Rice history: Where does rice come from? South-east Asia

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A bowl of brown rice: Rice history

Rice history: A bowl of brown rice

What is rice?

Rice is a kind of grain, or grass, like wheatmillet, or barley, that provides carbohydrates to people who eat its seeds. In south-east Asia, rice grows wild like other grasses.

Rice farming: 6000 BC – first China, then India

People probably first began to farm rice in southern China, about 6000 BC. From there, people learned how to grow rice further south in VietnamThailand, and  India. By 2500 BC, in the Bronze Age, people were growing rice in the Ganges valley in northern India.

Rice reaches West Asia, Europe, and Africa

Rice probably reached West Asia and Greece about 300 BC with Silk Road traders. The Greek word for rice comes from the Indian word, vrihi, and all the other European words for rice come from the Greek word. 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, and by the Middle Ages people grew rice in West Africa too.

Chinese man planting rice in a rice paddy

Rice paddy with a Chinese man planting rice

What are rice paddies?

Even as early as 6000 BC, when they were first beginning to grow rice, Chinese farmers were already using paddies to grow rice. A rice paddy is a system of growing rice in artificial (man-made) ponds, which saves water and also helps to kill weeds. You don’t have to grow rice this way – you can just plant it like wheat – but you get more rice with less land and less water (but more work) if you use paddies. Soon people used paddies to grow rice in India, too.


Men harvesting rice in China

Rice and malaria

In the Late Middle Ages in Europe, people (correctly) blamed rice and the standing water in rice paddies for causing a sickness called malaria. The rice paddies  gave the mosquitoes that carried malaria a good place to lay their eggs. To try to prevent malaria, many European towns discouraged farmers from planting rice.

Enslaved women pounding rice in the Carolinas: Rice history

Rice history: Enslaved women pounding rice in the Carolinas

Rice history and American slavery

When British settlers came to North America in the 1600s AD, they brought rice with them. They planted rice in the south-east part of the continent where the climate was right for it (modern North and South Carolina). In the 1660s, British settlers forced the Cherokee off their land in order to grow rice on it. 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 and exporting it to Europe (mainly to Germany, but also to Spain and Portugal). Rice fields helped to spread malaria in North America too.

Rice history after the Civil War

After the Civil War, in the late 1800s, with their slaves free, the rich planters gave up growing rice in the Carolinas, but other people began to grow rice across the rest of the South, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi, and parts of Texas and California. Most people in Europe and North America kept on eating more bread and noodles than rice, and most people in South America continued to eat more corn. People in south Asia and South Africa ate most of the rice.

How to cook rice

People usually cook rice by boiling or steaming it to make it soft. You can eat rice 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
More about Chinese food

Bibliography and further reading about the history of rice:

Or read the Encyclopedia Britannica’sarticle on rice.

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By | 2018-01-01T01:16:32+00:00 June 23rd, 2017|China, Food|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Rice history: Where does rice come from? South-east Asia. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 23, 2017. Web. January 18, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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