Rice, Rice Baby: The History of Rice
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares the often very dark history of one of the world’s most famous staples, rice. With origins in both Africa and Asia, more than 3.5 billion people in the world eat rice every day. But, how many know that it was one of the drivers of slavery in what would become the United States of America?
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EAT MY GLOBE
RICE, RICE BABY: THE HISTORY OF RICE
What is the best type of rice to sleep on?
I don’t know Simon, what is the best type of rice to sleep on?
A Pilau Rice.
Oh, what a great way to start. I love that.
Pilau Rice. Ok.
Let’s. . . let’s carry on, shall we?
I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And before we dive into today’s episode, I have to preface it with a shamefaced apology. Why? Well, we are nearly seventy episodes into our explorations of food history, and yet, I had still not got around to creating an episode about today’s subject. Which, when you take into the account my Bengali heritage and the fact that my wife is Filipino-American, and add that to the fact that we eat this ingredient by the bucket load most weeks, it is rather something of a disgrace.
I have also received many e-mails about this from fellow lovers of this ingredient among the Eat My Globe community. Enough of you, in fact, to make me bring it to the top of the pile and rectify my shameful exclusion. I appreciate you calling me to account.
So, today folks on Eat My Globe, we’re going to right the wrong and talk about the fascinating history of rice.
As always, on Eat My Globe, let us begin by being very clear about what it is we are going to discuss, so there can be no confusion. This is particularly challenging with rice, as we shall see.
Our good pals at Merriam Webster define rice as,
“the starchy seeds of an annual southeast Asian cereal grass (Oryza Sativa) that are cooked and used for food.”
While the Cambridge Dictionary calls it,
“the small seeds of a particular type of grass, cooked, and eaten as food.”
Both of which are useful but both struggle, I think, to look at the extraordinary geographical and botanical diversity of what rice really offers. We shall look at this more fully in a moment but, suffice to say, I think rice is one of the single most important food staples in the world.
It is grown in over 100 countries and, as a staple food, it is the daily choice of over half the population of the earth. The close to 550 million tons of rice that are globally expected to be produced annually by 2026 are expected to generate a staggering $274 Billion in revenue by 2027. It only ranks behind maize and wheat in crop production. With the biggest producers in the world being China, India, the Philippines, Indonesia and Japan. And the biggest per capita consumers including Vietnam, Bangladesh and Myanmar with the surprise leader, perhaps, being Brunei, whose citizens eat a staggering 245 kilograms per person per year. That’s a staggering amount of rice.
Rice, of course, has many culinary uses, quite apart from being used simply boiled or fried to be served as an accompaniment to a meal. It can be ground to make rice flour – perfect when added to fish and chip batter, which I add for an extra crunch. It can be used to make noodles and breads. It can also be made into some rather delicious, if rather potent alcoholic drinks, such as wines and beers.
And, as well as their culinary uses, rice by-products could be used to make other necessary items such as baskets, mats and sandals. All useful to the community.
And, in one of those great Eat My Globe “facts to bore people with at dinner parties” moments, author Renee Marton tells us that the ancient Chinese used a sticky porridge of glutinous rice mixed with lime and sand as mortar to put together what, I believe, is one of the most extraordinary structures humans have ever built – the Great Wall of China.
There are two species of this grass that people refer to when discussing the ingredient.
Oryza Sativa, often known as “Asian Rice,” and Oryza Glaberrima, which is often known as “African Rice.” This is part of that diversity that I think is missing in the dictionary definitions, and which we will talk about during this episode. It is also slightly more confused by the fact that people will often add into this list an ingredient known as “Wild Rice” also known as Zizania, which is not related to these Oryza rice varietals but often placed with them because it’s also a grass.
Most of the rice produced worldwide comes from Oryza Sativa or Asian Rice. In Asia, Oryza Sativa is usually grown in rice paddies that are flooded at least 50 centimeters deep. From a personal point of view, this is the sort of rice I have seen growing over so much of the world when I have travelled in places like China, India, Vietnam and the Philippines over the years. However, in dryer and more upland areas, such as South America, it is usually grown using waters from falling rain.
