There are more than 40,000 varieties of cultivated rice (the grass species Oryza sativa) said to exist. But the exact figure is uncertain. Over 90,000 samples of cultivated rice and wild species are stored at the International Rice Gene Bank and these are used by researchers all over the world.
The rice varieties can be divided into 2 basic groups, Long grain; and short grains. They come in various colors or polished looks.
To pin-point exactly when mankind first realized that the rice plant was a food source and began its cultivation is impossible. Many historians believe that rice was grown as far back as 5000 years BC.
Archaeologists excavating in India discovered rice which, they were convinced, could be dated to 4530BC. However, the first recorded mention originates from China in 2800 BC. The Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, realised the importance of rice to his people and to honour the grain he established annual rice ceremonies to be held at sowing time, with the emperor scattering the first seeds.
Most likely, similar ceremonies took place throughout china with local dignitaries deputising for the emperor. Nowadays, the Chinese celebrate rice by specifically dedicating one of the days in the New Year festivities to it.
Although we cannot identify China, India or Thailand as being the home of the rice plant (indeed it may have been native to all), we can be more certain of how rice was introduced to Europe and the Americas. For that we have to thank the traveller, whether explorer, soldier, merchant or pilgrim, who took with them the seeds of the crops that grew in their home or foreign lands.
Not all seeds could be transplanted successfully, however. Great Britain has never been able to cultivate rice due to its adverse climatic conditions. The rice plant requires immense quantities of rainfall in its early days, followed by a long and uninterrupted season of hot dry weather. For this reason, farmers must find ways to either flood the fields or drain the water from them at crucial periods.
In the West, parts of America and certain regions of Europe, such as Italy and Spain, are able to provide the correct climate thereby giving rise to a thriving rice industry. Some historians believe that rice travelled to America in 1694 in a British ship bound for Madagascar.
Blown off course into the safe harbour of Charleston, South Carolina, friendly colonists helped the crew repair their ships. To show his gratitude, the ships captain, James Thurber, presented Henry Woodward with a quantity of rice seed.
Some years later, the British unfortunately blotted their copybook in relation to the rice industry they had probably initiated. During the American Revolution, they occupied the Charleston area and sent home the entire quantity of harvested rice, failing to leave any seed for the following year’s crop!!
The American rice industry survived this set-back and cultivation continued, thanks to President Thomas Jefferson, who broke an Italian law by smuggling rice seed out of Italy during a diplomatic mission in the late 18th Century. The rice industry then transplanted itself from the Carolinas to the southern states surrounding the Mississippi basin.
Rice is fundamentally important to various cultures that it is often directly associated with prosperity and much folklore and legend surrounds the grain. In many cultures and societies, rice is integrated directly into religious belief. In Japan rice enjoys the patronage of its own god, Inari, and in Indonesia its own goddess, the Dewie Srie.
Rice is also linked to fertility and for this reason the custom of throwing rice at newly wedded couples exists. In India, rice is always the first food offered by a new bride to her husband, to ensure fertility in the marriage, and children are given rice as their first solid food. And, according to Louisiana folklore, the test of a true Cajun is whether he can calculate the precise quantity of gravy needed to accompany a crop of rice growing in a field. How easy to see that from its early beginnings to the present day, rice continues to play an integral role in sustaining both the world’s appetites and cultural traditions.