The cultivated grain

From Asian goddesses to boarding school puddings, rice has a remarkable history behind it

R is for… rice. In the mountains of Ifugao, deep in the Philippines, is the ‘eighth wonder of the world.’ It is not a shrine or a temple, nor a modern architectural marvel. It is mile upon mile of rice terraces, built by hand over two thousand years ago, one and a half thousand metres above sea level. If they were put end to end, these endless luscious green steps are said to be long enough to encircle half of the globe. They stretch on, towering into the distance, the verdant plants reflected in pools of clear water, often shrouded in mist. Today, they are still cultivated by the indigenous descendants of the original builders, who continue to use the traditional farming methods.

For the people who harvest these crops, rice is a central part of life. There are numerous rituals and celebrations associated with it, particularly after harvest time when there is often a ban on agricultural labour and a community-wide feast. Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos all have rice goddesses who protect the crops in return for ritual offerings. It is central, too, to wedding ceremonies in these regions – and worldwide. Think of the handfuls of dried rice you may have chucked as confetti in childhood.

Rice took a while to catch on in Britain

Rice took a while to catch on in Britain

Rice farming also solidifies community bonds on a sociological level. A study of Han Chinese communities in 2014 found that a history of farming rice makes cultures more psychologically interdependent. Conversely, a history of farming wheat makes cultures more independent.

It is thought that domesticated rice originated in the Pearl River Valley in China, around 12,000 years ago. The Koreans have a counter-claim, saying that archaeologists there have found grains that are at least three thousand years older. Academics are sceptical, accusing the Koreans of driving nationalism with the alleged findings. This argument shows how deeply embedded rice is in the cultures and history of Asia: to have the oldest grains is to have the most illustrious past.

It was not until the advent of the Classical World that rice reached Europe and the Middle East, possibly imported after Alexander the Great’s expedition to Asia. There have been stores of rice from the first century AD found in the remains of Roman camps in Germany. It came to Sicily in the ninth century, where it immediately became an important crop, and the Iberian Peninsula a century later. By the fifteenth century it was a staple food in Italy and France.

In England, rice has a less-than-eminent history as that most ghastly of boarding school dishes: rice pudding. Up until the 1960s, rice by itself was largely seen as the preserve of incense-burning hippy types. But between 1961 and 2002, rice consumption per capita increased by 40 per cent.

We now eat it in multiple forms: fragrant pilaf, creamy risotto, salty sushi, eggy stir-fried. A little plain rice cooked in chicken stock is the perfect cure for a cold. One can purchase vast bags of basic basmati, to last the family a month, or tiny quantities of expensive Camargue for a special meal. The resurgence of interest in grains (see also: gruel) has brought rice back into the centre of the table: one in five Americans eats rice every day. Yet less than eight per cent of the rice produced in the world – overwhelmingly by Asia – is traded internationally. When it’s that good, you’d want to hang on to it.


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