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Adlen Robinson: Rice has a long, fascinating history
Adlen Robinson

Food history has always fascinated me. I love reading about when various foods were first introduced in history, where they originated and how they spread across the world. 

As you might imagine, food historians debate the origins of food all of the time. When it comes to rice, the debate has gone on for many years as to where exactly rice first made its debut.

Archaeologists have discovered traces of fossilized Asian rice in the Yangtze Valley in China dating back as far as 12000-11000 BCE. They also discovered tools made from animal bones they believe were used to cultivate rice dating back to 5000-4000 BCE.

In India, archaeologists say rice may have been cultivated in the Ganges River Valley dating back to 6500 BCE. Suffice it to say, rice was around a long time in both China and India.

Perhaps surprisingly, rice cultivation was slow to spread across the world. Some historians say this might have been the case due to the labor-intensive requirements rice has when it comes to its cultivation. 

So just how did rice spread outside of these beginnings? Historians think soldiers of Alexander the Great’s (356 BCE-323 BCE) army likely took rice to Greece after his time in India (356-323 BCE). After that, it spread to Europe and then to North Africa.

The traditional Italian dish risotto, one of my favorites, uses rice made from Arborio rice. The dish dates back to 1475 in Italy. Rice reached the Caribbean by the late 15th century and was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish in the 1520s. Rice continued to spread around the world, reaching South Carolina around 1685.

Today, more than 441 million tons of milled rice are produced every year. Did you know there are more than 40,000 varieties of rice? That is amazing since most of us are only familiar with a few varieties.

There are three main types of rice: short grain, medium grain and long grain. Short grain rice is a tiny bit longer than it is wide. Think sushi rice, weather it is white or brown. 

Medium grain rice is short and about two to three times longer than it is wide. Medium grain rice is moist and slightly chewy — think Arborio and Valencia. 

Long grain rice is slim and lengthy — four times longer than it is wide. The most popular are Basmati and Jasmine rice. I love that most grocery stores stock all of these varieties. I remember when you had to seek out specialty stores for certain rice varieties.

Did you know that 90% of all the rice that is cultivated is consumed in Asia? 

In some countries, rice is eaten with every meal. I find it so interesting that in cultures where rice is a central (or main) part of their diet, the poorest of the poor and the wealthiest of the wealthiest all consume lots of rice. 

In these cultures, rice is also used in a multitude of sweet dishes, not something you see so much in Western cultures. Of course we use rice in a few sweet dishes, such as rice pudding, but it is not used that often in dessert.

Rice is certainly a major player in our world food system. Check out my food column Friday. I will highlight some of my favorite recipes using rice.


Adlen Robinson is author of “Home Matters: The Guide to Organizing Your Life and Home.” Email her at adlen@adlenshomematters.com.