Got Rice?

A grain of rice is approximately the size of a rain drop. It’s small, tasteless and almost seemingly insignificant. However, when 3500 grains of rice comes together and fill my bowl, they become relevant because anything that fills my tummy is important. My whole life has been revolved around rice and it is still now. Sadly, my favorite part college is going home eating an authentic Chinese meal my mom cooks with good home rice. I know, there are numerous different kinds of rice in the dining hall but there is just something about home cooked rice that makes it unique. Rice isn’t something that has a distinctive smell or taste or color which may make it seem insignificant but comparing home cooked rice to dining hall rice is like comparing the air we inhale in the city and the air we breathe on a mountain. The difference is minimal because it’s the same object of comparison but it’s a gut feeling you have when you know something is better.

There are numerous debates as to where rice originated from and according to The Cambridge World History of rice “Prior to the 1950s, the belief in the antiquity of rice cultivation in China was based on mythical writings in which ‘Emperor Shen Nung’ (c. 2700 B.C.) was supposed to have taught his people to plant five cereals, with rice among them.” However, many historians and botanists challenged this idea so there is no clear answer as to who first cultivated land to plant rice. I’m just glad whoever first discovered rice decided to cultivate it because the world wouldn’t be so good without rice.

Rice took quite a journey around the world and it first traveled to the Korean peninsula before 1030 B.C. The Japanese began to cultivate rice at about 1000 B.C and there have been various transportation routes for rice. Rice traveled to the Soviet Union in the early 1770’s and spread to the United States around 1609 in Virginia and traveled to Hawaii sometime from 1853 to 1862 through Chinese immigrants. From then on, rice slowly but surely spread to all over the world and it is now the most consumed crop by humans in the world. Rice is the second most used crop behind corn and we know now from King Corn that corn is literally in everything we consume.

In the Philippines, there is a legend about how rice ended the hunter-gather days and allowed people to settle down in one place with the invention of farming. According to the legend, a long, long time ago, people only lived off the animals the men hunted and the fruit and vegetables the women gathered. There was no way of staying in one place because food would eventually be scarce within an area so they would have to migrate and go to a new area. However, that would change from a deer hunting trip.

The men that day wanted to hunt a deer down for a feast and they chased the deer to another mountain. They were all exhausted from the hunt so they took a break under a tree and they discovered that there were Gods living in that region of the mountain. The men paid their respect to the Gods and the Gods liked that so the men were invited to feast with the Gods. They had lots of meat but they also had these strange looking seeds that the Gods cooked with bamboo leaves. Reluctant to eat with those strange seeds, the men refused at first to dine with the Gods. However, after the Gods promised with their lives that the white seeds were edible, the men ate with the Gods and they brought back seeds for the whole village. After the men ate rice, they became stronger and stayed full longer and that’s the tale of rice came from.

Whether you buy into that legend or not, I’m just grateful rice found its way into the world I live in today. Unlike the United States where food is always abundant and cheap, there are numerous countries where food is scarce and people die from hunger. From my interview with my mother, she revealed how her childhood was like in China during World War II and the Revolution War. She told me “I was born at time when China was in the middle of our revolution and everybody was poor. Grandpa was the captain fishermen so we had a lot of fresh seafood. The government handed out ration tickets that you can trade in for rice, meat, oil, salt and the foods you absolutely need to have. Of course, the foods were not enough to get you full but good enough to make you not hungry. To feed our family, grandma would always go trade our extra fish for rice so we were never out of rice.  I was well fed compared to a lot of the other families and people weren’t as fortunate and generally, people weren’t starving but they were definitely not well fed.”

Our conversation then lead to my birth and the environment I grew up in. I was born and raised in China until we immigrated here in the 4th grade and for as long as I can remember, my dining option in China was nowhere comparable to what we have here in the states. At lunchtime, you get some soup, one main dish and rice. If you’re allergic or just dislike the dish, that’s unfortunate for you because there is no second option. When I immigrated to the states, I was surprised at the freedom to choose between a burger, salad, or pizza and I know it may not sound much, but I was happy just with the power of controlling what I eat. Because of the conditions my mother was brought up in, she always taught me to be grateful for my food and not waste any because there are thousands of starving young children in this world. My mother would always tell me to finish every last grain of rice in my bowl because it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.

When I was walking around Ralph’s the other day, I went to the rice aisle to look for the different kinds of rice that are offered. To my surprise, there is a huge variety of different types of rice that you can buy  and it boggled my mind to think that we import all of these rice from other countries (well, at least I thought all of those rice were imported). After doing some research, I found that only 7% of the rice we consume in the United States is imported from other countries and the average American eats about 20 pounds of rice per year compared to the 540 pounds of rice people eat in Brunei Darussalam-which is the leading country with the average pound per person rice consumption. China produces the most rice in the world with 102,640,324 tons of rice a year, and that number’s so big I have trouble picturing it. (If you would like to know more about interesting rice facts, click here).

Have you ever seen a rice field here in America? Me neither. However, the U.S. is actually ranked #10 worldwide for the total production of rice with 11,027,000 tons a year and we’re the 5th biggest exporter of rice with 1,705,590 tons. According to USDA, ” the United States exports about half of its rice crop, mostly to Mexico, Central America, Northeast Asia, the Caribbean, and the Middle East and ships smaller volumes to Canada, the European Union (EU-27), and Sub-Saharan Africa.” It never occurred to me that the U.S. grows so much rice just because of our eating habits and climate and the rice I thought was foreign is actually grown out of our own back yard. The following is a chart showing the exporters and the importers of the major nations in the world.

All crazy  numbers aside, I’m just grateful for the bowls of rice that made my tummy happy all my life. When I ask people what they think of rice, they automatically resort to thinking about a rice bowl filled with hot steaming white rice next to a pair of chop sticks. Though that may be the case most of the time, rice is used commercially in the world.

Infant food and beer, there shouldn’t be any connection between the two right? Wrong. Rice is used in making of a variety of food items such as: infant foods, snack foods, breakfast cereals, beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages. It is also used for the making of rope and paper, construction material, cattle feed and much more and that’s why only 5% of the world’s rice enters the world market.

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