In contrast, Oryza Glaberrima or African Rice, is more drought-resistant and can grow in drier and hotter climates.
These two species produce around 120,000 varieties of rice. Once the grain is harvested, it is dried, which reduces the grain moisture to a safe level for storage. It is then milled to remove the rice hull. This produces the “brown rice,” where the bran layer remains. It is then further milled, if you want to remove the bran layer, which would then produce “white rice.”
The rice husk that is removed is often used to create a form of fuel. Rice bran has been found to have large levels of dietary fiber, and consequently have beneficial properties for human health. It is used as a supplement and also in baking and other cooking purposes.
Finally, at the end of the milling process, you might also find some residue of broken rice. This too has beneficial properties for human health and is often ground into rice flour, suitable for those who are intolerant to gluten. The broken rice is also sold in its own right as “Rice Grits.” These are a delicious alternative to traditional corn grits and are really worth checking out if you can find them in your store or online.
Now, once the rice is prepared, it is then categorized by degrees of the milling it has undergone, by the size of the kernels of the rice, and by the flavor.
Degrees of milling the grains will give you rice that is categorized as “whole grain” or “brown rice,” or “white rice.” Kernel size will give you categories such as “long grain,” “short grain” and “medium grain.” And the flavors will give you types of rice such as Basmati, Jasmine, Bomba or Arborio.
How we got to the situation of having this abundant variety of rice is very much at the heart of this episode of Eat My Globe. And to begin, I think, it is important to look at how these plants first began to be cultivated.
Initially, the first farming – that is, the active planting of any crop in a delineated area to be maintained and harvested later – was believed to have taken place around 12,000 years ago in the area now dubbed as “the Cradle of Civilization” – an area that now covers Iraq, the Levant, Turkey and Iran. However, new research shows that farming occurred even earlier than that – some 23,000 years ago.
It is likely that hunter-gatherers began to settle into communities as they learned to domesticate crops, such as wheat, barley and, of course, rice.
Around 2003, archeologists claimed to have found grains of rice that are approximately 15,000 years old in the village of Sorori in the Chungbuk Province in South Korea.
And before the South Korean discovery, the first archeological evidence we find of Asian rice being farmed comes from the Yangtze River area of China at a site known as Shangshan, dating some 10,000 years ago. And in the early 2000s, Chinese archaeologists found microscopic pieces of silica remnants of plant cells, known as “phytoliths,” in such abundance that they believe it supports a claim that this was an area where rice was being cultivated as being actively grown rather than just harvested where it might be seeded naturally. The rice itself may have been very different from the rice we know today, which has been modified over the centuries. But it was very definitely rice.
Rice may well have been developing in other parts of the region too. As Renee Marton says in her useful book, “Rice: A Global History,”
“The history of rice begins in the foothills of the Himalayas in northeastern India, in Southeast Asia, southern China and Indonesia. Domestication evolved in India and China and subsequently arrived in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.”
We’ll talk more about African rice later, but to put it in terms of its origin dates, in their book, “Rice: Origin, History, Technology, and Production,” authors C. Wayne Smith and Robert H. Dilday suggest that the first archeological evidence indicates that Oryza Glaberrima or African rice was first cultivated around 1500 BCE in West Africa.
The growth of domestication of rice both in China and India is an incredibly complex matter. It involves very detailed work by archaeobotanists, who look to see evidence of “spikelets” of rice in the remains of people from the time and, from that, to see if they believe that rice was simply harvested where it grew naturally, or if there was enough of an abundance for scientists to posit that it was now being cultivated. Complex, indeed, and we probably don’t have time to go into real depth here.
Oryza Sativa began to split into what scientists called, “phylogenetic sub species.” This happened almost 100,000 years ago, it is believed. In China, one was named, “Japonica,” and became the prevalent variety there. While in India, a variety named, “Indica,” became the primary plant cultivated.
