls and served with salad, said Chiam.
But you’ll need to prep the cabbage beforehand to prevent sogginess. Chiam advised adding salt to raw, shredded cabbage (one tablespoon for every head). Let the mixture sit in a colander for at least an hour; then, squeeze out as much liquid as you can.
If you're not a fan of cabbage's odour, Chiam has some hacks to minimise it: When boiling in a pot of water, keep the pot uncovered and use as little water as possible. “Adding a few thick chunks of bread wrapped in cheesecloth to the water may also help to reduce the odour.”
Note that red or purple cabbage’s colour – courtesy of the beneficial compound, anthocyanin – can turn blue when cooked with an alkaline substance such as tap water, said Chiam. Adding a teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar would bring back its original colour.
Nutrition: Quinoa is a very high-calorie seed (more than double of rice) that comes from the plant, Chenopodium quinoa. “Quinoa is also high in carbohydrates and should be extremely limited if you’re on a low-carb or keto diet," said Chiam.
The upside is, quinoa has amino acids and protein that white rice – and even brown rice – don’t. Quinoa is also a better source of fibre, potassium and zinc than rice, she said.
Taste and texture: The seeds have a crunchy texture and nutty flavour.
How to prepare: Treat quinoa like rice, so rinse and boil to cook it. “Use two parts water for every one part of quinoa. Add a pinch of salt to the water before you cook it,” recommended Chiam. And like cooking rice, keep the lid on and do not stir as it cooks.
But unlike rice, drain the quinoa after it's done cooking, said Chiam. You can add boiled quinoa to salads, soups, burger patties or capsicums as stuffing. It can also be made into porridge, she said.
Nutrition: Technically, couscous is a pasta as it's made with semolina flour that's derived from durum wheat, said Tong. This makes couscous high in carbs and not a keto food at all.
Like pasta, the wholemeal version has more fibre and a lower GI, he said. Couscous also contains calcium, iron, sodium and potassium.
Still, couscous has a lower GI and calories than rice, and may be “more suitable for people with diabetes” and the weight-conscious, said Tong, especially if you keep your portion to half a bowl.
Taste and texture: There are three types: Moroccan (the smallest and most commonly sold here); Israeli or pearl (the size of peppercorns); and Lebanese (the largest and shaped like peas).
“Couscous is fluffy and small grained, but the pearled couscous is slightly larger and could resemble firm and large grains of rice,” said Tong.
How to prepare: No washing or soaking required. Toast the couscous in olive oil for a minute, add water or chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Then, cover the pan, remove it from the heat and let the couscous steam for 5 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the couscous with a fork.
Couscous is very popular in Middle Eastern cuisine but it is also great as a side dish to western dishes such as roasted chicken and salad, said Tong.
Nutrition: Although orzo is a form of pasta like couscous, the former has higher calories and carbs. This disparity could possibly be caused by their wheat content, which affects their texture, said Tong.
Orzo is firmer than couscous as it has a higher wheat content, he noted. Meanwhile, couscous's soft and fluffy nature could be because it has a lower wheat content.
Like couscous, orzo also has calcium, iron, sodium and potassium.
Taste and texture: Orzo can be rice-like when cooked al dente. But it is typically cooked until soft, said Tong.
How to prepare: Cook orzo like you would any form of pasta: Boil in a pot of water with salt. It reaches al dente around 8 to 10 minutes, said Tong.
You can toss orzo in olive oil or butter. Or add it to a salad with beans, soup, minced meat, or stir it with parmesan and spinach. Tong also suggested serving it as a side with Italian dishes such as chicken parmigiana or piccata.
“Orzo can also be made into Asian-styled rice and served with Asian dishes,” he said.
Nutrition: Barley is every diabetic’s good friend. That’s because its high soluble fibre content helps to slow the absorption of sugar and in turn, helps to regulate blood sugar levels, explained Melanie Anthonysamy, the nutrition team lead at HealthifyMe.
But not so for people who are on the keto diet because of barley’s carb content. “Carbohydrates should be kept at a maximum of 5 to 10 per cent of the total calorie intake for the body to be in the ketosis state,” she said.
Barley also has iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium and manganese, said Anthonysamy.
Taste and texture: Barley has a nutty, subtle and slightly chewy texture similar to brown rice.
How to prepare: “Pearl barley is traditionally simmered in water and cooks in about 20 to 25 minutes; pre-soaking is not required,” said Anthonysamy.
Barley porridge also makes a good substitute for oats and goes well with berries, nuts and dates, she suggested.
One thing to note though: Barley releases starch upon cooking, so you may want to cook it separately and rinse it before adding it to your dish if you don't want to thicken it, she said.
Nutrition: “Millet is a cereal grain that is wholegrain and gluten free,” said Anthonysamy. This seed-like grain is packed with fibre and protein, and is an excellent source of carbohydrates, especially for those with coeliac disease (spelled celiac in some countries), she said.
It also contains potassium, iron and vitamin A, she added.
Taste and texture: Millet doesn’t have a strong flavour on its own; maybe a mild corn flavour. But it will take on the flavour of what it is cooked in or with, said Anthonysamy. It has a fluffy rather than chewy texture when cooked.
How to prepare: “Millet porridge is a common side dish in Chinese home cooking and is frequently consumed to heal the digestive tract,” said Anthonysamy.
“It can be boiled or steamed. Soaking millet makes it easier to digest and allows the body to absorb more nutrients out of it. Toasting millet before cooking enhances the nutty flavour.”