History of Rice - Food History for Kids


A bowl of rice

Rice is a kind of grain, or grass, like wheat, millet, or barley, which provides carbohydrates to people who eat its seeds. It grows wild in south-east Asia. People probably first began to farm rice in Thailand, about 4000 BC. From there, people learned how to grow rice in southern China (north of Thailand) and in India (west of Thailand). Certainly people were growing rice in India in the Harappan period (about 2500 BC) and in China in the late Stone Age (about 3000 BC). Rice may have been brought to West Asia and Greece about 300 BC by the armies of Alexander the Great. By the time of the Roman Empire, people were growing some rice around the Mediterranean Sea, in southern Europe and North Africa including Egypt (but not as much as in China or India). By 800 AD, thanks to trade with India and Indonesia, people in East Africa were also growing rice. Soon people were growing rice all over southern Africa.

rice paddy
Rice paddy in China

It was probably Chinese farmers who first invented the rice paddy. This is a system of growing rice in artificial (man-made) ponds, which saves water and also helps to kill weeds.

Men harvesting rice in China

In the Late Middle Ages in Europe, people blamed rice and the standing water in rice paddies for causing malaria by giving the mosquitoes a good place to lay their eggs. Many towns discouraged farmers from planting rice to try to prevent malaria.

When European settlers came to North America in the 1600s AD, they brought rice with them, and planted it in the south-east part of the continent where the climate was right for it (modern North and South Carolina). West African people who were forced to come to North America as slaves also brought rice with them. By the 1700s a lot of farmers were growing rice in North and South Carolina. Rice fields helped to spread malaria in North America too.
After the Civil War, in the late 1800s, people also began to grow rice across the rest of the South, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi, and parts of Texas and California. But most people in Europe and North America continued to eat more bread and noodles than rice, and most people in South America continued to eat more corn, and it was people in southern Asia and southern Africa who ate most of the rice.

People usually cook rice by boiling or steaming it to make it soft. You can eat it plain, or with a sauce of vegetables or meat or fish, or sweetened and baked into rice pudding. Or you can crush rice into a powder and use it to make rice noodles. Rice is a good source of carbohydrates (energy).

Learn by doing - how to make rice

For more information about rice, check out these books from Amazon.com or from your library:

Rice, by Roz Denny (1998). For kids. Beautifully illustrated.

Rice: Origin, History, Technology, and Production, edited by C. Wayne Smith and Robert H. Dilday (2002). For specialists, by specialists.

Or read the Encyclopedia Britannica's article on rice.

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by Professor K.E. Carr, Portland State University
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