Edible histories: rice

Categories: History of food

From the banks of the Yangtze River to the larder of Mrs Beeton: Mark Riddaway on the remarkable history of rice

Alongside wheat and maize, rice is one of the three staple foods relied upon by billions of humans for the majority of their daily calories. It underpins everything from sushi to gumbo, from congee to risotto. Its benefits are manifold: while demanding of labour and water, it yields far more calories per acre than other cereals. It is highly adaptable, with cultivation possible everywhere from flooded river valleys to rain-fed uplands. Once milled, it can last almost indefinitely, providing a defence against famine and making it a perfect commodity for long-distance trading. And, perhaps most importantly, it tastes amazing beneath a chicken bhuna.

The seed of a species of domesticated grass known as Oryza sativa, it is a crop upon which whole cultures have been constructed—quite literally in the case of China, where glutinous rice, cooked into a thick porridge and mixed with slaked lime, has been used as a form of masonry mortar for at least 1,500 years, including in the construction of the Great Wall.

And it is in China that the story of rice begins, in a swampy field beside the Yangtze River. According to a landmark study from 2011, it was here that Neolithic farmers first began cultivating the wild rice species Oryza rufipogon, kicking off a process of selective breeding that saw it evolve into Oryza sativa: Asian rice. Unlike wild rice, Oryza sativa is dependent on human intervention for propagation. This mutation, which created a perfect high-yield crop, occurred between 8,200 and 13,500 years ago.

From prehistoric China, domesticated rice spread slowly but inexorably across Asia over several millennia. By the mid-3rd millennium BC, Oryza sativa was being grown in the Ganges basin of northern India, where it was seemingly hybridised with long-established but inferior local varieties to create the subspecies indica.

A foreign oddity
From China, Oryza sativa migrated to southeast Asia, Japan and Korea, all of which were established as domesticated rice-growing cultures by the end of the last millennium BC. From India, it spread through Afghanistan and Iran, into the Middle East and north Africa, although its journey from foreign oddity to widely grown crop was often glacially slow—in Egypt, for example, it was only widely adopted after the 7th century arrival of the Arabs.

Europe came even later to the party. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew about rice and valued it for its supposed medicinal properties (Dioscorides wrote that rice is “moderately nutritious and it binds the bowel”), but neither culture embraced it as a foodstuff.

It was the Moors who brought rice cultivation to Europe, following their conquest of Sicily and the Iberian peninsula in the 8th and 9th centuries AD. Alzira and Xàtiva in the province of Valencia—the traditional home of paella—were established as rice centres by the 12th century, and the Portuguese also became skilled growers.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, a few progressive European nobles and monastic orders cottoned on to the fact that rice cultivation could help ward off the brutal famines that swept the continent every time a wheat harvest failed, and so started small-scale production. In France, the Camargue region—the delta of the Rhône—became a centre of rice cultivation, and remains so today.

Malaria and child labour
One of the first written references to Italian rice dates from 1475, when the Duke of Milan sent a sackful as a gift to the ruler of Ferrara—the accompanying letter made clear that rice was already an established crop in the Duchy of Milan. A boom in northern Italian rice production followed, although this was slowed in the late 16th century by laws designed to counter the spread of malaria and the use of child labour.

In Italy, rice has been on a journey over the centuries, from exotic Roman medicine, to innovative Renaissance famine-prevention device, to unloved staple of the poor, to centrepiece of several classic northern Italian dishes: Milanese risotto, the ‘risi e bisi’ of Venice. Over the centuries, producers in Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto have developed a rice culture of typically Italian complexity and sophistication, which has become a source of great regional pride.

In the cold and frosty British Isles, where such cultivation has never been an option, rice has instead remained an imported commodity. When it first arrived on these shores in the Middle Ages, it followed many of the same Asian trade routes as spices and was similarly costly and exotic. The oldest known English reference to rice is found in the accounts of the court of Henry III, which state that between Christmas 1233 and the following Easter, the Countess of Leicester’s household munched their way through 110 pounds of this valuable import.

Medieval English rice dishes were sweet, savoury or often both at once, enriched with liberal quantities of almond milk. The Forme of Cury, a royal cookbook dating from around 1390, contains this pithy little recipe: “Take rice and wash them clean and do them in earthen pot with good broth and let them seethe well. Afterward take almond milk and do thereto and colour it with saffron and salt, and mess forth.”

Luxurious dishes
Around three decades later, the compiler of the Liber Cure Cocorum, writing in verse in a northern English dialect, listed numerous luxurious dishes containing either rice or rice flour. These numbered among them ‘blanc manger’: at first glance a conventional sweet pudding of rice, almond milk, sugar and fried almonds, but with the distinctly medieval addition of some chicken.

British consumption of rice grew over the centuries as trade (and relentless empire-building) increased the availability of this once-extravagant grain and reduced its price accordingly. But it still retained an air of exoticism, evident from the lack of distinctly British recipes developed to incorporate it. Hannah Glasse, in her Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), used rice in recipes with such cosmopolitan names as “To dress mutton the Turkish way”, “To make a currey the Indian way” and “To make a pellow the Indian way”.

The closest we have to native rice dishes are probably rice pudding and kedgeree, the latter inspired by an Indian breakfast dish but Anglicised to the point that its Asian roots are all but lost: the kedgeree recipe in Mary Harrison’s The Skilful Cook (1884) contains rice, smoked fish, hard-boiled eggs and—other than the grain itself—not the slightest hint of anything remotely foreign.

The gradual incorporation of rice into the British diet was in part fuelled by the growth of a rice-growing culture in the American colonies, particularly Carolina, which opened up a whole new route for importation. But this development had darkness at its heart.

Wild grass
The overwhelming majority of rice cultivars eaten around the world today (of which there are hundreds) come from the Oryza sativa species. But around 2,000-3,000 years ago a second species, Oryza glaberrima, was domesticated in west Africa, entirely independently, from a different strain of wild grass.

The parts of west Africa where rice cultivation thrived were among those most horribly brutalised by the Atlantic slave trade in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and it was during this period that production of rice took hold throughout the Americas. The Portuguese took African slaves to Brazil, the Spanish took them to Latin America, the British took them to North America, and the agricultural knowhow and forced labour of these slaves turned the New World into an engine of rice cultivation.

The most famous American rice, known as Carolina Golde, was a cultivar of Oryza glaberrima, meaning it came from an African source. One famous origin story tells of sea captain John Thurber’s ship being repaired in Charleston 1685 and a sack of Madagascan rice left behind in part-payment, kicking off a rice cultivation boom. Far more likely—and far less edifying—is that African rice arrived in Carolina on slave ships, used to keep slaves (barely) alive in transit.

Slaves with rice-growing skills attracted a premium as Carolina rice became a valuable commodity. In 1691, an act was passed that permitted the people of Carolina to pay their English taxes in rice. In 1700, 330 tonnes of Carolina rice were shipped to England. By 1770, annual exports had hit 42,000 tonnes. The human cost of this trade was considerable.

The American Civil War
After the American Civil War, as the southern slave economy collapsed, Carolina rice quickly disappeared, replaced by more conventional Oryza sativa varieties grown in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.

Rice consumption in the UK continues on a steady upward trajectory. In much of the rest of the world it remains as fundamental to daily life as it has for thousands of years—still feeding billions, still bulking up a bewildering diversity of dishes, still keeping the Great Wall of China standing strong.