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Revisiting Rice

Read the story of rice, how it travelled in various shapes, sizes, forms, colours and flavours on the dining tables around the world

Poorna Banerjee, Kalimpong, June 14, 2022

One of the astounding buildings in the old Porvoo is the pink town hall. Located in the he

“At the end of the day, I think we need to eat a little bit of daal bhaat. It completes us,” laughs Chef Sonam Dukpa, CDP at Sterling Park, Kalimpong (a hill station in Eastern India), as we sip our rapidly-cooling tea in the evening twilight. After what can only be called a sumptuous meal, comprising of perfectly steamed hot, short-grained local rice, wild fiddlehead fern (ningro) tossed with local yak cheese, chhurpi, a soup made with fermented gundruk made of radish leaves, a sauced of tree tomatoes, fresh Sichuan Peppercorns, salt and garlic, and a bounty of fresh squash leaves, chopped fine and stir-fried with some garlic and salt. The meal isn’t complete without the traditional kalo dal, green mung beans cooked with local spices and herbs. Rice is the most common thing to eat for lunch and dinner here at Kalimpong, and the locals seem to have no problem eating it for breakfast.

As the evening starts to darken, I am reminded of the long and interesting history rice had had in India and the strange places I’ve found its comfort. I guess it's in my East-Asian DNA, which is used to eating rice through generations. It is perhaps the reason why one of the first descriptions of a Bengali diet features it prominently along with river fish, leafy greens, milk, and ghee.

Although China and India keep on competing about who domesticated rice first, it is undeniable that rice grew on the banks of the Yangtze River as well as the Ganges as old as 5000 BC ago, and it was definitely present during the times of Kautilya. In Artha Shastra, Kautilya speaks about the ‘Sali’ Rice as well as the ‘Vrihi’ Rice. Both words, taken from Sanskrit, creates today, two words that may be well-known to many. ‘Vrihi’, probably an Apabhramsa (mispronounced word or misnomer), is not much used during the times of Rigveda, though in Atharva Veda, you would find it mentioned, forms the base word ‘Rih’ or ‘Vrih’, that found its way all the way to Rome and formed the base word ‘Riz’ or ‘Ris’ that expanded and became rice. Not just rice, ‘Vrihi’ seems to be the word that the Iranian word ‘Birinj’ seems to have originated from, another term that mentions rice. ‘Sali’ or ‘Sal’, on the other hand, surprisingly, found its way to the Korean Peninsula, where “Ssal” means rice. This term is familiar and closely connected to the east Indian state of Bengal, where the same base word creates ‘Chal’, indicating uncooked rice for the average Bengalis of India as well as Bangladesh, ‘Chawal’ for the Hindi speaking belt and ‘Chamal’ in Nepalese.

Rice has been recorded as one of the most dominating crops to be grown, given the proclivity of people to create celebrations around it. From celebrations around sowing, it to protecting it, harvesting it, and eating it, rice has been intrinsic to the diet of the world for thousands of years. It has one of the highest amounts of water consumption around it, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it is getting incredibly difficult to sustain it globally. However, rice is also possibly one of the most versatile crops to be made, and rituals around rice have always been a cause of celebration, be it Indian festivals like Bihu, Jur Sital, Moon Festival, or Preăh Réach Pĭthi Chrát Preăh Neăngkoăl. As a huge form of currency, rice also was one of the first items to be bartered against other goods. So huge was the demand for rice that ancient merchants would travel with beasts of burden that would be lugging hundreds of kilos of rice from one part of the world to the other, accompanied by armoured forces to protect said rice.

However, rice wasn’t a very popular ingredient in a considerable part of the diet of India before the 11th Century, when rice finally started infiltrating the Southern part of India, a land that was much more used to eating different kinds of millets and other ancient grain. In the 12th century, King Somesvara III of the Kalyani Chalukyas wrote a fantastic treatise, Mānasollāsa, which can be considered to be one of the earliest cooking guides from India. Apart from a number of interesting recipes, it features a fantastic recipe of ‘Payasam’ made with rice, a relatively new ingredient in Chalukya’s culinary repertoire. The king, enthusiastic about food and leisure, added a set of instructions to this recipe, which, to date, is quite similar to what we consider the ‘Payasam’ or ‘Payesh; to be – a rice porridge made with milk and sugar.

Somesvara’s interest in rice and its subsequent addition to the diet of the Southern part of India brought with it a whole new world of food. Closely followed by this treatise is the Pakadarpana, a 12th Century text that mentions and describes ‘Mamsanna’ a combination of meat and rice into a single recipe, with variations including sparrow meat rice, as well as chicken rice. Subsequently, in Akbarnama, you would find a rough ingredient list and recipes for rice-based food, including, but not limited to ‘Biryani’ and ‘Pulao’.

The primarily vegetarian Aurangzeb enjoyed the ‘Alamgir Khichri’, a recipe where rice was paired with fish and boiled eggs, which later perhaps translated to the kedgeree that forms a part of the British breakfast repertoire. The Nimatnama, a book aimed to discuss the delights enjoyed by the Sultans of Mandu has plenty of recipes featuring rice, and enhancements were made by adding things to rice while it was boiled, or right after it was taken off. For example, there are myriad ways of cooking rice, like, “take two parts of water and one part of milk and put them into a cooking pot and set it to boil. When it comes to a boil, add the rice. When it is cooked, strain off the surplus water and remove the steamed rice” (The Ni‘matānma Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu, Translated by NM Titley). At this point in history, rice had gained enough repute and worldwide recognition to be taken to different parts of the world, and with immigration came implementation. Not all of it was great, though.

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To the western world, rice was always known as something that came from the East. The Moors were responsible for bringing it to Europe, possibly, and it spread across Italy and France around the 15th century, which then was spread to the New World (Americas) by the Spanish in Mexico around 1520, while South Carolina saw the cultivation of rice, formally, around 1694. With demands growing across the world, rice became a plantation-based product that sought Senegalese and other Western-African slaves who already had a fair idea about fields, crops, and planting, resulting in an increment in the slave trade from the African countries.

As a former form of currency as well as an incredibly important food crop, rice has always been a huge influence on our diets. Its ability to nurture not just the body but also the spirit, increase hydration and provide the necessary number of daily calories have always left rice with the dubious pleasure of being loved and hated, for its ability to satisfy and our inability to control ourselves around it.

But at the end of the day, the very simplicity of its composition reduces the chances of allergens significantly for rice, unlike wheat, and the grain’s inherent blandness as well as the versatility to be moulded into many is what makes rice the most brilliant staple that the world has seen till date in its ability to transform into virtually anything that one may find pleasing to the taste buds.

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