All life is grass, or something like that. In this case, the grass takes the shape of rice, an incredibly adaptable and variable type of grass. Although there are only two main species that are cultivated, Oryza sativa and Oryza glaberrima, each of these has many different strains. In fact, it is so variable in appearance and habit that it is almost impossible to give a general description. Nobody really knows how many different strains of rice there are. Estimates range from 140 000 to 200 000, and they come in all kinds of sizes, colours and forms.
Most of us visualize rice as a wetland plant that grows in shallow pools of water known as paddies, and this is indeed the most common form. However, there are also types that grow on dry land, and others that can handle almost total submergence in water. Rice is ideally adapted to tropical and subtropical conditions marked by heavy seasonal rainfall, but it will grow as far as 45 degrees north and today is cultivated on every continent except Antarctica.
Rice has been around for a very, very long time. In fact, its origins seem to stretch into mythological times, a time when continents known as Pangaea and Gondwanaland still existed. At least that is what archaeologists conclude from the fact that very old varieties are found in different parts of the world, which did not have contact with each other, and nor were those varieties particularly cultivated by the natives, e.g. of Australia. Exactly where the original cradle of rice is to be found is still a moot point among paleoethnobotanists. Some claim it for China, others for India and some even for Africa. Indeed there is a variety of Rice that is only found in certain places in West Africa and nowhere else. But does that mean all types came from here? Most probably not. Most paleoethnobotanist assume 'somewhere' in Southeast Asia as the cradle of rice cultivation. It is known to have spread to Japan from China sometime during the 2nd century BC. By this time it was already known in Europe. Arab trading caravans were the first to bring the grain of life back with them. A little later, Alexander the Great also brought some back to Greece. It was introduced to the Carolinas in 1647.
What is known is that human beings have gathered and eaten rice for a very long time, and that its use is most widespread throughout Asia. Indeed, it would be fair to say that in many parts of Asia 'Life' is synonymous with 'Rice' - it is a way of life, so intricately entwined are its cultivation, its seasons and harvest rituals with the daily rhythms of life and the greater cycles of life of the people. Thus is several Asian tongues the word for rice also means life, food, agriculture and the scientific name 'Oryza' is derived from an ancient Greek word, which in turn is said to be derived either from an Arab or a Chinese word meaning 'the good grain of life' (Heiser, 1973).
95% of all the rice produced on the planet is consumed within the country where it is produced, and 90% of all the rice produced is grown in Asia. Some 2.9 billion people depend on it for their sustenance as a main staple. Many Asians eat it at every meal, 3 times a day - though many more only eat it once a day, one bowl of rice, and nothing else. The average person in Asia consumes about 200 - 400 pounds of it every year, while the average American consumes only about 7 pounds a year.
Although it is not so easy to find and determine very ancient plant remains in tropical climates, archaeologists have dated the earliest use of rice to at least 10 000 BC, and its earliest cultivation to around 7000 BC - 4000 BC, with great regional variations.
Today, rice is produced on every continent except Antarctica - in no less than 112 countries around the world. There are numerous different strains, each adapted to the preferences of the local people, as well as specific environmental conditions. There is long grain rice and short grain rice, and fragrant rice and sticky rice and although once processed most rice is uniformly white, in its raw, unprocessed state, it can come in many different colours.
Wild rice, however, is not 'rice' at all. It is a completely different species - Zizania aquatica. Traditionally it has been harvested from the wild by hand by Native Americans of the Great Lakes region, though these days it is also grown in Minnesota and northern California.
Traditional methods of rice cultivation are very labour intensive. Culture and agriculture are very closely linked in that cultivation practices have given rise to tool inventions as well as animal domestication to help with the ploughing and harvesting of the grain. This is as true for wheat as it is for rice. In Asia the water buffalo is the chosen beast of labour, while in Europe it was mostly the horse.
Old strains of rice had a long maturation cycle and were able to reproduce vegetatively, but over time newer strains have lost this ability and depend entirely on humans for their reproduction.Although methods vary depending on the type of rice and location, the most common procedure follows these steps: To start with the field or paddy must be plowed, usually with the aid of a waterbuffalo or an ox. The animals also supply some manure as they labour. The field is then smoothed out with the aid of a log. The containing edges and dams are repaired and the fields are flooded. The seed is then cast into the inundated paddies. Sometimes seed is sprouted in special seedling beds and then transplanted by hand to the paddy after about 30 - 50 days. This method is particularly backbreaking, but reduces weeds, thus increasing yields.
Elaborate irrigation methods have been devised in order to keep the paddies amply watered throughout the growing cycle. Rice is very thirsty; it takes about 5000 litres of water to produce a single kilogram.
Its preference for wet conditions has meant that rice could be cultivated in areas that would be unsuitable for human habitation, such as flood plains which are seasonally inundated, or hillsides, where terraced paddies could be irrigated to make maximum use of the available water. Just before the harvest the fields are drained. Rice cultivation has significantly shaped the landscape of Southeast Asia.
Paddy cultivation keeps erosion to a minimum and fish can be raised at the same time as the rice, which perfectly supplements the diet. Cultivation is in tune with the seasonal monsoon cycles, though over time varieties of rice have evolved that grow during the dry season, which maximizes the yields.
