History of Rice
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Before the rise of man, there were two naturally occurring forbearers of Rice with a very similar genome. One, Oryza barthii was native to Africa. The other wild grass “Nivara” was native to Asia. Scientists postulate that their similarities and parallel evolutionary paths may have resulted from their having a common ancestor on the supercontinent Pangaea before it fractured and drifted apart long before humans were on earth. If the theory is true the Rice genus Oryza dates back to the Cretaceous Period or about 130 million years ago.

Very ancient humans search for sustenance, lead to humans eating the seeds of these grasses and eventually cultivating them as Asian Rice (Oryza Sativa) and African Rice (Orza glaberrima).

Oryza barthii was primarily adapted to water holes in the savannah and forest zones of Africa. It also grew along the Niger River Delta and on the Guinean coast. Man foraged it in antiquity and made dining decisions, which were essentially seed selection decisions, as part of the process.

Ultimately, a new strain African Rice (Oryza glaberrima), with heavier grains, became distinct from its predecessor. Sometime between 3,500 B.C. and 1,500 B.C. man domesticated (grew) African Rice. Cultivation of African Rice never spread very far afield in pre-history or even still today where African Rice is primarily confined to West Africa.

In Asia, Rice consumption pre-dates written history so the beginnings of Rice consumption are lost to time and must be re-created from physical evidence. It is thought that a local wild grass “Nivara” is the ancestor of Asian Rice, which the historians believe that the ancients of the Yangtze River Valley were consuming as early as 12,000 B.C. That is a guess since the carbon-dated evidence found to date only points to 10,000 B.C. Sometime soon after (archeologically speaking), Indica Rice and Japonica Rice were being farmed in central China.

There is no existing, documented record of any Rice Artifacts (bowls, pots, etc.) until roughly 7,000 B.C. meaning that humans learned to work with Rice between 12,000 B.C. and 7,000 B.C.

Around 3,500 B.C. widespread Rice farming spread south into Southeast Asia and west into Northern India and Nepal. It went northwards as well, expanding into the Korean peninsula before 1030 B.C. and into Japan in the late Jomon Period (around 1,000 B.C.)

Around 2,000 B.C. to 1400 B.C. Rice cultivation spread to Southern India and then into the Fertile Crescent. The silt-rich, fertile area was a perfect habitat for the grain which needs a lot of water. Sustenance from Rice allowed India to grow and become one of the major civilizations of the world with an estimated 25% of the world’s then population. Each Ancient Indian ate roughly 100 pounds of Rice a year. Today Indian scholars claim that the Western words for Rice, (RisRizArroz, Rice, Oruza, and Arrazz) all stem from the Dravidian Indian word “Arisi.”

Ancient Persia, which bordered ancient India probably, imported rice farming around 1000 B.C. to 500 B.C. The Persian scholar Abu Ali Sina documents a Rice Pilaf in his 10th Century works on medical science (including the preparation of some meals). Ancient Persian Pilāv was a very popular dish, seasoned with anything from bits of Lamb or Venison, to PistachiosHerbs, whole Spices (such as Saffron) or dried fruits like RaisinsDates or FigsPilāv was also a favorite Stuffing. To this day, stuffing a whole lamb or Eggplant with Rice Pilaf is still a Persian specialty.

Around 500 B.C. there was a great leap forward in Rice distribution as the spread of Rice followed the Persian path of conflict and conquest. Rice was a good troop ration. It is easy to store and carry since the grain is dry. It is easy to cook because Rice doesn’t require grinding or baking. Best of all if the army settles in for an occupation, even for a few months, the men can plant and harvest a Rice crop in only a few months because Rice grows faster than Wheat and yields a better harvest from the same weight of seeds.

The Turks / Medeans conquered by the Persians of Cyrus the Great learned of Rice and cultivated it. The Egyptians, conquered too, also acquired knowledge of Rice from the encounter. The Greeks learned of Rice in a similar fashion before pushing back under Alexander and conquering the Persians. Alexander is said to have sent more Rice samples back to Macedonia and Greece from his campaigns. Recipes for fragrant Rice Pilaffi were recorded in the earliest Greek cook book Gastrology, by the poet Archestratus in 350 BC.

The Roman Empire came to know of Rice but considered it a medicine for upset stomachs and never adapted it widely. Wheat was a staple for Rome and they preferred their Bread. Roman demand as a market for Wheat, also turned Egypt, who’s Nile River Valley was a perfect Rice growing region, into a Wheat growing country. Egypt exported roughly 5 million bushels (20 million Modii) a year to Rome and their economy responded to the demand. 

Strangely, the Bible makes no mention of Rice which should have been known to the people it describes at least by the time of the stories in the New Testament. The likely reason is Rome’s preference for Wheat. The Jewish Talmud from around the 6th Century A.D. does make mention of Rice.