Alan Davidson, in his extraordinary food reference tool, “The Oxford Companion to Food,” suggests that, by 2000 BCE, ancient people farmed rice in North India, South and Central China, and all over mainland Southeast Asia. And by the 1st century CE, rice farming reached the areas that are now Sarawak in Malaysia, Sulawesi in Indonesia, as well as in the Philippines. As an aside, my wife tells me that in the rice terraces in Banaue, Philippines – which Alan Davidson says are some 2,000 years old – are a sight to behold. I’ve not seen them but I do hope to see them one day.
Somewhere between 300 BCE and 200 CE, we also begin to see rice farming in what is now the Middle East and into Japan.
With a crop that rapidly became an important if expensive staple, myths soon began to be developed in each location where rice was grown to explain its importance and its origin.
In China, for example, the origins of rice was attributed to a goddess named Guan Yin who, seeing that humanity was close to starvation, went to a field of unproductive rice plants and squeezed milk from her breasts until the rice began to make them fertile. She squeezed so hard that blood too flowed into the plants, which gave explanation to the fact that we now have white and red varieties of rice. There are also a number of myths across different regions of China that show rice being the munificent gift of an animal, such as a dog, that would drop rice seeds to villages that were struggling after floods.
The sort of rice dishes that we might see in ancient China include some dishes that we might still be familiar with today. For example, written materials that date back to between 206 BCE and 220 CE mention congee, a rice porridge, that is still eaten today, although others assert that congee dates even further back to 1,000 BCE. And, during the late Shang Dynasty, from around 1200 BCE to 1046 BCE, manuscripts referred to rice wine made as offerings in rituals and also for celebrations.
In Burma/Myanmar, legend says that God sent the Kachin hill tribe the gift of the first rice seed in an area where they would prosper and live well. The current political turmoil in the country, however, may have challenged the premise of that myth. This saddens me a lot as I think it’s a very beautiful country and I am hoping it finds its way back to peace soon. I can certainly say that some of the most delicious rice dishes I have ever eaten were during a visit to Myanmar.
You can still see rice playing a prominent part in Burmese cuisine today. In dishes such as Meeshay, a delicious dish of rice noodles in a deeply flavored meat sauce. And, in Htamane, a dish of glutinous rice that is flavored with coconut shavings, peanuts, sesame seeds and ginger. Now, that sounds good.
In India, too, rice is of course, as I know with my heritage, at center stage. Rice is considered to be a sign of wealth and fertility, where it is typical to throw rice at newlyweds to symbolize prosperity and fertility.
We see many mentions of rice in Indian writings. Rice is first mentioned in India in the Yajurveda, a series of Hindu mantras or sacred formulars that was composed around 1500 to 1200 BCE,
“May for me strength, righteousness, milk, sap, ghee, honey, eating and drinking in company, ploughing, rain, conquest, victory, wealth, riches, prosperity, prospering, plenteousness , lordship, much, more, fun, fuller, imperishableness, bad crops, food, freedom from hunger, rice, barley, beans, sesame, kidney beans, vetches, wheat, lentils, Millet, Panicum miliaceum, Panicum frumentaceum, and wild rice (prosper through the sacrifice).”
And in Buddhism, rice had a particularly important function, because when Siddhartha’s body became emaciated after starvation and prayer rituals, it was a specially prepared dish of rice pudding that was used to revive him.
White rice was considered the best by Ayurveda, particularly Basmati rice, which is considered “sattvic” or pure, and considered to have a sweet taste, the best aroma, satisfying, and to be very easily digested. The Ayurveda also offers warnings against eating instant or precooked rice because it offers less “prana” or life energy.
Now, you might wonder, at this point, why I don’t mention, arguably, the most famous dish of all from India, the Biryani. But that’s because this dish was Persian in origin and not part of the Indian culinary repertoire until it was introduced to India by Mughal invaders when they reigned in India starting around the 15thcentury.
Now, with a crop that was as valuable as rice, it is little surprise that, it became a major item, particularly for India and China to trade with other nations. This would take place primarily along the trading passages known as the “Silk Roads” that were both land based and also used existing shipping routes.
