Of Rice and Men: The Story of a An Amazing Cereal

Features Issue 44 Aug, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai And Arpan Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media, Pradeep Shakya, Shankar Pradhananga

There was a time when, “Have you had rice?” was the standard greeting when two people met on the streets of Kathmandu. Some still ask that strange question any time of day as a form of greeting. That speaks of the importance of rice as a staple diet among valley residents. Indeed it is the ‘staff of life’ for two-thirds of humanity. There is said to be about 7000 varieties of rice grown around the world and its existence has been known since 5000 years before Christ. Pottery shards bearing the imprint of both grains and husks of rice were discovered at Non Nok Tha in the Korat area of Thailand dating from at least 4000 B.C. Moreover, ancient Hindu and Buddhist scriptures make frequent references to rice, and in both religions, the grain is used as a major offering to the gods. Today, slowly but steadily, this grain is gaining popularity the world over. It is known that in Southeast Asia as well as in several countries of Africa and Latin America, people get 60% to 80% of their calories from rice alone.

Rice is also popular as a versatile grain and is used in breakfast cereals, soups, salads, dinners, desserts, baby foods and many traditional foods. Compare the use of wheat or barley with that of rice in daily life, and we realize there is no comparison. Throughout China today, tradition holds that “the precious things in life are not pearls and jade, but the five grains,” of which rice is the first.

Rice is a graminaceous grain and is believed to have originated in India and China where the billion plus populations of today are predominantly rice-eaters. From these two countries, rice was introduced to Egypt and then to Greece. It then spread to Europe and America. Although Americans do not consume much rice, the US produces vast amounts of rice most of which (about 60%) is meant for export. China is the biggest producer of rice followed closely by India. On the other hand Thailand is one of the big world-wide exporters of rice.

There are mainly two groups of rice categorized botanically either as long grain (Oryza indica) and the short grain (Oryza japonica). Indica rice has a higher content of amylase starch, which keeps them more separate after cooking. Japonica, the shorter and rounder grains are higher in amylopectin. Commercially well known rice are: the Carolina rice, Indo-Chinese rice, Java rice, Japanese rice, Patna rice, Roman rice and the Piedmont rice. The original long-grain rice is said to have come from Patna, hence the name. Cultivated rice belongs to two species, Oryza sativa and Oryza glaberrima.  O. sativa is the  Asian rice and by far the more widely utilized. O. glaberrima is a complex group composed of two forms endemic to Africa.

Some of the common varieties of rice found in Nepal are Basmati “Prince of Rice”, Mansuli, Pokhreli, Usina, Taichini, etc. Taichini has a special place in the history of rice in Nepal. It is said that when King Mahendra visited China in the ’60s, he discovered that this type of rice had a high yield of grain besides being a hardy plant. He then had seeds brought to Nepal to benefit the farmers here. It was one of his many acts of benevolence. Worldwide, rice also exists in a fascinating variety, which includes black, red (in color) and some with even patterns on them like the Japanese rice. In Nepal, wild rice is consumed by the Tharus in the tarai. Wild rice dishes can also be found in the restaurants around Kathmandu and they have an interesting reddish color too. Rice farming dominates the agricultural sector of Nepal, which itself dominates the economy. It is, therefore, the single most important industry in the country, and occupies approximately 55% of cultivated land. But farmers today are switching over to fruit farming besides growing profitable spices.

Milled white rice contains almost 90% starch, some vitamins and is low in protein when compared with other cereals. It is comparatively high in calorie value. It has 8% protein and has a good complement of essential amino acids. The fiber content is lower than that of other cereals except barley. A 50 g of rice (uncooked weight) swells to 150g providing 170 calories with almost no fat. It also has B group vitamins and contains zinc and iron. It is no surprise that in a diet conscious world, rice is gaining popularity worldwide. This phenomenon is having a noticeable impact on European rice production. And as rice spreads in popularity, new recipes surface every now and then.

Rice finds many uses in Nepal. The Newar community makes chatamari (Newari pizza), yomari and khatiya besides the enormous amounts of chiura that is consumed during festivals. Common to all Nepali people is the sel roti that can be seen at roadside eateries and especially prepared during the Tihar festival. Kheer is a sweet delicacy that serves as dessert. Among alcoholic beverages, we are all familiar with the strong ayela and rakshi that is brewed locally and popular both as a home brew as well as a commercial commodity. Outside Nepal, the famous Japanese sake is also an alcoholic beverage made from rice and is readily available in Kathmandu.  The amazing uses of the rice plant does not stop there as even the straw finds use as animal fodder besides being used as roof thatch, fuel and mulch or to make mats and rope. Rice bran is also used as livestock and poultry feed. A glue known as Rice glue is made by boiling ground rice. In the world of footwear and headgear, rice straw is fashioned into sandals or hats to keep out the sun or rain.

Living in Nepal, we are all familiar with the use of rice in Indian cuisine having savored delicious pulaus, biryanis, dosas, idlis and uthapams in the neighborhood fast food joints. Going further east, we find rice cakes in Thailand besides the sweet rice they cook stuffed inside bamboo, nasi goring in Malaysia and Indonesia, sushi in Japan and Korea. Rice as we all know is eaten in most countries in Asia (including Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc). In the Middle East they make pilafs and stuffed peppers, in Italy they have risottos and the Spanish enjoy paellas while one savors creamed rice puddings in Portugal and Scandinavia. Creole cuisine in America, especially in New Orleans, on the other hand offers jambalaya and gumbos. Gumbos are not really rice dishes but are always served with rice. In the West Indies, they eat rice ‘n’ peas. Besides these, we hear of exotic stuff like Wild rice with Julienne vegetables, Fried rice balls which look enticing and fancy desserts like Rice Conde` Sundae. If we look up cook books, we come across exotic names like Rice a la grecque, Risotto a la piemontaise and Riz a l`impereratrice.

We cannot ignore the importance of rice in our religious ceremonies either. So important is this cereal that we have a ‘rice eating ceremony’ as a rite of passage ritual (the day a child starts eating solid food). During Dashain, one of the most important festivals of Nepal, rice tika plays a central role when elders give blessings putting the tika on one’s forehead. Rice is also often thrown during religious ceremonies besides weddings. In fact, the custom of throwing rice at newly wed couples, which has become an international practice, originated in India and China. Rice plays an integral part in the lives of Nepali people. Much of the Nepali tarai is covered in rice fields while the mountainous regions have been turned into terraced hillsides. And Nepali people cannot imagine a life without dal-bhat. Have you had rice today?