The next great expansion of Rice occurred around the 7th Century A.D., with the Muslim Caliphate driven onwards and outwards by the teachings of Mohammed. Though Rice was never the staple grain of the culture, they ate more Wheat and Sorghum, the Muslims expanded to the east and west with religious zeal and took Rice along with them as part of their agriculture and cuisine. They planted rice wherever it would grow and countries subject to the Caliphate quickly assimilated Rice as their own.

The rapid growth of the Caliphate (in wealth and territory), increased the demand for good food enormously. The Muslims knew the value of Rice in making swampy areas, flooded valleys and places that could be reliably irrigated productive agricultural areas. Rice expansion was encouraged by natural selection. Arab farmers would acclimatize the Rice plants for a few seasons in a particular spot before moving them on to a little cooler or a little drier area and then selecting the Rice seeds that did best in those new conditions. In his book, “Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World” Professor Andrew Watson points out that “rice was about the only crop that could be grown in hot Mediterranean countries in the summer, if there was enough water for irrigation.” Having more food allowed a bigger population and a bigger population allowed for a larger army. Rice was part of the total solution but still at the fringes. In fact, in the year of 945, Caliph Mustakfi gave a splendid feast at which the main topic of conversation was food. The guests discussed “rare dishes” which included LemonsAubergines, Rice and Sugar. Around the same time, a geographer of the 10th century, Ibn Hawqal says that a wealthy emir of Mosul introduced two new crops, cotton and rice, which doubled his income.

Because of its yields, harvesting season, short growing cycle and use of previously barren land Rice production had much to recommend it. By 1,000 A.D. Rice cultivation had expanded throughout the Arab lands and well into some of the neighboring domains. During the Caliphate, Rice was grown at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, in Turkey itself along the shores of the Caspian Sea and even up the valley of the Volga River into Russia.

Rice was taken to southern Morocco  and probably across the Sahara Desert to West Africa around 500 A.D. to 1,000 A.D, where it was soon competing with the local African Rice (O. glaberrima). Both species are still grown in Africa today buy the cultivation of African Rice declined because on average it has lower yields, poorer milling quality and is more easily shattered than Asian Rice. Muslims grew rice in Sicily, even exporting it as early as the late 9th century.

Spain, of course was an Arab Rice growing region,  not only around Valencia and Murcia, which have remained a rice-growing areas ever since, but also on the Island of Majorca which has since ceased rice cultivation. On the heels of the Caliphate’s annexation of southern Spain, Persian Jewish commercial emigrants settled near the Camargue region of southwestern Provençe, bordered by tributaries of the Rhône River, where they saw land ripe for Rice cultivation. They planted Rice, traded it, and consumed it (with fragrant spices like NutmegCuminSaffronGarlic, etc.). With the rise in cultivation across the empire came an increased demand for flavorful recipes and the Arabs began a rich tradition of cook books in which Rice dishes played a major part.

Outside of the Arab empire, the dispersion of Rice stalled, hemmed in by a preference for Wheat and the cooler climates that did not favor temperate Rice. To the east, Byzantium, the remnants of the Roman Empire, did not widely adopt Rice. They, like Rome, preferred Wheat. They thought of Rice, Soft Boiled, as good only for stomach ailments.

Likewise, because of the French affinity for bread, Provençe was the northern terminus of Rice cultivation in Western Europe. At the turn of the Millennium, in most of Western Europe Rice was considered an expensive and exotic imported spice. The Crusaders must have encountered Rice but did not adopt it. In fact, when the Normans conquered Sicily from the Arabs, Rice farming dwindled and virtually died out.

Since Rice was known, it is likely preference, price, prejudice, climate, and Rice farming ignorance that stalled Rice’s expansion to the north. Preference for Wheat gets most of the scholarly support as a cause for why Rice’s expansion stalled to the north but other factors should not be ruled out.

The cooler climate is one good reason Rice did not thrive to the north. Rice is an equatorial crop that thrives in humid heat. Northern Europe is a cooler region, notably lacking in year-round humid heat. Early attempts to transplant Rice north during the Dark Ages, likely did not produce bumper crops leaving expensive imports as the only consumption option.

Another reason for avoiding Rice cultivation was ignorance and prejudice. In Europe in the Late Middle Ages, the superstitious masses blamed Rice and the standing water in rice paddies for causing malaria and many localities discouraged Rice planting as disease prevention.

Not surprisingly, expensive Rice shipped in from a thousand miles away in antique wagons on Middle Ages roads was not a big draw which relegated Rice to the status of an “exotic.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for the word “Rice” is from the household accounts of King Henry III in 1234 which states that “between Xmas 1233 and the following Easter the Countess of Leicester’s household went through 110 pounds (50 K) of Rice, costing 1.5 pence a pound” which is a high price (explaining the detailed accounting) and the fact that rice was locked in the spice cupboard not kept in a warehouse. Around the same time, the accounts of the Duke of Savoy show that rice “for sweets” cost 13 imperials / pound, versus honey which was only 8 imperials. In Milan, rice was heavily taxed as a “spice” imported through Greece from Asia.

