Rice is one of the world’s most versatile foods although it is produced and consumed in its greatest quantities in Asia. Thought to date back as far as 5000 BC, rice is also the oldest known food still widely consumed today. With short-, medium- and long-grain types, rice boasts more than 40,000 different varieties, some of the most famous of which are fragrant basmati and starchy arborio. Used in different cultures during wedding and birth celebrations, rice also has a spiritual side and is associated with different gods in many Eastern religions. Finally, rice has a multitude of uses; not only can it be prepared in double quick time and eaten in a variety of different ways, it is also used to produce alcoholic drinks such as sake, as a pillow stuffing to relieve muscle tension, to make jewellery, and even as a building material.
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Asia. Asia alone both produces and consumes 90% of the world’s rice.
Basmati. In Hindi, its name means ‘the queen of fragrances’, in Arabic, ‘my smile’, and it is the world’s most fragrant rice. Produced in its greatest quantities at the foot of the Himalayas, between India and Pakistan, purists advise eating it steamed.
Chopsticks. Videos aimed at teaching ‘western dummies’ how to use chopsticks, which are particularly difficult to handle when eating rice and vegetables, abound on the internet. In China, Japan and Korea, chopsticks are used in place of cutlery. In India, however, people use their hands.
Diet. Rice is the main ingredient of one of the most widely-known weight-loss diets. In its strictest version, only rice can be eaten at lunch and dinner, either plain or, at the most, flavoured with soy sauce.
Energy. An excellent source of energy, rice is rich in carbohydrates, which are needed for the brain to function properly, and for all kinds of physical activity. Of all the cereals, rice also contains the highest quality proteins, and in the greatest quantities. It contains little fat, and no cholesterol.
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Farming. There’s an enormous gulf between Western rice farming techniques – in which land is leveled by lasers and seeds are dropped for planting by airplanes – and the more traditional Asian methods, where farmers still use buffalos to plough the fields. Preparing one hectare of waterlogged land for cultivation requires walking a distance of 80 kilometres.
Gods. In India, rice is associated with prosperity and the Hindu god of wealth, Lakshmi. In Japan, it’s associated with the sun-god Amatereshu-Omi-Kami, and in Thailand, where men aren’t allowed to enter rice paddies, the deity Mae Posop, who is considered to be the ‘mother of rice’ deity.
History. Rice is the oldest known food that is still widely consumed today. Archaeologists can date its consumption back to 5000 BC, the time when the first traces of its cultivation in China, India and Thailand appear. From India, it arrived to the West thanks to merchants, but its cultivation has always been most widespread in Asia.
Italian 'le mondine'. In the Italian countryside, ‘mondine’, or female rice field workers, used to sing amongst themselves while they worked, teasing and calling to one another. The world’s most famous mondina is Silvana Mangano, the seductive Italian actress and star of Bitter Rice (‘Riso Amaro’).
Japanese rice. Rice is also the most common staple food eaten in Japan. Here, a variety of small grain types are eaten, which are also used as the basis of sushi, Japanese cuisine’s most famous export. Rice grains in this country are affectionately called ‘Little Buddhas’.
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Kanetsugu, the samurai. Each year in Yonezawa, Northern Japan, local farmers celebrate the harvest by planting rice and other vegetables in order to create a gigantic, unusual image. This year, the design depicts the face of Kanetsugu, a 16th Century samurai warrior.
Liquor. Besides rice wine, vinegar and beer, the distilled plant can produce excellent grappa, and also sake, a liquor that aids digestion when enjoyed chilled after a meal.
Ming. One of the secrets to Chinese architecture under the Chinese Ming dynasty (1300-1600) can be found hidden in limestone. Rice, which adds strength and stability, was used in the walls of the city of Nanjing.
Newlyweds and Newborns. In India, rice is the first meal that a wife serves to her husband after their marriage, but it is also the first food given to newborn babies, as it’s considered auspicious for future prosperity.
Oryza sativa. The Oryza Sativa family, from which all commercially-produced rice comes, can boast over 40,000 different cultivated species. Each rice seed can produce up to 3,000 grains, which is the highest level of production amongst cereals.
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Pillows. Originating in Switzerland, pillows made of natural textiles stuffed with rice are an excellent aid for relieving back and neck pain. First heated up in the microwave, they are then positioned over the painful area.
Quick. Rice is also good when eaten cold, and for this reason it can be considered as a kind of fast food. Many kinds of par-boiled rice, which have very short cooking times, are already commercially available.
Rainbow rice. In April in China, on Ancestor’s Day (or Tomb Sweeping Day), rice is used not only to honour one’s ancestors, but also to celebrate the arrival of Spring, and is traditionally dyed in a variety of colours using natural plant dyes.
Sophocles. Rice was even spoken of as far back as the ancient Greek tragedies. The tragedian Sophocles mentions it, telling us that the cereal arrived from Ethiopia, while the comedian Aristophanes, in one of his verses, sketches out the recipe for a rice roll.
Types and varieties. There are three types of rice grain: short, medium and long. Long-grain rice, which does not stick together easily, is considered to be among the most prized. Of the world’s 40,000 varieties of rice, however, the most famous in the West are the aromatic varieties such as Basmati, Thai Jasmine rice, the Italian Arborio rice used in risottos, and the sweet varieties, used at the heart of the tastiest (and most calorific) cakes and puddings.
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University. From former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, to Rice University, in America, rice is not just a food, but is also a name given to people and universities. The most famous university named as such is found in Houston, Texas, and is renowned for its science and engineering faculties.
Vishnu. In Bali, Indonesia, Hindus believe that it was Vishnu who first made rice grow out of the ground from nothing. The god of bad weather, Indra, then taught people how to grow the plant: this explains why rice only grows in waterlogged soil.
Wedding. When leaving the wedding ceremony, and after the blessing of the bride and groom, it is traditional in all cultures to throw grains of rice over the heads of the newlyweds in order to wish them prosperity and fertility in the future.
Xanthomonas. Simply called Xoo in biology, Xanthomas oryzae is a bacteria which attacks the leaves of the rice plant and its grains. This is not the only enemy of rice farmers and producers: many fungi are harmful to the plant, meaning that entire harvests sometimes have to be rejected.
Your name on a rice grain. Is it a grain of rice, or a jewel? Grains of rice are used by some jewellery designers to make personalised pieces of jewellery. The most classic example is one’s name written on a grain of rice, which is then kept in a small glass vial, and worn as a pendant.
Zizania. It’s called wild rice, but despite its name, Zizania is in fact a variety of grass, which has little in common with the many varieties of rice.