Rice as a Superfood

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Rice as a Superfood

Widely adapted to diverse environments, rice is an important part of culture, traditions, and subsistence in some countries, especially those in Asia. There is a wealth of literature on the rituals and traditions of rice consumption throughout the world (Virmani, 1991; Piper, 1993; Newman, 1999).

Languages and Symbolism

In Asian languages, daily or important events are expressed in terms of rice. In many Asian countries, such as Thailand (tarn kao ), Bali (ngajengang ), Laos PDR, and Bangladeshi, the phrase for eating rice is synonymous with eating food (Williams, 1996). More directly, Chinese and Japanese people refer to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as morning rice, afternoon rice or noon rice, and evening rice, respectively. Chinese say, in addition to "Happy New Year," "May your rice never burn!" at the beginning of the Chinese Lunar New Year. A common daily greeting in China, Thailand, and Bangladesh is "Have you eaten rice today?" instead of "How are you?". A Japanese proverb says "a meal without rice is no meal," just as the Chinese think that if their friends who are invited to dinner do not eat rice, they have eaten nothing. Rice is so important in Malagasy that the Malagasy word for rice is used as a unit of measurement for time and distance, and in expressions, proverbs, and riddles. Malagasy people refer to "friendship" as rice and water, and to "perfection" as rice with milk mixed with honey.

Rice generally is a positive symbol. In ancient Japan, rice was considered most important next to the emperor. Any wasting of rice was not allowed. In the Japanese feudal period, the chiefs were ranked based on their rice yield. In some Asian countries, such as the Philippines, rice cakes are used as ceremonial foods because they mean long life, happiness, abundance, prosperity, and good fortune. Koreans also believe that a baby will become rich if the child chooses rice from among all the objects put on the table in a "choosing" ceremony.

Rice has other meanings. In Chinese culture, death is symbolized by sticking chopsticks into a mound of rice. Chopsticks are placed on the rice bowl at one end as a memorial of the dead at festivals or important family gatherings. In addition, rice grain symbolizes devotion, affection, generosity, and respect in Nepal, and it is symbolic of a man's body to Thai villagers.

Cultural Preferences

Preferences for rice vary from culture to culture, and from person to person. Most of the major rice-consuming countries eat plain or mixed rice prepared from regular or parboiled rice. Korean rice consumers prefer new rice because of its fresh taste and white color. Laotians prefer the sticky, short-grain varieties and often cook them plainly. In Pakistan, a large quantity of rice is consumed typically as biryani, which is cooked in a meat sauce with other ingredients. In Thailand, khao tom (a soft soupy rice gruel) is served as breakfast with other dishes, but the most popular rice dishes include garlic rice, saffron rice, rice colored with coconut milk, and fried rice with meat and tomato ketchup or fish paste. In the Middle East, sautéed rice with vegetables, fruits, and nuts is popular. People in Central Asia consume rice as a festival food and eat rice prepared as rice pilaf. For example, Iranians eat boiled long-grain rice with grilled meat and soup or tea. Most African people also eat plain boiled rice with soup, meat, and seafood. But in some regions in Vietnam, mixing rice with several other dishes is socially unacceptable. India has the following common preparations for rice meals: plain boiled rice, khichri (rice cooked with mung beans), pullao (fried rice), and kheer (rice pudding). Parboiled rice is also important in India. In the Philippines, rice is served at each meal in the form of steamed rice with meat or seafood. In Indonesia, rice is eaten all the time, either as a main dish or as a side dish with other vegetables, fruits, or meat. Many Indonesian consumers eat red rice and unpolished rice. Ketuput liontong (rice rolled and steamed in banana leaves), nasi goreng (fried rice sprinkled with saffron or turmeric), and nasi tumpeng (a cone of white rice garnished with red, black, and yellow food) are specialty rice foods in Indonesia. Rice can be prepared or served in banana or palm leaves in Malaysia. In Japan, non-glutinous rice is used in daily meals, together with pickles. Pot rice, prepared with rice, soy sauce, fish sauce, and sometimes seafood, meat, or vegetables and mushrooms, has become a popular rice food in Japan. In Korea, the daily meal consists of steamed rice and vegetables, fish, meat, soup, and kimchi. A popular Korean dish is pah jook (a combination of rice and beans). Pakistanis generally eat aromatic rice, either plain or cooked with meat.

Cultural preferences for different rice varieties also exist. Rice consumers in Peru prefer long-grain and nonglutinous rice prepared with oil, garlic, and salt. Brazilians like soft, non-glutinous, and aromatic rice prepared in various ways. In Australia, rice consumption reflects an increase in the influence of Asian culture, and people generally prefer long-grain rice despite domestic production of short-grain japonica rice.

