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Grains of truth

In the run-up to the rice-transplanting festival in Japan, Victoria Newmark traces the history of the cereal back to its roots

In mid-June, traditional Japanese rice farmers transplant rice while singing and beating drums to welcome the god of the rice paddies to the fields. The Hana Taue (rice-transplanting) Festival celebrates one of the world's longest-running cereals, staple food for about half the world's population (more than 3 billion people), providing 50-60 per cent of the global daily energy requirements in the human diet (www.riceweb.org). In 1999 596,485,000 tonnes were grown in 155,128,000 hectares worldwide.

Cultivated rices belong to two species, Oryza sativa and O. glaberrima. Archaeologists have found evidence that rice was an important food as early as 4000 BC in Thailand and 2500 BC in the south Asian subcontinent at Mohenjo-Daro. A semi-aquatic grass (www.oryza.com), rice is grown in 111 countries; the largest producers are China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Thailand, which are also among the largest consumers. In these countries, rice means much more than an accompaniment to beans or curry or fish.

Throughout history, rice has been a symbol of wealth, status and even a substitute for money. In fact, in medieval Japan, Samurai warriors were paid with rice. According to Shinto belief, the Emperor of Japan is the living embodiment of Ninigo-no-mikoto, the god of the ripened rice plant. Throughout China today, tradition holds that "the precious things are not pearls and jade but the five grains" - of which rice is first. It was once believed that if you knocked over someone's bowl of rice, ill fortune would follow. Children in China (in the past and many still today) believe grains of rice left in your bowl equate to pockmarks on the face of your future spouse.

Methods of production have changed over the last 100 years. Mechanisation, fertilisers and super-breeds have raised yields (www.riceonline.com). While June in Asia is still the time for peasants bent double placing rice seedlings into flooded paddies (from the Malaysian word for rice growing in deep water), in the big farms of Australia and the US, seed is sown by aircraft into fields levelled by lasers and flooded by vast irrigation schemes. The US is the largest exporter of rice (www.fao.org). Traditional paddy-planting uses puddling to optimise water use. Essentially, each paddy is a shallow pond hollowed out of terraced fields, its bottom and sides trampled until they are semi-porous like clay. The first rains flood the paddies; since rice is semi-aquatic - with floating roots - transplanting young seedlings gives the rice plants an important head start over competing weeds, resulting in higher yields. In ancient China, peasants refined on this, working a fish and rice rotation, using the paddies to farm fat tench for three years. The tench ate all the weed roots, so that when rice was planted, it had the field to itself for the next three years (www.ricejournal.com).

Larger-scale production in Western countries enabled new departures like puffed rice, invented by biochemist Alex Anderson in Chicago in 1901 (www.pressenter.comacishistory.html). Anderson found that heating starchy grains to a very high temperature causes them to explode, turning the expanded granules into a "porous puffed mass". And so puffed rice, Rice Krispies and popcorn were born.

Today puffed rice is made in a machine, which uses tremendous steam pressure to produce a similar result. Over 1 million explosions occur within each tiny grain of rice (www.kelloggs.co.uk).

Though rice is not native to the UK, our rich diversity of peoples and cuisines has ensured its popularity. From Caribbean rice to Italian risotto, fragrant Thai rice, Indian basmati and American round-grain rice for that most English rice pudding, we eat more than pound;150 million-worth of rice a year.

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