If you always end up with your rice a soggy, tasteless mass, it could be you're not showing it enough respect. In fact, chances are you're buying the cheapest deal on offer at the supermarket - the rice equivalent of white sliced bread.
For countries where rice is an essential component of every meal, - and that includes most of Asia - it is revered, often served pristine and unadorned, so its flavour can be appreciated. "A meal without rice is like a beautiful girl with only one eye," say the Chinese, with scant respect for the disabled. Top-quality rices such as basmati are used only for special occasions; it accounts for just 1 million of the 500 million tonnes of rice that are produced annually.
Rice has been used in India and China for more than 5,000 years, and is still the principal food and source of energy for half the world's population. Ninety per cent of it is grown in the monsoon regions of Asia, almost all of it consumed within 20 miles of a paddy field.
It was introduced to the Middle East around the sixth or seventh century. The Arabs took it to Spain in the eighth century, from where it gradually spread through southern france to northern Italy, where extensive plantings were encouraged by the Venetians. But it is America, where it was introduced in the late 17th century, which accounts for more than half the rice consumed in the UK. (The British are not big consumers, though, eating roughly 4kg of rice per head a year - and that includes the Asian communities - compared with 78kg in China.)
According to Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion To Food, there are estimated to be 100,000 varieties of rice, of which 8,000 are used for food. The growing variety on the supermarket shelf makes it increasingly hard to select the type you should use for any given recipe. Rice can be divided by type, origin, colour, length, degree of stickiness, even whether or not it's a real rice at all (wild rice is a grass, for example).
The easiest way to get a handle on it is shape and size - long thin grains versus short fat ones. Fine, long-grained rices such as basmati are used mainly in Indian and Iranian cooking, in dishes such as biryanis and pilaus, or where flavour, aroma and a light texture is important (the word basmati actually means fragrance).
Short, plump-grained rices such as pudding rice, calasparra (used in paella), arborio (risotto), and Japanese sushi rice are used where creaminess or stickiness are considered desirable, for instance in the production of sushi. But just to make life more complicated, some long-grain rices, such as Thai jasmine rice, are slightly glutinous, too.
You can also control the texture by the way you cook rice. The most popular technique is the absorption method, which I always think sounds a bit like one of those embarrassing personal hygiene ads, but basically involves using twice as much liquid as rice, slapping the lid on and leaving it. It's pretty foolproof, but the end result is rather like packet mash, particularly if you use easy-cook rice. (Easy-cook is a slight misnomer, since the initial process the grain is subject to actually makes it take longer to cook, roughly 20 minutes as opposed to 10-12 for basmati.) It also dulls the flavour of the rice - a bit like pasteurisation.
Most Asian rices are washed first to lighten the grain, not stirred during the cooking time, then rested so that steam finishes off the cooking. "Rice needs standing time to firm up and absorb moisture," says rice expert Roz Denny, consultant to the market leader, Tilda.
But European and most modern processed rices don't need to be washed. The specialist Spanish rices that are used for paella (the best are calasparra or bomba) are cooked in an open pan and merely shaken from time to time, while risotto rice is deliberately stirred to release the starch that makes for the characteristic creamy texture of the dish. Italian rices are graded from superfino (best) to semifino, the most highly regarded types being arborio, vialone nano and carnaroli.
The rice Jeremy Lee uses for his risottos is an organic carnaroli, Principato di Lucedio, which you can get by mail order from La Fromagerie in Highbury, north London (020-7359 7440) and which, he says, "lasts for ages". (Surprisingly, rice does actually benefit from ageing. It will absorb more water or stock than newly harvested rice, giving a superior texture.)
At £2.45 for 500g, Principato di Lucedio is pricey in rice terms, but still ridiculously cheap, given that it will feed 8-10 people. "Let's face it, a top-quality rice is a hell a lot cheaper than a pound of beef," says Lee.