Upland rice makes up only about 10% of the total rice harvest, but where it is grown it constitutes a very important part of the diet. Special varieties that can tolerate almost total submergence are grown in Pakistan, Vietnam and Burma, where water levels can rise rapidly and drastically, up to 5 meters. These special types of rice have adapted to the local conditions and grow rapidly to keep ahead of the rising water levels.
Harvesting rice by traditional methods is just as labour intensive as the planting. Traditional methods require careful cutting of the seedheads with knives or sickles - the first rice is always harvested ritually, and in Japan until recently, the king himself would join the ritual harvest at thr royal paddy. Once cut the rice is threshed either by beating against a log or by letting children, animals or women tread barefoot on the seed heads. This is followed by winnowing - also women's work. The grains are thrown it into the air, letting the wind separate the grain from the chaff. Once cleaned, the rice has to be washed and milled, which removes the fibrous bran as well as the oily germ. Traditionally this is achieved by rubbing the grains on a sieve. The bran is collected and rendered into rice oil. What is left is the familiar white grain.
Modern agricultural methods have simplified the process tremendously. The USA produces a considerable amount of rice, mostly in California, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, yet only about 7% of it is consumed domestically. The rest is destined for export. Here rice is cultivated by industrial methods - the seed is sown by casting, albeit from airplanes. Every stage of the process has been mechanized, and people are not as intimately involved in the growing process. It is largely regarded as a cash crop, produced for export to satiate a high demand.
Although wheat provides more protein per gram, the protein of rice is more easily processed by the body, it is more 'bioavailable'. Rice is not a 'complete' food, but it is a very good source of both protein and carbohydrates. However, in the milling process much of the nutritional value is lost. In the US much rice is thus artificially enriched after milling. In particular, a diet that is too dependent on milled white rice is unlikely to supply sufficient levels of vitamin B1 and can result in a disease known as 'Beri-Beri'. It renders bones too soft and reduces the muscle tone.
Different types of processing yield very widely varying nutritional profiles. Brown rice retains most vitamins and minerals, but is often considered less desirable because of its texture. Parboiled rice is better than regular white rice as the parboiling process drives some of the vitamins and minerals from the outer layers to the inner core.
Rice is very nutritious and an excellent food for convalescence and even for infants and babies, as unlike wheat, it has no allergens.
In Asia rice is intricately linked to the spiritual beliefs and practices of the people - as a sustainer of life it is regarded as a gift of the gods. Throughout the region rice is considered as the main catalyst for cultural and social development. Rice is considered a feminine plant, soft, sensitive and shy, like a young girl. It dislikes being 'manhandled' which is why most of the labour of rice cultivation, except ploughing is women's work.
Rice is associated with fertility, abundance, prosperity and good fortune. It is celebrated in numerous rites and rituals throughout Asia, most particularly at harvest times, when huge vats of rice are cooked and ritualistic decorations are painted with paste made from rice flour. The time of harvest is the time of plenty, when the gifts of the earth are shared and offerings are made to the gods so they may bless the harvest and the new season. It often coincides with New Year celebrations - though local traditions vary greatly depending on locality - a time of cleansing when the old is thrown out or burnt and the new is brought in.
Originally the connection between rice and prosperity was taken very literal. Rice meant food, the most fundamental basis of existence. Plentiful food can feed plentiful mouths and thus more land can be cultivated and more rice can be grown - the image of success. Today rice is still associated with success but often in a transferred sense. Thus business people throughout Asia make rice offerings to ensure their success, in the hope that the seeds they sow will produce ample monetary return and thus ensure the success of their business and provide for their family and staff.
Wherever a reliable source of nutrition has been cultivated successfully population explosions have been the result. One can look at this as 'success', but ultimately success is only what can be sustained. Rising populations require more and more food, which in turn will eat up more land for cultivation and to accommodate the increased numbers of people.
Sooner or later we reach a limit, yet we fail to control growth at a sustainable level. Instead we manipulate the land (fertilizers, pesticides etc) or the crops themselves (gene manipulation, plant breeding) to yield more food. But we lose the natural balance of life. We may be able to produce more rice, but uncontrolled population growth, beyond a level that is sustainable results in poverty and misery. There may be enough rice to fill the daily bowl, but not much more. Furthermore, any variance in production can have disastrous effects when populations rely too heavily on a single crop. With climate change threatening to upset the seasonal monsoon cycle on which rice cultivation is based, the consequences may turn out to be absolutely devastating.
The medicinal benefits of rice are primarily due to its easy digestibility and balanced nutritional profile. It is considered an excellent food for the sick and during convalescence. Rice water /milk is excellent as a source of electrolytes and micronutrients in cases of severe diarrhea and dysentery. It is also recommended as an excellent demulcent, refrigerant drink in febrile and inflammatory diseases and in dysuria. In Chhattisgarh, India a special type of rice is grown called 'Laicha' rice, which is named for a skin condition that it can be used to treat.
Rice not only does not contain any cholesterol, but brown rice may have a cholesterol lowering effect due to the oil make up of the bran. Rice-bran oil lowers cholesterol more effectively than sunflower, corn and safflower oils (Suzuki et al., 1962).
Rice is very versatile and although its main use is as food for humans, different parts or preparations find use in all sorts of different applications:
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