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India gave rice to the world

You will have to forgive the slightly jingoistic tone of this column.

The hyper-nationalism is down to the fact I am writing it in Northern Italy where I have been enjoying one of the great local specialties: Risotto Milanese.


It is delicious, of course, but while Italians go on (with some justification) about how it is a triumph of their culinary art, even the best risottos remind me of just one thing.




  I know a little bit about risotto so, I am happy to accept that when it comes to ingredients (there is no dal in risotto) and technique (khichdi is not made by slowly ladling stock into the rice), it is an entirely different dish.


   Even so, there is no getting around the fact that once Risotto Milanese is served, with its typical yellow (or saffron) colour and its slightly soupy character, all Indians will immediately be reminded of our khichdi.


   And while I yield to nobody in my admiration for Italian cooking, let’s face it: if it was not for India, there would be no risotto. In fact, there would be no rice in Europe at all.


   When you read about the history of risotto, European books tell you that the Italians were influenced by the Spanish who ruled Milan for centuries and introduced rice to the region. Fair enough. But where did the Spanish get rice from?


   The usual answer is ‘from the Moors’. This is a nicely ambiguous response because nobody really knows what the word ‘Moor’ means any longer. In fact, the term has no geographical validity being first used by Europeans to refer to the Berbers, a Muslim community. Later, it was expanded to include Muslim North Africans and, of course, Arabs.


   So, when people talk about how “the Moors brought rice to Europe”, what they really mean is that the Spanish got it from the Muslim kings who came from the Middle East and conquered and ruled Spain. (Moor sounds better than ‘Arab’ in European textbooks, I guess).


   Okay, so where did the Arabs get their rice from? Any child knows that rice requires huge quantities of water for cultivation and all of the Middle East was not exactly swimming in water (though of course, not all of it was desert either). Rice is certainly not native to that region.


   The short answer is the one you and I know intuitively to be the right one: India.


   Yes, India gave rice to the world. There is a view that rice was first cultivated in China: archaeologists have found evidence of rice cultivation in China dating back to 6000 BC. On the other hand, archaeologists have also discovered evidence of rice cultivation in the foothills of Himalayas dating to 10,000 BC, which beats anything found in China. And we know now that ancient Aryans (though not necessarily the people in the Indus Valley) were rice-eaters.


"I do not doubt that the Arabs introduced rice to Spain. But here’s the thing: it wasn’t really theirs to introduce; it was ours, we gave it to them."

   So, rice is ours. Perhaps it reached China from India. Or, perhaps (I am prepared to concede) the Chinese cultivated it independently. But nobody else has any claim on rice. Even the Japanese, who are now big rice eaters, only got rice around 2000 years ago—long after it was being cultivated in China and India.


   So, how did all this stuff about the Moorish tradition of rice begin? There are two popular theories. One is that the Arabs discovered rice when they conquered Sindh (around the seventh or eighth century). Another is that Persian traders took it to Iran from India around 500 AD. Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that there is no ancient Arab rice tradition. They got it from India in the medieval period and they took centuries to do anything interesting with it.


   All of the evidence is pretty conclusive. For instance, rice reached Egypt in the 7th Century. It is clear where it came from because the Egyptians also got our khichdi and made it a part of their cuisine. As for pilaf (pulao), that great Middle Eastern dish, the earliest recipes appear as late as the 13th Century.


   I do not doubt that the Arabs introduced rice to Spain. But here’s the thing: it wasn’t really theirs to introduce; it was ours, we gave it to them.


   The earliest recipe for risotto dates only to the 19th Century. By then all of the famous rice dishes of the Indian subcontinent, including biryani, probably the last great rice dish we invented, had been popular for many centuries. Khichdi, for instance, may be the oldest rice dish in the world to still be eaten regularly hundreds of years after it was created. And while I am happy to give the credit for pulao (pilaf) to the Middle East, let’s not forget that a similar dish of meat and rice was being eaten in South India long before the Middle Eastern pilafs were created.


   None of this is to deny Italians the credit that is rightfully theirs for their wonderful risottos. And the Spanish make delicious paellas, which probably descended from the pilafs of their conquerors.


   My sole concern is with the bad deal that India gets when it comes to discussing the origin of ingredients that are now global. Even now, if you ask people in the West where the so-called ‘Moors’ got rice from, you are likely to be met with blank stares or told that rice originated in China.


   India never gets a look in, even though it must be clear to everyone that the trade links between India and Middle East were much stronger and closer than the links between China and Arabia. No serious food historian believes that the Chinese sent rice to Arabia.


   Nevertheless I admire the Italians for the care they devote to their risotto rice. Outside of Italy, chefs usually make risotto with Arborio, a rice variety that few Italian chefs of consequence will ever use. Italian chefs spend a lot of time arguing about which kind of rice is better for risotto. Carnaroli, Vialone Nano, Baldo or even Acquerello, (the Rolls Royce of risotto rice).


   In India, on the other hand, we take our own khichdi tradition for granted and no chef bothers to discuss what the best rice for khichdi is. Of the great Indian chefs, only Vineet Bhatia began to give khichdi pride of place on his menus two decades ago. The rest treat it as a dish made by mothers for sick children.


   So, that’s why I feel mixed emotions when I eat an excellent Risotto Milanese. I feel angry that India is edited out of the rice story. And I feel even more strongly that it is partly our own fault. We are willing to be edited out of foodie history because we are not as proud as we should be of our culinary and gastronomic traditions.




  • Dipankar Das 02 Jul 2022

    Can't help but mention that the Bengali version of Khichdi, pronounced as "Khichudi" is not something that mothers make for sick children. In fact, more often than not, it is so rich (and flavourful of course) that one may fall sick after eating it (pun intended). And usually, Khichudi is eaten during Monsoons or on rainy days accompanied by some kind of "Bhaja" (fried items), fried Hilsa steaks being preferred most. To me, no risotto can come even close.

Posted On: 01 Jul 2022 01:45 PM
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