We also know that both the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans knew of rice as it had appeared in Greco-Roman writings. Alexander the Great is known to have campaigned in India at around 344 to 324 BCE. Ancient writer, Theophrastus, who lived around 350 to 287 BCE, describes rice as being served as a gruel or a mash in India, and it is believed by many that, although he may never have encountered rice itself, he got this information from people who returned from Alexander’s campaign.
The Romans were already distributing rice across the empire by the 1st century CE. Not just amongst the Roman sites in the Middle East, but also, according to archeological evidence, as far as Germany and Switzerland. Although it may be that – as archaeologists found charred remains of rice in military hospitals – Romans may have considered rice as a medicinal product rather than a food product. It was thought to ail an unwell stomach, and Dioscorides of Anazarbus, a Greek physician who travelled extensively within the Roman Empire, wrote that rice was
“moderately nutritious and it binds the bowel.”
In Central Asia and the Middle East, there are references to rice being both grown and eaten. There are” between references in that first sentence and references in the second sentence to rice being both grown and eaten. There are references to armies of Babylonia subsisting on rice during campaigns as far back as the fourth century B.C.E. And, by the 2nd century B.C.E., we have reports from a Chinese envoy, Zhang Qian, reporting on the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia – now spreading across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – by saying
“The people are settled on the land, plowing the fields and growing rice and wheat.”
We also begin to see the influence of Islamic culture on rice. An influence that would be fundamental on its move to Europe and North Africa, and because of that to the New Worlds as the age of exploration began.
If you have listened to the Eat My Globe episode on the history of cookbooks, you will know that I am really enthralled by the beautiful Islamic cookbooks. Not only because they give us so many extraordinary recipes – usually aimed at those who are very well to do, and often royalty – but also, because they tell us so much about the societies in which they are written.
Rice features in some of the 615 recipes in the Islamic Medieval cookbook written by ibn Sayyar-al-Warraq. This would have involved husked white rice, known as, “aruzz abyad maqshur,” or rice that had been washed until clean, which I assume meant what I now do before cooking rice – that is, to wash the rice to remove the starch. Ibn Sayyar-al-Warraq’s rice recipes included a rice bread, and a number of rice porridges, where the rice had been pounded with meats. There are also a number of sweet treats including a smooth style rice pudding and desserts made with rice flour.
In Central Asia, we see a number of rice dishes that all bear a similar name, “Pilov.” You can still see these dishes today. In Azerbaijan, I ate a rice dish known as “Plov.” In India, you might see it as “Pulao,” a dish with Muslim influence. In most cases, the name may be different, but the method of cooking is remarkably similar. A slow cooked dish that has rice with meats or vegetables. It has been called,
“the flagship of Central Asian cookery.”
As Muslim influence spread, so too did the proliferation of rice. We see Arabic invaders conquering Egypt in 642, and then moving into North Africa in 682 in an area known as Maghrib, now known as Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco. With their influence, and religion, also comes Muslim cuisine, which involved dishes involving rice. Perhaps the most well-known is another derivation of that Central Asian dish, “Pilov,” which became known by the name it still bears today, “Pilaf.” If you have not ever made a Moroccan-style pilaf, I really do recommend it. The dish is packed to the brim with the flavor of spices, the aromatic vegetables and the toasting of the rice in the oil or fat before adding stock. It really leads to a magical end result.
Now, before we move North with the Islamic occupation of Spain by the Moors, which occurred in 711 CE, now might be a good time to head south of the Sahara for a short while to talk about the other type of rice I mentioned at the beginning of the episode. That of “Oryza Glaberrima” or “African Rice.”
As I mentioned before, this rice can be traced back to around 1,500 BCE and is believed to have originated around the Niger Delta. It is a beautiful red hue in color, salt tolerant, pest resistant, and drought tolerant. As well as being suitable for all the same uses that Asian rice can be used for, African rice does have many dishes for which it is ideal. The Mandingo people mix rice flour and honey to create a bread with some sweetness, which is usually the highlight in ceremonies. And, I have sampled rice beer during my time in Senegal.
