All you need to know about the glorious cereal crop

Some of the most special trails take you through towering rice terraces, allowing you to marvel at this ingenious symbiosis between humankind and nature. So we thought we’d share all you need to know about rice, and in the process pay homage to this vital little gem. 

About 65% of Chinese people rely on rice. Everyday. It is omnipresent and pivotal to several aspects of people’s lives. Globally, 1 in 3 people eat rice every day. Rice is grown in 112 countries; China is only one of them.

The tradition of rice growing in China goes back about 10,000 years. Legend has it that the Emperor Shennong initiated rice planting every year. This cultural hero was also called the “Emperor of the Five Grains“. By that time, civilisation had already spread across the lower Yangzi region, where the climate is ideal for growing rice. While in the Zhou dynasty only the wealthy population was able to afford rice, it had become a multipurpose food for everyone in the Han dynasty. The benefits have always been its simple way to cook and store, and, especially when combined with soybeans, its reasonable nutritional benefits.

The rice harvest was essential for the majority of the people, with excessive or scarce amounts of rain likewise leading to extensive famine throughout the region. This explains why many Chinese proverbs and poems are based on rice and its harvest as a synonym for fertility or even life and death. In Chinese myths and folklore, gods and sacred animals often give rice to humans as a gift. It is a foundation for spiritual worship of several deities.

巧妇难为无米之炊

(Qiǎofù nán wéi wú mǐ zhī chuī)

Without rice, even the brightest housewife cannot cook

The millennia-old irrigated terrace layout evolved since rice needs huge amounts of water to grow. Several technologies to maintain the level of water have evolved within recent centuries, such as foot-powered pumps. In some areas, water buffalo are still used to plough the soil. Buffalo manure helps to keep the soil fertile. In some regions, goldfish or carp are introduced into the rice fields because the fish eat the insect pests and can be consumed later as well. At harvest, the field is drained, then when the rice is dry, it is cut and collected in sheaths. The grain is then separated from the stalks and laid out for drying. Once dry, the rice grains are separated from the chaff. All these processes used to be done by hand, therefore the cultivation was very labour-intensive. In the lowlands, these processes have been automated, but in the remote south-western mountain areas, rice cultivation is still proceeded by hand.

Today, approximately 28% of the world’s total rice production comes from China, with a land area of 300 million acres. With the help of fertilisers, 6.7 tons of rice per hectare are produced between April and September.

Various uses of rice

Rice forms the basis for a Chinese meal, adding a neutral component to the sweet and savoury features of other dishes. Rice is seldom eaten on its own and is often used to fill the stomach after the tastiest food has been eaten. Glutinous rice is “sticky”- it forms a lump when cooked and is often processed into packages packed in bamboo leaves.

The starch from the rice cooking process has been used in the fundamentals of buildings, as a component of mortar.

The leaves of the plant can be processed into a fine edible paper: Rice paper. The rice grains can be crushed into rice flour and then processed into rice noodles. Wines and spirits are produced by fermentation, with the rice wine from Shaoxing, Zhejiang, being the most famous example.

Rice is a central ingredient of the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year Eve dinner. People eat rice cakes in the hope of a good harvest and higher status in the New Year. In addition to Happy New Year, 新年快樂 xīn nián kuài lè – Chinese wish each other: “May your rice never burn!”

  • The character for rice in Chinese is 米 mǐ. It is derived from a representation of rice grains divided by rice leaves.
  • Botanic name: Oryza sativa ssp. Japonica