The amazing history of rice

Harvested rice, Longsheng Guangxi Province, China.

The common rice (Oryza sativa), is not only one of the oldest, but also the most extensively cultivated of all grain cereals.

It is the staple food for about half the world’s population.

It is the central food for the Far East, where, fish, fowl, meat, vegetables and condiments are considered only garnishes for the main dish of rice.

According to Chinese tradition, the legendary emperor Shun-Nung (2800-3700 BC), taught the Chinese people the art of cultivating rice.

Rice was so highly regarded by the Chinese that their equivalent to our daily greeting, How do you do?, is Have you eaten your rice today?

Rice was a symbol of fertility and as such was originally used in China to pelt newlywed couples in order to bring them good luck and assure them of many children.

The historical Chinese alcoholic drink made from rice was called samshu.

In Japan, rice was the most sacred thing on earth, and to waste it was an unforgivable sin.

The Japanese have a special deity Inari, the rice-bearer, whose shrines dot the Japanese rural landscape to this day.

The Japanese rice liquor was named sake (bamboo smell), which is a familiar drink in all Oriental restaurants around the world.

According to Chinese legend, a flock of sparrows once picked some grains of rice to store for the winter in a piece of bamboo, but the autumn rains came and the tube was flooded. The rice fermented and rice wine was the result. Hence, the Chinese ideograph for samshu consists of illustrations of bird and water.

Rice was a staple in the East long before it was cultivated in European countries. Its name in western tongues—riso in Italian, reis in German, riz in French, arroz in Spanish and rice in English—is derived from the Greek oriza, of Oriental origin.

The first rice introduced to North American was in 1693, when a trading vessel from Madagascar accidently put into the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. The captain sold a bag of rice to a Charleston merchant and its contents became the ancestor of all the rice in the Carolinas.

Wild rice, as we know it, is really not rice at all, but the grains of a tall, aquatic North American grass (Zizania aquatica), which was formerly gathered by American Indians as food.

While the original form of rice has undergone countless changes over thousands of years, it is still a staple in many parts of the world and an important nutrient in diets across the globe.

Source: Folklore and Odysseys of Food and Medicinal Plants (Ernst and Johanna Lehner)

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