Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Historical rice

From a review of a new book "Rice - A Global History":
The role of rice in supporting population growth in ancient China is explored in some depth. The arrival of short-growth-season rice varieties into Song Dynasty China, for instance, marked the beginnings of a green revolution. Unfortunately, Marton overlooks the regional complexities of the process — the gradual domestication of perennial wetland grasses in the Yangtze valley, and their subsequent adaptation to temperate China and to drier ecologies in the mountains of Southeast Asia2. The story of the wild rices of India is also passed by. The hybridization of these varieties with Chinese rices, potentially around 4,000 years ago, led to an explosive expansion of agriculture and population growth in India. It was the lowland irrigated forms from India that went on to fuel urban expansion in places like Thailand over the past 2,000 years2. While these stories are missed, other aspects of rice's cross cultural journey are highlighted. Each of these translocations led to new recipes, culinary fusion and diversification, as nicely illustrated by 16 recipes selected from historical cook books the world over. As Marton states “Rice is frequently the white canvas on which culinary cultures are painted.”

Marton pays particular attention to the establishment of rice in the Americas, starting in the sixteenth century. Here, traditions of cultivating rice can be traced back to west Africa. Whether initially smuggled by enslaved Africans or intentionally brought over by European settlers, the African rice crop made the tropical lands of the Caribbean and the waterlogged soils of the Lower Mississippi productive enough to support dense populations that then turned their attention to the cultivation of non-subsistence crops like sugar and cotton in less waterlogged soils. The demand for sugar and cotton drove demand for more slaves, and more mouths to feed meant more rice had to be planted. Later, rice became an export commodity in its own right. Marton explains how the growing demand for rice in European urban centres like London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came to be met increasingly by American colonies; Africans with inherited cultures of growing rice were in high demand at the time to ensure high profits for their masters. Today, the rice-based dish gumbo, that came out of Louisiana in the eighteenth century, serves as a clear example of the history of rice in the region; the dish takes its name from the linguistic root for the vegetable okra in the African Bantu languages, and is a melting pot of African, French, Spanish and Italian culinary influences.
 Rice certainly has played an important role in lots of places, then;  more broadly than I had realised.

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