“Rice Is Nice,
that's what they say,
Rice Is Nice,
throw some my way,
Rice Is Nice on any day,
Twice as nice when violins play.”
Rice is Nice by The Lemon Pipers
The lyrics to this popular 1960s song refers to having rice thrown at you at your wedding. This is an ancient custom, symbolizing good wishes of fertility and for a bountiful new life together.
Now when served a portion of rice, one rarely thinks about the importance rice has played in the history of civilization. It is one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world. As with any transition for humankind from hunter-gatherers to farmers, it was the beginning of a civilization.
Here in the Americas the same occurred with the cultivation of maize (corn). Both grains were taken on a global journey and became an integral food in most countries of the world. Corn and rice with wheat are today the worlds most widely grown grains.
Rice has its origins in China; from there it was taken to all Asian countries and India. Alexander the Great supposedly brought rice to Greece where it was named oryza. I think any food that traveled from Asia to Europe that we have no clear records of, for example, pasta, got shoved into Alex’s luggage. Whichever way, rice moved on to North Africa and with the Moors from there to Spain. The Arabic word for rice, al-ruz, became the Spanish arroz.
When rice was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish explorers through the port of Veracruz, the climate in this coastal area proved to be ideal for growing rice. To this day, the state of Veracruz is the largest producer of rice in Mexico.
As with many other foods introduced to the New World, rice soon was flavored with the native tomatoes, chiles and corn. Combined with Old World onions, garlic, peas and carrots, sprinkled with the Chinese import of cilantro, rice became a culinary favorite and one of Mexico’s signature rice dishes.
Arroz a la Mexicana
Rice also became a menu staple as sopa seca (dry soups), the equivalent of the Italian pasta course, sopa aguada (wet soups) and and accompaniment to the main course. For dessert, rice was served as arroz con leche (rice pudding).
Fast forward to the present with the alarming rise in incidents of obesity and diabetes in Mexico. The government has begun a nationwide campaign to promote increasing the consumption of rice, including the addition of fresh vegetables and fruits. Despite the assumption that the Mexican diet consists of rice, beans and corn, its rice consumption is very low compared to other countries. Asian countries consume about 400 pounds of rice per capita, the USA about 24 pounds and Mexico only 17 pounds.
Rice has lost its appeal in restaurants and the upper middle class desires the more trendy pasta. No offense against pasta, but it can’t hold a nutritional candle to rice. Rice, is with no doubt, a super food.
If you are in a rice rut (it is not a disease) then look to all the fabulous ways rice can be prepared from recipes the world over. Grilled Japanese rice balls, risotto, rice omelets, rice cake, horchata (rice drink) and then some.
Come join me at this Saturday’s Fiesta Arroz, Pan y Vino at 1:30 PM where I will help you to get out of your rice rut by showing new, exciting and easy ways to prepare nice rice.
Published as an article in La Atención, San Miguel de Allende, July 1. 2011