African rice, however, was a rice that required a lot of skill to prepare properly as it could break down and shatter when husked. So, the African Rice slowly began to be replaced by colonists, such as the Portuguese, to the higher yielding, lower maintenance and more profitable Asian Rice.
However, one aspect of African rice production was attractive to the colonists, and that was, as culinary historians Jessica B. Harris and Renee Marton have stated, that by the time colonization and slavery became the blight of the West Coast of Africa, people who were skillful in African rice agriculture became coveted as slaves and were sought after in the transatlantic slave trade, between Europe, the Caribbean, and America.
Even now, relatively little of the African production of rice is of the indigenous African rice variety, with most countries concentrating on the higher yield crop. However, before we move back to Europe, it is worth mentioning that there is now, quite rightly, more attention being paid to African rice as an authentic ingredient of the region. And, there are companies like, Africa Rice – and we will put a link to this in the transcript – that are working with multiple African countries to create new and stronger breeds. One such is “Nerica” or “New Rice for Africa,” which is a cross of the two varieties of rice, taking advantage of the qualities of both. I have not ever tried it, but if anyone has, please let me know. I’d love to know what it’s like.
Back then to our friends in North Africa. The Moors were no longer satisfied just with their conquests in North Africa, and in 711 CE, they crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and occupied the majority of the Iberian Peninsula and stayed there for nearly 800 years. As with their culinary impact in North Africa, the Muslim conquerors brought with them cuisine to this new territory they named Al-Andalus. This also included rice dishes including, in fact, one of the most famous rice dishes of them all – the classic Paella.
The Paella is a dish than can be now found all over Spain, but classically it is a dish that is associated with the port city of Valencia. It is a dish of rice, spices, meats, vegetables and seafood cooked together with stock in a shallow wide pan, called a “paellera,” from which the dish is supposed to derive its name. It might contain chicken, rabbit, snails as well as seafood such as clams, shrimp and mussels.
The main Moorish influences on Paella are the rice and the spices. The rice was brought into Spain by the Moors, and there are now many different rice dishes in Spanish cuisine. The classic rice for Paella would be Bomba, a round, short grain rice, that soaks up water well. There are other types of rice used in paellas as well such as, Calasparra and Senia and Bahia, and they may be difficult to find in the US, but The Spruce Eats recommends using another short grain rice grown in California called CalRose as a substitute if you cannot find Spanish varieties.
As for the spices, the key one would be that most expensive of spices, Saffron. Saffron is the stem of a plant called, “crocus sativus,” now grown in Iran, India, Morocco and Greece as well as a few other nations. It is incredibly expensive and treasured for its mellow taste and even more for the golden color it delivers to food. For me, a paella without saffron is not really a paella.
One ingredient you would never see a Spaniard put in a paella, however, and that is chorizo, a type of pork sausage. In fact, when British chef Jamie Oliver posted his recipe of Paella with Chorizo, it created such a furor in Spain that newspapers reported that his recipe united the otherwise politically polarized Spanish people against him. Now, I have been told this “no-chorizo rule” is for many reasons, but the main one I have heard is that the gentle flavors of the very expensive saffron are completely destroyed by the powerful taste of the cured pork product. It may also be, as I have been told, that use of pork in a dish with Islamic origins would be highly unlikely. Although, Spanish newspaper, El País, said that 150 years ago, the Spanish did put chorizo in their paella. Indeed, the first known recipe for paella published in 1857, entitled, “Sartén a la Valenciana (Paella)” or “Valencian Frying Pan (Paella),” includes ingredients such as pork loin and sausages.
In any event, even though there’s an argument, I have to say, I love me a good paella.
We see plenty of other rice dishes in the Iberian Peninsula, both in what is now Spain – where they tend to be described as “Arroz con….” or “rice with…” – and also in what is now Portugal – where one of my absolute favorite dishes originated, “Arroz de Pato” or “Duck Rice,” a truly delicious dish where duck is poached and shredded and then mixed with rice cooked in the duck braising liquid. Oh. Definitely one to give a try if you ever see it.
