Riso Pilaff (Italian Braised Rice)

Below are many rich details concerning the history of rice, along with the final recipe in my Italian dinner Riso Pilaff.

Rice Domestication Dated as Early as 5000 BC

Though the date of rice domestication remains doubtful, it is thought that wet-field cultivation began in the river valleys of south China-an independent country at the time-about 5000 BC, but most dates concerning this, in China, as in India and southeast Asia, are closer to 3000 BC.  1

Rice Not a Basic Grain in Early North China

In 3000 BC, the basic grain in north China was not rice, but millet, a dry land crop.  It, however, is common today to think that rice was a main food in all of China, almost to the exclusion of anything else.  This is partly due to a Victorian misapprehension.  2

China kept itself at arms-length from the rest of the world, until the mid-nineteenth century; one result of its exclusivity was that foreigner traders, confined to the southern port of Canton (now Guangzhou), falsely believed that Cantonese food, which was based on the wet-farmed rice of the early south China, was representative of China as a whole.  This Victorian misconception was later reinforced by Cantonese emigrants taking their rice dishes to Britain and America; this resulted in Chinese and Cantonese cooking to be thought of as virtually synonymous, during the early days of our understanding of Chinese food in the West.  3

In The Rituals of Dinner, Margret Visser states that the staple grain in China was originally millet, which was eaten with a spoon.  Chopsticks seemed to evolve in the East specifically for the use of rice, with Chinese rice being moist, not loose and dry like that of Indians, Arabs, and Africans, who prefer eating it with their hands.  4

The Origins of Rice

Likewise, there is also uncertainty about its exact origins. The wild plant is found over a huge area of land, from the Gangetic plain of India across Upper Burma, then stretching to north Thailand and Laos, and to North Vietnam and into southern China.  5

It is believed that it could have been domesticated almost anywhere, especially since it lends itself to different methods of cultivation.  Records show that early users were ingeniously growing it in superficially unlikely conditions.  We can assume that rice was a late-starter, due to the known dates, in relation to the domestication of other grains; this indicates that it could have been domesticated independently in several places.  6

Song Times in China (960-1279 AD)

By Song times, most of the Chinese population were relying on bowls of rice and bean curd soup, which had replaced soy beans and water.  These rice bowls and bean curd soup were simple foundations, on which the common extras were added, as availability decreed.  These extras were spring onions, bamboo shoots and beans, with soy sauce, sweet-sour plums or fermented black beans, which added savor; pork, chicken, and fish were occasional luxuries.  7

Marco Pollo saw China before the glory of the Song had time to fade; its capital Hangzhou appeared to him to be like a Chinese Venice.  Ships brought spices from the Indies and took away silks for the Levant, while Arabs, Persians, and Christians haggled over the deals being made with paper money, which was unknown to Marco.  Admits all this, specially selected varieties of rice were being imported daily and sold to the rich.  Pink rice, white rice, yellow rice, mature rice and winter rice were among these varieties-each with unique characteristics and some with an almost flower-like fragrance.  8

The Presence of Rice in India

From about 2000 BC forward, rice was being cultivated in India, beginning in the Ganges Delta, in the northeastern Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent.  On plains with natural or artificial irrigation, it was a staple, in place of millet in other locations without irrigation.  9

During the first millennium AD, rice, vegetables and fish came to form the bases of south Indian cooking; these were cooked with an abundance of spices.  On the Malabar and Coromandel-southwestern and southeastern-coasts, Indian food was subjected to many outside influences, through trading with both the Arab world and China-there was much trade in spices, both through exports and imports.  10.

Nevertheless, the effects of foreign contact were more profound in the north-west of the country.  Over a period of 2000 years, there had been a succession of infiltrations and invasions, through  the passes of the Hindu Kush, bringing Aryian, Persian, Greek, and Central Asian ideas, attitudes and techniques.  All this became woven into the culture of the area of the former Indus Valley civilization.  Along with these foreign influences-either nomadic or highly civilized-there also was fertile land; these two features caused meat to be consumed here more than anywhere else in India.  11

What took place in north-west India varied greatly from its heartland. where the very poor probably ate stale, boiled rice with half-cooked gourds or other vegetables.  There may have been a grain porridge mixed with mustard stalk, and perhaps they drank rice-boiling water left to ferment-this unidentified alkaline liquid reputedly tasted like water from a salt mine.  12

In the heartland, the less-poor began meals with one or two pieces of ginger and salt; then, there would be boiled rice and bean soup, this with a hot butter sauce.  Small cakes with fruit and more butter followed; next they chewed on a piece of sugarcane, finishing everything off by chewing spices, for digestive purposes and to sweeten the breath.  Their drinks varied from water to whey or buttermilk or gruel.  13

The rich here followed this same basic pattern in their meals, but with additions and finer quality, such as shining white rice and rich, golden broths.  In the southern heartland, curds and spicy meat sauces were used instead of ghi, and drinking water was perfumed with camphor from Borneo; they had mango syrup and lime juice for drinks as well.  In their highly varied diet, these Indians made use of dairy, which the Chinese generally ignored, and of fruit, which the Europeans were intractably suspicious.  14

As a rule, it, however, isn’t really possible to talk of ‘Indian food’ as a whole, for there is so great a diversity in its regional foods.

