The History of Rice: Culture & Recipes

Grains of rice appear small, but they have a big historical & cultural importance. Did you know rice has been cultivated for roughly 14,000 years? There are three main types of wild grass from which all rice is derived from. It was first domesticated in China and moved through Eastern Asia. Asian farmers still produce 92% of the world’s rice! By Alexx J. for The Adventures of Pili


La Chillangua Verde Esmeralda RestaurantPhoto © Kike Calvo 

 These tiny grains made it across the world and into many cultures’ signature dishes. From Asia, it traveled to Africa, then the Middle East, then to Europe. The European colonists took it with them and introduced it to the Caribbean, Latin America, Australia, and “The New World,” now known as the United States. Its history & importance is different from place to place, but what do they all have in common? It’s still eaten in all of those places today…and then some! 

There are now more than 100,000 different types of rice around the world. How many different kinds can you name? The International Rice Research Institute, located in the Philippines, houses 136,000 varieties of rice. The 3 main categories are: short grain, medium grain, long grain; but each type of rice has varying shapes, colors, textures, aromas, cooking properties, and flavors. It’s naturally gluten-free and can even be used to make dairy-free milk.

Hopefully, you’ve learned something new about a food you’ve probably eaten many times in many ways. Now let’s explore some important dishes from historical places!

The Alms GivingPhoto © Kike Calvo

Asia: It’s common for Japanese & Chinese people to eat steamed short-grain, white rice with meals. A sticky version is used for Japanese sushi, whereas leftover rice is fried with oil, salt & egg in China (not like the Americanized version). Sticky white rice can also be found in Thailand, cooked in coconut milk & served with fresh, sweet mango. And in India, long-grain jasmine or basmati rice is often served with spices like turmeric, cardamom, cumin, and veggies, like garlic and peas.

Canva - Landscape Photo of Rice Terraces
Photo by Tom Fisk

 Africa: In Western Africa, Jollof has been around for centuries & is made many ways depending on the country/region. The essential ingredients include long-grain rice cooked with tomatoes, onions, peppers, tomato paste, curry powder, cayenne, habanero, garlic, ginger, and chicken stock/bouillon. It’s bright red in color & lacks nothing in flavor!

 Europe: In Italy, rice differs based on the area and dish. But a popular type is Arborio, which is used for risotto & arancini. Risotto is a creamy rice dish often served with vegetables or fresh seafood. Arancini are crispy, fried rice balls made from leftover risotto! Speaking of seafood, how could we talk about European rice recipes and not mention Paella?! This Spanish dish uses saffron rice as a delicious base for shrimp, mussels, clams, chicken & chorizo; perfect for parties and family meals.\

Middle East: Crispy Persian rice, known as Tahdig – translates to “bottom of the pot”, is popular in Iran. Basmati rice is cooked with saffron, then yogurt is added and the pan is buttered before the rice gets pressed down, covered & cooked for up to 40 mins. The result is crispy, golden-brown outer edges & soft, fluffy rice inside.

Canva - Farmer Posing with Rice Seedlings
Photo by sasint–3639875

Caribbean: Arroz con Gandules is how you’ll find rice in Puerto Rico. Cooked with a sofrito of onion, peppers & garlic, spices & pigeon peas (gandules) and garnished with green olives and/or roasted pork; their national dish & historic staple you can’t miss out on. A similar recipe of rice & peas can be found in Jamaica, except they use brown rice and coconut milk instead of medium grain rice and chicken stock.

Did you know sofrito is used as a base in recipes from Latin America, Spain, Portugal & Italy? 

Traditional Colombian Mojarra FritaPhoto © Kike Calvo

Latin America: Mexican rice is similar to Spanish rice, in that it’s simply cooked with tomatoes and onion. But instead of saffron, in Mexico they use cumin. Also, Spanish rice is served with lemon & parsley, whereas Mexican rice is served with lime & cilantro. Rice is a huge staple in all Latin American cuisines, but a very simple and popular way it’s eaten is Ecuadorian style; steamed, white rice with fresh cilantro. Arroz con Camarones (rice w. shrimp) can be found in most of Central & South America, served with beans or some kind of plantains.

United States: The US is considered a melting pot of cultures so there’s no one way to cook rice. From Creole Jambalaya to creamy chicken & wild rice soup, the types are too vast to list. Each state has developed its own recipe, and 85% of the rice consumed in the US is also grown there.

Have you heard of these? Maybe you’ve eaten some? Which would you like to try? 

Bandipur in NepalPhoto © Kike Calvo

Since rice has such a rich history, the list of recipes goes on and on. If you enjoyed reading about these, spend some time looking up recipes from other countries together & learning the history behind them! 

Recommended Cookbooks about Rice:

Recommended Books for Families:

Recommended Cooking Books for Kids:

Nepali Farmers
Photo © Kike Calvo

By: Alexx J. for The Adventures of Pili. This is the latest post in the Pili´s Explorers Cookbook conceived by  Kike Calvo and the team of The Adventures of Pili, which profiles interesting information, research, and thoughts on nutrition and food around the world for families and kids. Click here to read the previous article.

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