The Moors are also considered to have had a vital part in introducing rice to what is now Italy. At first, via Sicily, but it then began to spread throughout Italy as the land was eminently suitable for growing rice. Its popularity was particularly promoted by an aristocrat named Ludovico Sforza, who was the Duke of Milan between 1494 and 1498. Ludovico, who was also known as “Ludovico the Moor,” because of his dark skin, color and complexion, was not only a patron of Leonardo de Vinci, but also had a passion for rice, and created model farms where it could be grown and promoted. Its popularity spread throughout the region and many rice dishes began to appear in Italian cookbooks, such as those of Bartolomeo Scappi, who spoke of
“a rice dish in the Lombard Style.”
Interestingly, if perhaps now unsurprisingly, Italy is now the largest producer of rice in Europe.
The most famous dish from this region, of course, is one of the most famous from anywhere in the world and that is “risotto.” Some say that Bartolomeo Scappi’s Lombard Style Rice was the precursor to risotto.According to legend that dates back to the 16th century, the “Risotto alla Milanese” was created for a wedding when a cook added saffron to the rice in an effort to copy the colors of the stained glass windows of the Milan Cathedral, which was then being built.
The first known written reference to a recipe called “Risotto Giallo alla Milanese” or “Yellow Milanese Risotto” appears in 1829 in Felice Luraschi’s book, “Nuovo Cuoco Milanese Economico” or “New Economic Milanese Chef.” In his risotto recipe, Luraschi added bone marrow. There were many versions of risotto, which included both using a broth, and wine, and using Marsala as a cooking liquid.
Rice became popular not just in Italy and Spain but throughout other parts of Europe. For example, in France in the 14th century, a rice pudding dish called “Riz au Lait,” which literally translates to “Milk Rice,” appeared initially as food for ill aristocrats but as rice became more common throughout the centuries, it eventually evolved to a sweet rice pudding available to the masses. And, in England, rice also became popular as evidenced by the creation of its own pudding dish known as, “White Pot.” Perhaps the most well-known recipe for “whitepot” is found in Gervase Markham’s book, “The English Huswife,” which was initially published in 1615.
I’m not quite sure why it’s called, “White Pot,” but I assume it came from the cream that was used. It sounds rather nice, if, uh, slightly indulgent.
“Take the best and sweetest creame, and boile it with good store of Sugar, and Cinamon, and a little rose-water, then take it from the fire and put into it cleane pickt ryce, but not so much as to make it thicke, & let it steepe there-in till it be cold; then put in the yelkes of sixe eggs, and two whites, Currants, Sugar, Cinamon, and Rose water, and Salt, then put it into a pan, or pot, as thinne as is if it were a custard; and To bake it and serve it in the pot it is baked in, trimming the top with sugar or comfets.”
Mmmm. Sounds rather nice.
Now, let’s turn to rice and the New World. But before that, a quick break.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you that have been listening to the podcast since we began over three years ago – nearly 70 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about, to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, and even some signed pictures. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more in the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and remember taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep on listening.
As what is known as the “Age of Exploration,” began towards the end of the 15thcentury, we see the beginning of a process that we’ve discussed many, many times on Eat My Globe, The Columbian Exchange. In fact, we have done a whole episode on its impact on the world we live in today, so if you have not had chance to listen to that, do go and check it out. At its most basic, The Columbian Exchange, was a name created by Professor Alfred W. Crosby to describe the transfer of plants, animals, technology, diseases, culture and other elements between European nations and the so called “New World” nations that took place during the age of discovery.
For example, it brought ingredients to the West that have never been seen before, such as tomatoes, potatoes and chilis. And, in return, animals such as horses and pigs arrived in the Americas, as well as crops that Europeans believed they could grow in volume and more economically in the New World. Crops, such as coffee, sugar, and, in our case, rice. The darkest side of this exchange was that many diseases were also transferred to these territories, which had a devastating effect on the indigenous population, and also on the enslaved people of West Africa, who were brought in to then work on the plantations.
