Scientists Ready Thai Jasmine Rice Competitor

Steven Linscombe, McClain, W. Ray  |  10/30/2004 1:22:28 AM

The industry leader is high-priced, perfumed and soft. It comes to America’s shores from Thailand with a name that hints of its marketing advantage.

Khao Dawk Mali rice is the premium Thai Jasmine variety in the United States. So far, no American variety has matched its delicate taste, appearance or cooking characteristics.

Its Thai name translated into English illustrates why Khao Dawk Mali trumps specialty rice competitors bred in research labs from Louisiana to California over the past 20 years.

Khao means white in English. Asians, including the millions who have immigrated to the United States over the past three decades from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, prize Thai Jasmine’s intense, white kernels. U.S.-bred Jasmine alternatives—up to now—have looked almost brown by comparison, a turn-off for most Asian consumers.

Dawk means flower and Mali means Jasmine, both of which describe the sweet aroma also valued by Asians who have brought their love of premium Thai Jasmine rice to America’s shores.

Khao Dawk Mali and other Thai Jasmine varieties are generally soft and sticky. Their long, thin kernels don’t harden much as they cool after cooking, another characteristic that Asian consumers like.

The quest to conquer Khao Dawk Mali and other Thai Jasmine varieties with a Louisiana-grown rice has heated up in recent years as Asian immigrant numbers have swelled. So far, researchers have come up mostly empty-handed, but that may be about to change.

LSU AgCenter scientists believe a new specialty rice, known now as LA 2140, being grown in test plots at the Rice Research Station in Crowley, has potential.

Steve Linscombe, rice breeder and the LSU AgCenter’s Southwest Region director, insists LA 2140 is a big leap forward over Jasmine 85, an older rice variety released in 1988 by the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. Jasmine 85 has never caught on with the Asian market (or with U.S. rice growers) in large part because of its off-white color after milling.

“With rice prices so low, it would be great if we could give rice farmers an option with a new aromatic rice that could sell at a premium price,” said Xueyan Sha, assistant professor and rice specialist at the station.

“LA 2140 is a promising advanced experimental that will be a strong candidate for release in the near future,” Linscombe said.

Taste tests give LA 2140 relatively high marks in appearance, flavor, aroma, tenderness and whiteness. It is a cross between Jasmine 85 and an older aromatic rice variety grown in the United States called Della.

Breeding of specialty rice varieties at the LSU AgCenter is funded in part by the Louisiana Rice Research Board’s check-off funds.

LA 2140’s kernels are not quite as long as premium Thai Jasmine after cooking, and they’re not quite as slender. But the differences are measured in tenths of a millimeter.

Up to now, the demand for Jasmine rice has been met by huge imports from overseas.

In 1990, 130,000 tons of Thai Jasmine rice and Basmati (another aromatic rice from India and Pakistan) were imported. By 2001, that figure had grown to 340,000 tons, with Jasmine rice making up about 75 percent of all U.S. rice imports.

Dennis Hensgens, who owns Eunice Rice Mill in Eunice, is pulling for LSU AgCenter researchers.

“When you’re selling rice to the Oriental market, appearance is one of the most important things,” Hensgens said. “We can’t give up because the Asian market is so huge. So far, we haven’t had the quality to compete. But if we can come close to the (Thai Jasmine’s) quality with a high-enough yielding variety, maybe we can compete.”

Linscombe says LA 2140 is much closer in appearance, aroma and grain quality to Khao Dawk Mali than past mimics.

But, he added, “We’re dealing with a discriminating consumer skeptical of U.S.-grown rice.”

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