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A History Of The World, Through A Grain Of Rice

Updated: May 1, 2021

The One where Mariam and Irisa talk about rice.

Have you ever been enjoying a plate of steaming Biryani or a bowl of Nasi Goreng, and been looking at the graceful grain of rice on your plate and asked yourself: how did this get here? Where did it come from? What is its story?

Well, we certainly have.

Rice is the backbone of countless cuisines, and the tried and tested way to our hearts. This captivating carbohydrate has been traversing its way through human history, making a cameo in civilisations across the millennia. This giving grain has participated in some of the earliest migration routes, dabbled in cultural exchange and is now facing its biggest foe; the gluten-free movement.

During these unprecedented times, we thought what could be more inspiring than taking a stroll down the memory lane of human history and to dedicate some time to ruminate on this humble grain.

And then there was ...


The first grain of rice can be traced back to the Yangtze River Basin in China. This actually predates the invention of the wheel, which really goes to show that you really do need a snack before you can get to work. By the 3rd millennium BC, it had become the grain of choice in India, Sri Lanka, the Malay Archipelago and the Indonesian Islands. With the migration of this graceful grain, an exchange of knowledge and technology allowed its cultivation to flourish.

This can be considered the first taste of globalisation, where different communities began to share cuisines and cultural practices, across vast distances. When migrants arrived in Japan, after passing through the Korean peninsula, they came with a unique way of fermenting fish, this process evolved to become the basis for Sushi. By this time, rice had consolidated itself as a staple food in East Asia. In Vietnam, when a fast-ripening strand of rice made its way back to China in 1000 CE, the communities along the Yangtze River population grew from 60 million to 115 million within two centuries. This cultural exchange allowed for a merging of languages, where many of our root words for dishes are actually the same across most of the world. For example, the word rice comes from the Greek oryza, which itself is derived from the Indo - Iranian term brizi and the Sanskrit term vrihi-s.

From the middle ages to the European age of exploration, this gallivanting grain really got around. The Islamic expansion spread rice throughout the Middle east, then to West Africa and North Africa. Later the Moors would introduce it to the Iberian Peninsula, after which it spread to Italy and France. Soon after, the Spanish and Portugese Colonialists would take it to Latin America. The West Africans that endured the Transatlanic Slave trade, played a significant role in establishing rice as a crop in the New World. The West African cuisine, composed of various rice and bean dishes became a part of the culture of the colonies that they were in and even today these dishes are still a staple food among their descendants. Further, during the Gold Rush in California, the newly arrived Chinese immigrants started growing rice for themselves and now it's the second largest crop in America.

The humble little grain had slowly and steadily conquered our stomachs, and with it the world.


In the preparation of food, and the passing down of recipes, we build customs and traditions. However with colonisation, so much of the ‘discovering’ and the ‘expeditions’ allow for the appropriation of other communities' produce, without paying respect to the people who nurtured, harvested and prepared the food. An interesting example of this is the rijsttafel, which is a Dutch dish, composed of a rice platter with a variety of side dishes. It is served in the Netherlands by over a thousand restaurants and it is now considered to be a “non-partisan national dish”. However, in reality this dish is a colonial fantasy, where it is a cultural hybrid and entirely constructed.

The dish was commonly eaten among Dutch East Indies officials, who saw it as 'authentic Indonesian food.' While it was sold as “native food”, it was actually a mixing pot of many different dishes that came from all over the Indonesian Archipelago, with the exact origins of each dish rarely specified. The dish that is most similar to it is the Tumpeng, a Javanese ceremonial dish served at their Selamatan ritual. It is a cone shaped rice tower surrounded by a variety of side dishes. The Dutch colonialists took something that was extraordinary and lavish, and reduced it to a dish that could be consumed in an everyday setting. The other, particularly unsavoury part of this was that for the 'authentic' experience. the dish would need to be served by a long line of Indonesian waiters.


So far we have talked about all the ways rice has been a part of cultural exchange throughout the world, yet in Australia the story was very different. Native Australian rice (O. meridionalis) was a key part of the pre-colonial Australian diet, and society. Yet as Bruce Pascoe explores in his widely renowned text, Dark Emu, it was convenient for European settlers to disregard any evidence of an Aboriginal agricultural economy. Even now we are taught to assume that First Nation communities were nomadic, hunter gatherers. However, Aboriginals had one of the most sophisticated ways of propagating grains, where the farms were so perfectly tilled and well looked after that early settlers' reports describe it as a mirage in the desert. Had those irrigation processes and tilling practices been nurtured, Australia would now be producing the highest quality strain of rice in the world.

Native Australian rice is gluten - free and more nutrient - dense then the rice we import. Anthropologists have now concluded that First Nation peoples had a diet that was more nutritional than any other civilisation in the world. Furthermore, climate activists are now pushing for this native rice to become our new normal, because it requires less fertiliser, it allows for less water run - off, and overall, it would reduce our national CO2 emissions. In the last ten years, with the rise in eating low GI and gluten free food, some of the largest corporations are investing in commercialising this native Australian grain, with very little success because they are failing to cooperate with local Aboriginal communities. This history is important because it can be really easy to value one story over another, one practice of developing over another. Right now, Australia has some of the highest rates of obesity in the world, and it’s quite ironic to know that for over sixty thousand years First Nation communities were living off a diet that now anthropologists describe as the 'cleanest diet.'

Here we are at the end of the grain, we have travelled through all of human history and now, you must be hungry. So go and make yourself a delicious meal, and maybe it’ll taste even richer with the knowledge of the centuries of cultural exchange, struggle and triumphs that allowed it to arrive at your dinner table.


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