As we shall see in a moment, and as I mentioned briefly earlier, this was particularly true of enslaved people who had expertise in growing and preparing rice in what were to become the American colonies.
The Spanish introduced the Asian rice to Mexico in the mid-1500s. Although, there is some evidence that a variety of Oryza rice had been grown by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon for almost 4,000 years.
It is believed that much of the rice Spain brought came from its territories in Asia, such as the Philippines, that was occupied in 1521.
Around the same time, in the 1530s, Dutch ships headed for Brazil fed the African slaves they were carrying with African rice. The female slaves also hid grains of African rice in their hair, which they then planted and became their food staple as they toiled in the Brazilian sugar plantations. As the Dutch and Portuguese battled for control in Brazil, Asian rice arrived in Brazil in 1766.
It’s hard to think of either of these countries, in fact any of the countries in the Americas and the Caribbean, without the impact of rice on their post-Colonial cuisines. The prevalence of a nutritional powerhouse of a dish, such as rice and beans, for example, is seen across the region.
It’s hard to choose a favorite, but the Colombian, “Calentao,” which is a breakfast version using rice, beans, plantains and eggs, would be hard to beat if you were to make me choose just one version.
In the Caribbean, it was again the colonists who brought rice with them. In Guyana, for example, it was introduced by the Dutch colonizers, particularly Laurens Storme Van Gravesande, the Dutch Governor who saw rice as the ideal crop to sustain the diet of the enslaved people working in the sugar cane plantations. However, like in Brazil, some scholars attribute the presence of rice in Guyana to African slave women bringing rice to the area.
In her book, “Rice: A Global History,” Renee Marton suggests that it was sugar plantation owners in colonies such as Jamaica and Barbados who thought that the American colonies might be a suitable site for growing rice, for which they believed there was a growing market in Europe.
The first record we have of rice attempting to be grown in what was to become the United States of America is believed to have occurred in 1685. It may be slightly mythical, but we are told, that a Dr. Henry Woodward of Charleston, South Carolina first cultivated rice using seed that was given to him by a Captain John Thurber, who had sailed to the Carolinas from Madagascar. The seeds he would have received would have been those of “Oryza Glaberrima” or African rice. Another account explains that the same rice came smuggled from grain from African female slaves.
However, rice arrived in the United States, rice cultivation was obviously quite a success, as by 1700, the region of South Carolina was exporting 400,000 lbs. annually.
This is unsurprising as during the period of slavery, 40% of all enslaved people who found themselves in the United States passed through the South Carolina city of Charleston. And enslaved people who came from the area of Senegambia and Coastal Sierra Leone were considered increasingly valuable because of their knowledge of rice culture.
Slaves showed plantation owners how to improve just about every area of rice production, how to flood and irrigate fields and were at the heart of making this an increasingly profitable business, for the plantation owners at least. It was not to last. It became increasingly difficult to grow rice profitably in the region. A series of hurricanes destroyed many of the farmlands in the region. Further, rice farms started using Asian rice in other parts of the country. As a result, by the beginning of the 20th century, this African rice that had been brought into the area and had been renamed “Carolina Gold” – not to be confused with the rice brand called, Carolina – was almost impossible to find.
However, with more recent and deserved recognition of Southern cuisine in the United States, we are now seeing Carolina Gold rice becoming available again and there is even a Carolina Gold Rice Foundation to support its reintroduction. If you can find it, do give it a try. A genuine taste of history. But, do remember the many, many enslaved people who lost lives are at its foundation.
I don’t have time in this short podcast to do full justice to the relationship between rice and enslaved people. But, I am delighted to say that next week on Eat My Globe, I have a very special guest author, Michael W. Twitty, who has published a really excellent book, “Rice: A Savor the South Cookbook,” in which he goes into real depth about the subject, so you really want to make sure to mark your calendars for that.
