The Japanese Table Back Issues
Rice Cultures of the Worldby Naomichi Ishige
From its Asian and African origins, rice has become the staple food for a majority of the world's population, undergoing numerous incarnations in the diets of both East and West as it crossed cultural boundaries. This grain undoubtedly satisfies an international palate.
Most varieties of rice belong to the species Oryza sativa, although there is one other species called Oryza glaberrima, thought to have originated in the Niger River Valley in Africa. There are various theories regarding the origins of the Oryza sativa species, but most specialists agree that it can be traced to the region starting in China's Yangtze River Valley and extending southward through the mountains of Southeast Asia as far as India's Assam. From that region, rice spread both to the east and to the west, and from there the roles of rice in the diet as well as preparation methods sharply diverge.
Rice in the Western Diet
In East and Southeast Asia, rice for ordinary daily consumption is usually cooked plain, without any seasoning. However, the variety of rice that spread widely into the western Eurasian continent, including Western Asia and Europe, was mainly the indica variety, and it is generally cooked with some flavoring. In India, which lies somewhat in between these two extremes, there are regions where rice is cooked plain and regions where it is cooked with seasoning and known as pulao or biryani. Pulao is a term originating in the Sanskrit word pulâka, meaning "a bowl of rice," and usually refers to rice boiled with seasonings or salt. Most pulao and biryani dishes are made with not just rice, but meat, vegetables and beans. In many cases, the rice is sautéed in oil or butter with seasonings or spices before boiling. In Persian, the same term is used, pulao, while in Turkish it becomes pilau; transmitted to Europe, it became pilaff. This method of preparation was introduced to the Iberian peninsula by the Arabs, where it became paella, the saffron rice for which Spain is famous. The Spaniards brought this method with them to the Caribbean, where it further evolved in the context of Creole cuisine, as in the jambalaya of New Orleans.
Meanwhile, rice cultivation had begun in the Po River Valley of Italy in the fourteenth century, where rice is boiled with meat and vegetables in a bouillon soup. This dish is known as rizzoto.
These various rice dishes transmitted in the West are ones that do not necessarily accompany every meal, for the main carbohydrate foods eaten to fulfill appetites in this part of the world are bread, nan, chapatis and the like. Rice is not the staple food, but one among the many other dishes that are part of the diet. The Western diet was shaped by its pastoral traditions in which domesticated animals were a part of every farm, so from long ago rice dishes were often prepared using milk, cheese and other dairy products.
Staple Food of the East
In East and Southeast Asia, by contrast, rice is quite literally the staple food - the main ingredient and centerpiece of every meal. The keeping of livestock was not historically part of the lifestyles of this part of the world, so there were fewer opportunities to eat meat, milk animals or manufacture dairy products. Fish were an important source of animal protein, but among ordinary people even fish was a luxury, and only the wealthy were able to eat it daily. Most people subsisted on rice and vegetables.
Rice is rich in protein, with a good balance of the essential amino acids needed by the human body. Consumed in adequate quantities, rice provides energy for physical activity as well as protein to build and maintain the body. So in the rice-growing regions of Asia, diets evolved that relied heavily on rice for nutrition - traditional meals for ordinary people consisted of rice and vegetable dishes flavored heavily with salt, the appetite stimulant that makes it possible to consume large amounts of this essential grain.
Rice in these cultures is cooked plain, without any seasoning, which makes it easier to eat quantities without tiring of the taste. Since the staple food is neutral in flavor, the accompanying appetizers and side dishes at each meal provide the particular pleasures and variety of eating. All the areas of Asia where rice is the primary food share this dietary pattern, consisting of rice as the staple with other foods eaten as side dishes to complement it in flavor and nutrition.
The Sacred Grain
In the traditional societies of Southeast Asia, rice was considered sacred. The spirit of the divine was believed to reside in each grain of rice. If one did not treat each grain with respect, it was believed that the spirit would depart. Then, even if you ate rice it would afford no nourishment, and even if you planted it in the soil it would not flourish.
This belief is expressed in Japan's most ancient writings. One story, recorded in a fudoki, a chronicle compiled in the eighth century, goes that a certain wealthy man living in the outskirts of Kyoto,a former capital city, once set up a large cake of mochi, or pounded rice, as an archery target. When his arrow struck the target, however, the mochi changed into a white bird, which flew away and landed on a hilltop nearby. On the spot where the bird alighted, rice began to grow, and the man, realizing that the bird must be the embodiment of the rice spirit, built a shrine on the spot dedicated to that same spirit. This, in fact, is the legend of the origin of the Fushimi Inari Shrine, one of Japan's largest shrines, which is visited by more than a million people at New Year's each year. In this version of the story, since the man built a shrine in honor of the rice spirit, the land did not become barren. In other parts of the country, however, the legend goes that the man who used the mochi as a target for his arrows thereafter suffered from one bad harvest after another and was ultimately reduced to penury.
Most of Japan's traditional festivals have their origin in agricultural rituals held in relation to the rice-growing cycle. New Year's is essentially a festival of prayer that the rice harvest of the year to come will be a good one. Festivals are held in spring to pray that the planting of the rice will go without incident - in summer to ward off pests that threaten the growing rice, and in the autumn to celebrate a successful harvest. Indigenous festivals in rice-growing regions of Southeast Asia are much the same. In that sense, the cultures of East and Southeast Asia are linked through traditions related to the consumption of rice.
Naomichi Ishige, Director-General of the National Museum ofEthnology in Osaka, specializes in ethnological and comparative studies of food,clothing and living habits in Oceania, East Africa and Asia.
This text was excerpted from Kikkoman News Letter "Food Forum" Vol. 12, No. 2 (June 1998) The text has been copyrighted by the author and may not be cited or quoted without written permission.
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