Takeaway

Rice and shine, always

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on July 31, 2021

Grains of truth: For many cultures, rice is food for the soul as well as the body   -  ISTOCK.COM

The ingredient that has hung out with the mighty stegosaurus, peered at lunar craters, and played a starring role in the story of mankind is also the most unassuming presence on the food platter

* While talking about rice, where should one begin? With fragrant pulaos adorned with raisins and dotted with kebabs? With redolent paellas that sing of the sea?

* India, China and Thailand all maintain that rice originated on their soil in prehistoric times

* Studies hypothesise that women have better status in the rice-producing areas of India because they contribute significantly to the cultivation process

***

It is the unsung hero of more than half the world’s kitchens. An ingredient responsible for one out of every five calories consumed in the world. A quick-change artist that pops up on every possible continent in every possible guise.

Clearly, rice deserves a food column of its very own. And, just as clearly, it poses a daunting challenge to those who are attempting to write the column.

Think about it. While talking about rice, where should one begin? With fragrant pulaos adorned with raisins and dotted with kebabs? With redolent paellas that sing of the sea? With fried rice scattered with bright vegetables and frills of egg? With magnificent tahchins, layered with mutton, barberries and yoghurt? With hearty rice puddings that are as comforting as a hug? Slurpy khichdis that have more curative powers than a strip of Augmentin? Magnificently spiced bowls of bisi bele baath? Rolls of seaweed-wrapped sushi? Plump, round crackers and crunchy breakfast cereals?

Or, perhaps, just with a bowl of warm, fluffy rice that arrives at the table without fuss and fanfare, but is so essential to the meal?

Then there are other questions. Should one talk about the long-grained basmati with its nutty flavour or jasmine rice with its floral aroma? The chewy texture of arborio rice or the earthiness of black rice, known as forbidden rice in ancient China because only the very rich could afford to eat it? Or any of the lesser-known 40,000 varieties of rice that are cultivated around the world?

For that matter, where did the story of this ubiquitous grain and its many varieties begin?

India, China and Thailand all maintain that rice originated on their soil in prehistoric times, and that they were the first to cultivate the crop. Innumerable studies have been conducted on the subject and have thrown up as many theories. About 10 years ago, Indian archaeologists analysed the remains of dinosaur dung in Chandrapur in Maharashtra and arrived at the conclusion that the animals had snacked on rice a full 35 million years ago. They took this as proof that rice had originated in India.

Meanwhile, Chinese scientists and archaeologists are engaged in their own version of rice-chauvinism. An archaeological dig in the Hunan province of China yielded six grains of rice that seemed to indicate that rice was already being cultivated in this area in 10,000 BC. By 2800 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nang had established a rice-sowing ceremony during which he scattered the first grains — a sign that rice was already a critical crop in the empire.

All these are, however, stray pieces in an enormous and unknowable jigsaw puzzle. “The plant is of such antiquity that the exact time and place of its first development will perhaps never be known,” states the International Rice Research Institute [IRRI] Rice Almanac. “It is certain, however, that domestication of rice ranks as one of the most important developments of history.”

Studies indicate that rice cultivation spread around the world through migration, trade and the slave-trade. Over the millennia, it made its way to every continent — except Antarctica — where it featured, not just in porridges and noodles, biryanis and breads, but in stories, songs and religion.

In in many parts of Asia, rice is closely associated with powerful mother goddesses and prosperity. In parts of India, rituals connected with the goddess Lakshmi are linked with rice cultivation, harvesting and storage. In Japan, Amatereshu-Omi-Kami, the sun goddess and most powerful Shinto deity, is credited with inventing the cultivation of rice and wheat. In Thailand, the goddess Mae Phosop is considered the spirit and soul of rice. While in Indonesia the lissom Dewi Shri is the goddess of rice and fertility.

In fact, recent studies hypothesise that women have better status in the rice-producing areas of India because they contribute significantly to the cultivation process, and because of the connection between the grain and the goddess. “It has been observed that the girl child has a better chance to survive in rice-farming areas compared to areas where wheat cultivation dominates,” writes Bidyut Mohanty of the Institute of Social Sciences in New Delhi, who has conducted research in the area. “Evidence also suggests that both the infant mortality ratio and the gender ratio (males per hundred females) are lower, thus less adverse to women, in the rice-producing regions as compared to wheat producing.”

For many cultures, rice is food for the soul as well as the body. The Japanese believe that soaking rice before cooking it releases life energy and gives the eater a peaceful soul. In China, acquaintances often greet each other with the question, “Have you had your rice today?” While the Vietnamese hold that “A grain of rice is equal to a nugget of gold”.

And, of course, there is that ultimate rice fun fact: Portions of the Great Wall of China built during the Ming Dynasty in the 15th and 16th century used a sludge of rice and calcium carbonate to hold the massive stones together.

Meanwhile, rice is a part of the exclusive club that includes Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos. Forty grams of rice undertook a space voyage on China's Chang’e-5 in November. The grain was exposed to cosmic radiation and zero gravity, before returning to earth and being planted at a space breeding research centre in Guangdong.

So next time you sit down to a meal of daal, rice and pickle, spare a thought for the most unassuming ingredient in your plate. After all, it’s probably hung out with the mighty stegosaurus, peered at lunar craters, and played a starring role in the story of mankind. Not to forget, a starring role in sushi, biryani, vangi baath and thayir sadam.

Shabnam Minwalla   -  Businessline

 

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

Published on July 31, 2021

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