Now, Michael will, of course, talk about more of this next week, but for the purposes of completion of this episode, enslaved people were vital to taking rice across the southern states of the United States as they were bought and sold, and we begin to see rice plantations becoming successful in states such as the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and, of course, Louisiana. And, with their skills, the enslaved people also took with them many of the dishes that have now become a recognizable part of Southern and Creole cuisines. Dishes such as, “Perloo,” which is a one pot rice dish that derives its name from the “pilaf” and “pilau” that we have discussed in the Middle East and India.
Jambalaya is another great example of a Louisiana dish that brings together the Spanish, French and West African influences on a dish of rice cooked with vegetables, seafood, meat and andouille sausage along with stock, and which has its origins both in the Jollof rice of West Africa and the paella of Spain.
Another dish that is one of my favorites, “Hoppin’ John,” which is a wonderful version of rice & pea dish. I am told that it originally was eaten at New Year, and that the peas, in this case, black eyed peas, were representatives of pennies and the dish was served with cabbage to represent the color of money. The first recipe for this dish appears in a couple of early publications in the 1840s, and it is even mentioned in the book, “The Recollections of a Southern Matron,” by Caroline Gilman, which was published in 1838. It’s a rather grim and of-its-time first person narrative novel about living in the American South. She refers to Hopping John being served inappropriately at a more formal dinner,
“a good dish, to be sure, but no more presentable to strangers at the South than baked beans and pork in New-England.”
Hoppin’ John is more favorably mentioned in a cookbook published in 1847 called, “The Carolina Housewife,” by Sarah Rutledge, who was simply credited in the book as quote, “A Lady of Charleston,” end quote, and who was the daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. She wrote that “Hopping John” contained,
“One pound of bacon, one pint of red peas, one pint of rice.”
Rice dishes began to appear in more cookbooks and appear on more tables throughout America. By the time of the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, rice was a regular part of the rations issued to soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
Perhaps the biggest impact on rice consumption in the United States can be seen with the arrival of Asian immigrants into the United States. Apparently, American rice consumption is parallel to the rate of Asian immigration. Asian immigration to the US began in the mid 1800s and continues to the present day with currently 22 million people in the United States tracing their roots back to East Asia, Southeast Asia or the Indian sub-continent. And this is expected to grow towards 2060 to over 46 million people coming from countries such as China, India, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Pakistan, etcetera, etcetera. Not only does that mean that you have more people now in the United States that are part of cultures where rice is a staple part of the cuisine, but it also means that as we have seen many restaurants opening up in the United States, that represent these cultures.
In fact, the Washington Post says that, globally, Asian fast food restaurants alone have increased 500% since 1999. That increase is the same amount seen in the Middle Eastern, Pizza, Chicken and Latin categories, combined. The food being offered is something that younger people in the fast food market find particularly appealing. Even just anecdotally, imagine just how sad you would be if your favorite Chinese restaurant, Korean BBQ, Sushi or Thai restaurant were not part of your regular dining offerings. I know I would be.
As part of that expansion, so we have seen the expansion of rice dishes becoming more popular, and Americans, in the 2020 and 2021 fiscal year, ate five million metric tons of rice. Now, that might sound like quite a lot but to put that into context, this is actually a paltry amount when compared to the 244 million metric tons consumed by the folks in China and India, who, between them, consume more than half of the world’s production of rice.
Which seems like a perfect place to stop today’s episode. Perhaps with a suggestion that this brief history of rice might inspire you to try making a dish from a cuisine you have not tried to cook before. Perhaps a congee from China. The Rice Pudding that restored Buddha. The “Pilov” from the Middle East and Central Asia. The Pilaf from North Africa. A perfect Paella from Valencia, Spain. The original yellow risotto from 1829 in Milan. The incredible “arroz da pato” from Portugal. The rice and beans of South and Central America and the Caribbean. Or the Caribbean Hoppin’ John from South Carolina using “Carolina Gold” rice. Or, even, humbly, my own Chicken Biryani recipe that you can find on my website.
Do make sure to let me know if you do.
See you next week fo. . . Umm… bah, bah. See you next. . . Ooh gah. See you next week folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: June 13, 2022
Updated: June 13, 2022
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.