The next installment in the “Asian Verbal Impact” series written for the magazine Asian Global Impact.
There is nothing coy about rice and its link to Asia. Granted, it is a British kitchen staple and an illustrious player in the cuisines of Southern Europe and much of Africa but, unlike sugar, for example, it has not detached itself entirely from its geographical roots. I guarantee that when you think of Asian cuisine, whether from Kandahar or Kyoto, rice will be somewhere in your thoughts.
That said, rice has been on the British menu since the Middle Ages where it jostled with a host of exotic ingredients beloved of the wealthiest Normans – saffron, ginger, cardamom and cloves, amongst others. It found its way into the English dictionary in the mid-thirteenth century through a fairly typical route – its parent the Old French ris, grandparent the Italian riso and so on back to the Greek oryza, with any number of European cousins, such as the Dutch rijst and the Macedonian oriz, along the way.
From here things get murky. Rice, while not unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, was hardly commonplace and there is much debate about the history of rice cultivation in Europe. The Moors certainly introduced it in a big way to Spain, where it is cooked with saffron (another Moorish legacy) and seafood to make the country’s most famous dish, paella. Fittingly, Iberian words for rice (arroz, in Spanish and Portuguese, arròs in Catalan) are taken from the Arabic al-ruz which also occurs in the form oruz, clearly related to the Greek.
Where the Greeks and Arabs acquired their words is not clear cut. It is generally held that Classical Europe’s first brush with rice came from Alexander the Great’s expedition to India. Fittingly, one theory proposes a direct borrowing from arisi, the word for uncooked rice in Tamil, a Dravidian (South Indian) language. Temptingly plausible as this theory sounds, etymologists don’t tend to favour it, maintaining that Persia and Egypt were key stepping stones in rice’s westwards journey. Indeed, some argue that the Greeks took their word from an Old Persian form like vriz or vrinj which lives on in the Pashto (Afghani) wrizhe and the Farsi berenj. These words are thought, in turn, to have come from the Sanskrit word for rice, vrihi, which itself may be a distant cousin of arisi and have its origins in a Dravidian language.
Indian origins (Sanskrit or possibly Dravidian) are also proposed for the family of rice dishes called pulao in Hindi, pilaw in Persian, pilav in Turkish and pilafi in Greek. Nobody, alas, has managed to stretch this to lineage to paella, which probably derives, via Old French, from a Latin word (patella) meaning pan. Japanese, meanwhile, has a host of words for rice, one of which, raisu, seems to be a recent borrowing from English!
So much for the words. Rice itself doesn’t come from India, but China, which remains the world’s largest rice producer although India is a reasonably close second. A glance further down the list of the world’s top rice producers – including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh and the Philippines – reinforces my original point. Pepper and sugar have been gone completely global, the orange is a rootless cosmopolitan, but despite the best efforts of Valencia and North Italy, Asia can still claim rice – the word and the grain – as its own.