The havoc caused by the Black Death, which ravaged Italy from 1348 to 1352 and then returned at regular intervals as bubonic plague, changed the paradigm. With the agricultural peasant workforce reduced by as much as a third, the amount of low yielding Wheat and Barley that could be planted was barely producing enough to sustain the population. Farmers turned to Rice, which was a higher yielding crop that required far fewer man-hours per harvested bushel of grain. Another advantage of Rice was that the Wheat and Rice did not like the same ground and that the Rice harvest came after the Wheat harvest so a single reduced workforce could manage both crops. Finally, Rice yielded a more reliable harvest. 

In 1475, the Duke d’Este of Ferrara received a letter from Gian Galeazzo Sforza informing the Duke that one sack of rice could produce 12 sacks of food and encouraging him to experiment. Experimentation began. According to Italian historian Aldo de Maddalena, in the 15th Century a merchant who was traveling to Turkey and beyond, was ordered to bring back un-husked Rice by the Milanese governor of Lombardy. The seed was sown in 3 places. Not all did well. One reason was that the fields were irrigated by “Fontanili” or little cold springs. Most of the imported Rice grains suffered from the cold water flooding. A few did well.

“Our Rice” (“Nostrale” in Italian) was the name given to those seed types that thrived and which were then declared a state secret. Large swaths of Lombardy and Piedmont were turned into Rice paddies for the Nostrale. Despite its secret status, the news spread. By the 1600’s Rice was no longer a magical, luxury spice. In the 1700’s it was being exported to England in such quantities that Rice was considered an ordinary food stuff. Hannah Glasse’s 1747 book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy included 20 Rice dishes of which most are Puddings.

Increased demand spurred production and cheap imported rice from colonial markets democratized demand in a virtuous cycle until wide swaths of the British public, of all social and economic classes were consuming the former luxurious and magical spice: Rice. In fact, food writers in the 1800’s became almost patronizing about rice. But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves. To be patronized, Rice has to become common. It took colonial rice imports to make Rice widely affordable. We have to get Rice out to the colonies.

When the initial European colonization and expansion began in 1492 with Columbus, Rice was taken to the New World and to the farther reaches of Asia. Over time Europeans did much of the further work of spreading Rice around the world they were colonizing.

The Portugese were also explorers and colonizers. They introduced African Rice to Brazil in the 1500’s.

Rice thrived in the Spanish occupied Philippines and became an export crop that was consumed in Spanish Mexico (first imported to Veracruz in 1522) under the name Java Rice. In Spanish South America, the coastal lowlands of Columbia were deemed perfect for growing Rice.

Even the English, who were a Wheat Staple Culture because of their climate and preferences, realized the value of Rice in feeding local labor populations in some of their North American (southern) and Caribbean holdings. Jamaica and Barbados with their African slave populations to farm the grains found Rice a successful crop.

Rice was named a “Desired” crop for several of the early British colonies and was tried in Virginia in 1609. The first go did not work well because the fields were not flooded. Experiments in North Carolina in 1620 with Upland Rice also failed to yield good harvests, but ultimately experimentation, persistence and listening to their African slaves won out. By 1647, Sir William Berkeley was said to have sown half a bushel of rice seed in Virginia and harvested 15 bushels.

The success of Carolina Gold Rice was not pre-ordained and reportedly began as a fluke with early plantings (around 1685-1694) of African Madagascar Rice salvaged from a shipwreck of a schooner coming home from Africa. However it began, by 1690, Rice cultivation was well established in the Carolinas where the beautiful Long Grain Rice flourished, was recognized as some of the best in the world and produced significant wealth for the planters. The African strain’s hardiness, along with a work force used to its needs, allowed Rice to finally flourish in North America. Processing was manual, aided by wooden paddles, back in the day until the Rice Mill was invented in 1787 which improved costs.

In the 1850’s Rice cultivation spread to Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Over time it also reached Arkansas then Texas which are both currently major Rice growing areas. In fact, today Arkansas produces the largest Rice crop in the U.S.

The Civil War and the loss of slave labor doomed the rice plantations and ultimately the Carolina Long Grain Rice was lost. Coastal Rice production declined and finally ceased around 1900. In 2011 though, Anson Mills, a South Carolina company specializing in Heirloom Grains began milling Charleston Gold Rice, a new Rice type based on the Carolina Long Grain Rice. The created their strain by crossing Carolina Gold Rice with a longer grained Basmati-like plant. The link goes to their site. Reportedly, the new strain is intensely nutty.

During the California Gold Rush Chinese laborers were brought to the U.S. They brought personal troves of Sinica Rice with them. California began growing it commercially in 1912 in Richvale, CA. (some sources put the date at 1909). The Sinica Rice grew well because that variety tolerates cold water at the seedling stage. Today 6 California counties (mostly along the Sacramento River) grow the second largest rice crop in the U.S.

The singular holdouts to adopting Rice were the bulk of the northern French, who preferred their fabulous breads, and did not really take to Rice until the 19th Century after the French Revolution but eventually, they too, got there.