As an aside: Roman traders brought back rice from India to ancient Rome, at the time of Christ, before the fall of the Western Roman Empire-which happened at the hand of Germanic leader Odoacer, in 476 AD.  Romans, however, used rice in their cooking only as a starch, for thickening sauces and such.  15

The Arabs Introduced Rice to Europe

Under the banner of Islam, the Arabs rose up out of the desert and conquered the Persian Empire, during the Tang period in China (618-907 AD) and while the Rashtrakuta dynasty was ruling in India (between the 6th and 10th centuries).  16

During the medieval period, rice became fairly common in Europe, as the Arabs had brought it from Asia to Europe via Persia, where they had learned to grow and cook it.  Rice was first grown in large quantities, by the Moors, in 8th century Spain; somewhat later they brought it to Sicily.  Still later in the 15th century, northern Italians first produced rice in the Po River valley and the Lombardy plain-the home of risotto.  17

Europeans Brought Rice to the Americas

In the 1500’s and 1600’s, the Spanish and Portuguese introduced rice throughout the Americas, with South Carolina being the home of the first commercial American planting, in 1685.  Here the rice-growing expertise of the native African-Americans was most valuable.  (Presently, most of America’s rice comes from the lower Mississippi region, Arkansas, Texas, and California.)  18

Indeed, Europeans introduced numerous things to the Americas, though that which was imported by them was less than what was exported.  As mentioned, rice was among the treasures they brought.  Some other important commodities were vegetable seeds, wheat, chickpeas, sugarcane, bananas, citrus fruits, yams, cowpeas, coconuts, breadfruit, and coffee.  In addition, dairy products and beef  arrived, when Columbia’s second governor introduced the first cows there.  19

Starting in the 15th century, the Americas, however, provided Europe with far more, adding up to a formidable list with such things as: the potato, tomato, maize, avocados, pineapples, haricot, kidney, and butter beans, Lima beans, scarlet runners, ‘French’ beans, chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, red peppers and green peppers, tapioca, chewing gum, and quinine-not to mention gold, silver, tobacco and rubber.  20

Lesson Applied

For a long time, rice has been a world-wide commodity.  It is a principal food for about half of the world; while in countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, it provides nearly three-quarters of the daily energy intake.  21

As we can see, rice is an essential world staple.  Likewise, the Word of God is our necessary food; the Bible proclaims that it is more necessary than food itself!  (See Job 23:12.)  It often refers to the Word as the bread of life, for it feeds our bodies, minds, and souls, in ways beyond our knowledge.

The word is Jesus himself; the apostle John writes:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.”  John 1:1, 14, King James Version.

The Word, which is Jesus, provides us with solutions; it is a most practical tool.  As it is written, when trouble comes, the Holy Spirit will recall to our remembrance what Jesus has said; in this way, we can resolve situations in our lives and nations.

The living Word nourishes us, just like rice does, only better.  A steady diet of the Word brings abundant life and more abundant life, when we apply his blood to our sins as needed (see John 10:10 and Romans 5:9).

Please enjoy this memorable, Italian rice pilaf recipe, given below.

References:

  1. Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1968, 1973), p. 40.
  2. Ibid., pp. 39, 40.
  3. Ibid., p. 40.
  4. Margret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991), p. 179.
  5. Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York, Three Rivers Press, 1968, 1973), p. 40.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., p. 135.
  8. Ibid., p. 137.
  9. Ibid., p. 113.
  10. Ibid., p. 114.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., p. 141.
  15. Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, A Taste of Ancient Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 12.
  16. Reay Tannahil, Food in History (New York, Three Rivers Press, 1968, 1973), p. 141.
  17. Harold McGee, On Food in History (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 472.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Reay Tannahill, (New York: Three River Press, 1973, 1988), 114, 115.
  20. Ibid., p.220.
  21. Harold McGee, On Food in History (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 472.

Riso Pilaf  Yields: 6-8 servings.  Active prep time: 20 min/ Braising time: 25-40 min.  (Inspired by a recipe in a cook book put out by the Denver Art Museum in the 1980’s.)

1 qt chicken broth  (Organic, free range broth is available reasonably at Trader Joe’s.)

1 small bay leaf

1 clove garlic, peeled

Scant 1/8 tsp loose saffron threads, crumbled  (Trader’s carries an inexpensive Spanish saffron.)

1 tsp salt, or to taste  (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is important for optimum health; a fine grind Himalayan salt is available at Costco for $4.95 for 5 lbs.)

1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

1 med yellow onion, chopped small

6 tbsp butter

1 1/3 c rice

1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese

  1. sweating onions

    Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

  2. In a medium saucepan, heat the broth with the bay leave, whole garlic clove, crumbled saffron, salt, and pepper.
  3. Over medium heat, sweat-cook until translucent-the chopped onion in 3 tbsp of butter, in a casserole (a 3-quart, stove top/ovenproof pan with a lid). See photo.
  4. cooking rice grains until opaque

    Stir in rice, coating grains well with the fat; continue to cook until rice turns opaque, stirring constantly; see photo.

  5. Stir hot broth into opaque rice. Bring to a boil and cook this mixture for 5 minutes, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  Fit heavy foil over pan; then, cover tightly with lid.  See photo below.
  6. pan covered with heavy foil

    Bake in a preheated oven for 45-50 minutes, or until moisture is absorbed.

  7. When finished, fluff rice with a fork, stirring in Parmesan cheese and remaining 3 tbsp of butter; see photo of finished product at top of entry.
  8. Note: this may be made ahead of time, by braising it for about 35-40 minutes, or until there is about an inch of liquid left in the bottom of the pan.  Remove from oven and set aside; then, 45 minutes before serving, preheat oven to 250 degrees and place the casserole in oven, until rice is warmed.  It is even possible that the rice may be completely cooked-except the final addition of butter and cheese-the day before and stored in another saucepan, if casserole is needed for another recipe.  Be sure to remove rice from refrigerator in the morning; then, heat this room temperature rice over medium heat on stove top, adding about an inch of water to the bottom of saucepan.  When hot, stir in last 3 tbsp of butter and cheese and serve.

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