Rice – one of the most important food crops on earth
The oldest rice remains found to date, discovered in the north of Thailand, were harvested some 10,000 years ago. At the end of the 17th century, rice finally managed to cross the Atlantic and reach the new world. Japan is also worthy of mention, beginning to grow rice in 300BC. The Japanese nation today consumes only half as much rice as the Chinese.
Rice is one of the most important useful plants on earth and serves as the basis for life for half the world’s population. Thus it is hardly surprising that countless myths and rituals - particularly in Asia - pay tribute to this ‘divine’ plant, which is regarded as being a general symbol of immortality, soul food, power and fame, and not least stands for happiness and fertility: even in some European countries, it is still tradition today to throw rice over bridal couples after the wedding ceremony.
Rice – one of the oldest grains to be grown by man
Scientific findings have corroborated this fact again and again. The discovery of the "Spirit Cave" in mountainous country in northern Thailand, for example, was a sensation. This cave housed rice remains which were harvested some 10,000 years ago and filled into vessels as part of a ceremonious ritual.
From south east Asia, rice-growing traditions spread over India and Persia to the fertile plains alongside the Euphrates river, and from thence to Egypt. It was Alexander the Great who brought the plant to the Mediterranean countries. Surprisingly, the Romans - otherwise known as food-lovers - were not impressed by the grain. Not until the Moors introduced rice to Spain in the 9th century did it gain a foothold in Italy and France as well.
Rice belongs to the oryza grass genus, which - like wheat, oats, barley and millet - in turn belongs to the gramineae family, the family of cereal grasses. Of the many sub-species in the oryza genus, two can be cultivated with particular success: the oryza glaberrima, a high-grown plant restricted mainly to west Africa, and its Asian sister, enjoying considerably more success, known as Oryza sativa. Oryza sativa’s ideal suitability for refining has led farmers, scientists and researchers to experiment more and more, resulting in an enormous range of varieties. Step by step, the yield has been increased and the plant modified to fit varying environmental conditions.
More than 10,000 varieties of oryza sativa are known today, most of which are registered in the international rice research institute in the Philippines! Hence the Survival artist rice thrives, to name but a few examples, in both lowlands beneath sea level as well as on high ground up to 2000m above sea level. It thrives on normal soil, in rotation with other crops, in natural marshes or swamps - whereby the stalks can grow to a height of up to 6m, according to the depth of the water. Thus it is hardly surprising that the hardy and flexible oryza sativa family has managed to spread to all corners of the earth during its 10,000 year history! To simplify matters, it can be sub-divided into two main groups: the indica variety and the japonica variety.
The indica variety
This variety mainly thrives in tropical zones (south and south-east Asia, the southern states of America, Madagascar, the Caribbean islands) and possesses the advantageous characteristic of being resistant against drought and disease. Its grain is long and slender and therefore known as long-grain rice. It absorbs only a little liquid during cooking, and thus retains its consistency, doesn’t stick and is hence particularly suited for use as dry rice, e.g. in rice salads, fillings, far-east rice specialities etc.
Examples of typical Indica varieties:
- Parboiled Longgrain Rice
- Basmati Rice
- Jasmine Rice
- Siam Patna Rice
The japonica variety
This variety is at home in east Asia, in Arabian states, in the Mediterranean region, in south America, California and Australia. Japonica varieties yield short, oval to round grains. They absorb a lot of water during cooking, are slightly sticky and are therefore particularly suited to rice dishes such as soups, bakes, rice pudding, risotto, desserts etc. The sticky texture makes them easier to eat with chopsticks.
Examples of typical Japonica varieties:
- all Risotto Rice
The rice grain
At the upper end of the rice plant - which grows to a height of approx 50 cm to one metre - panicles sprout; these can grow from 30 to 50 cm long, and each panicle produces roughly 150 flowers (newer varieties may even produce up to 300 flowers). These are androgynous, i.e., self-pollinating.
Four to five weeks after flowering, the grain - well protected by a hard husk - ripens. The silver skin contains a large majority of the minerals, trace elements and vitamins; it also is responsible for the greeny-yellow or reddy-brown color of the rice grain. The seed embryo also contains important nutrients.
Wild rice - the black grain of the Red Indians
In the language of the Ojibwa Indians, 'Manomin’ means: “the delicacy given to us by the great Spirit.” Here they are referring to wild rice, now well known and popular in Europe too. At home in the great lake regions in the north-east of America and in bordering Canada, it belongs to the family of water grasses (Lat. Zizania Aquatica) and is more closely related to oats than to rice.
It grows only in cold, clear waters, and, once fully mature, can reach heights of up to three meters and more. To harvest the grain, the Indians bend the stalks into their canoes and knock the grains out of their panicles. Filled into sacks, the grains immediately begin to ferment, thus acquiring their dark-brown to black color. Once the required level of fermentation has been reached, the grain is roasted over a fire, making it hard and giving it a slightly smoky flavor. The grain is then separated from the husk, cleaned and sorted.
The rice-growing culture which began several thousand years ago has expanded in recent years to include the development of wild rice. However, modern improvements in technology and science have meant that the cultivation of wild rice has progressed considerably faster.