Rice is served as other forms of foods. Vietnamese usually steam soft rice with extra water and make rice noodles or pancakes. For their breakfast, they usually eat a large bowl of noodle soup, sometimes with sticky rice gruel. In the south of India, the common rice foods include steamed rice muffins and rice pancakes for breakfast. In Myanmar, favorite dishes include mohinga (rice noodles served with fish, eggs, and other ingredients), rice cooked with coconut milk, and rice with hot and sweet vegetable soup. Nasi dagang is a traditional Malaysian food made from unpolished glutinous rice with coconut milk and other ingredients. In Thailand, rice is also consumed as rice balls, rice cakes, rice pudding, and rice noodles.

Rice is sometimes indirectly consumed. In the Middle East, rice is used as a stuffing in other foods. Iraqis prefer short-grain rice in the form of plain boiled rice or rice stuffed in peppers or in chicken or turkey. In ancient Japan the rice wine sake was consumed primarily in the imperial court, larger temples, and shrines. Today, it is served at traditional ceremonies in Japan. In South and North America, rice is a supplemental food in Mexico, Peru, and Brazil. Rice is consumed as rice noodles, fried rice, rice cakes, and rice pudding (in Mexico). European people prefer rice cakes and rice puddings made from long-grain and aromatic rice.

Cooked rice can be served and eaten in different ways. Bowls and chopsticks are used for eating rice and other foods in China and Japan. But flat plates, spoons, and forks are used in Thailand instead. In India, rice is served on a banana leaf, a plate, or a metal tray, and eaten with the hands.


There are many rituals for each stage in the production of rice. When opening a water channel, holy water from central lakes is sprinkled onto the field and the priests from the mountain temple make blessings. After sowing the seeds, a dance feast is held in Borneo, in which masks are worn to frighten away the rice evil spirits. Rice seed development is considered as if it were a pregnancy. Therefore, there are birth rituals in which people sing to the baby rice. Harvest is celebrated with dances as a Thai tradition. During rice harvest in Bangladesh, pithas (a popular dish) are made from new rice flour. The Iban farmers of Malaysia will whisper an apology or make amends with a special ritual for any rice grain wasted.

Customary Beliefs

The origin of rice is believed by Malaysian people to be associated with the sky (Sri Owen, 1993). It is believed in some countries that rice is holy and therefore should be well treated, protected, and honored. For example, men are usually not allowed to carry rice to the granary and cook it. Women also should show deference to rice. They should enter the rice granary at night or noon when rice spirits are sleeping, and be properly dressed without making noises by talking or chewing. Their breasts should be covered and they should enter the granary with right foot first. In China and Singapore, a good job is symbolized by an iron rice bowl, and a broken rice bowl means "out of a job." It also is considered bad luck to upset a rice bowl.

Festivals and Holidays

Rice is an important ritual food to celebrate the New Year. To celebrate the Japanese New Year, Oshogatsu, mochi (a glutinous rice cake) is prepared by toasting over a fire (a similar tradition to the current practice in central China) and served to begin the year on the "right foot." A special spiced rice wine, toso, is used for the celebration of the New Year. The New Year ends with special rice porridge. Similarly, to celebrate the Chinese New Year, nieu koay (a sweet and sticky rice cake) is offered to the deities in Malaysia, and Tet (the Lunar New Year) is celebrated with glutinous rice cakes in Vietnam. Nien gao (glutinous rice cakes of different shapes and colors), sounding like "going high" in Chinese, is served in China for the celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year as a good luck symbol. To celebrate the Lunar New Year in Thailand, sticky rice cakes are prepared with mortar and pestle and cooked in the fire until a golden brown color is obtained.

Rice plays an important role in other festivals or ceremonies. In Sri Lanka, for the first day of every month and for festivals, karibath is served with milk and curries. On May 15 every year, the small town of Lucban in Quezon Province, the Philippines, celebrates the Pahiyas (precious offerings) Festival by decorating the outside of the houses with pahiyas made of rice flour paste. For the Chinese Duan Wu (Dragon Boat) Festival on the fifth of the fifth lunar month, zong zi (triangular and leaf-wrapped rice cakes) is prepared and dropped into the river or sea for appeasing the soul of an ancient minister, Qu Yuan, before the boat races. Zong zi is often eaten before the family-union feasts for celebration of the Duan Wu festival. In the Philippines, pagdidiwata (a thanksgiving festival) is celebrated by sharing rice wine with spirits. Rice is involved in other ceremonies or festivals in India, including naming ceremonies (namkaran ) and birthday celebrations. Rice also is important in India during the Bhai Dhooj (sister-brother day), Diwali (festival of light), Makar Sakranti (January 13), and Pongal festivals.

In Thailand, the Royal Plowing Ceremony has been a great event in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok for more than 700 years. In the ceremony, the Phraya Raek Na (Lord of the Festival) performs a rite to predict the weather during the coming season, plows the field with a pair of ceremonial bulls, and scatters the rice seeds into the field with the help of the four Nang Thepis (consecrated women). People will rush to the field to pick up the sacred rice grain to take home. In the past, the traditional dance Rabam Mae Posop was performed to honor the rice goddess. Cambodia also has a similar royal plowing ceremony to mark the beginning of the rice-growing season.

Social Behavior

Rice (scented rice, colored rice, or rice alcohol) also can be served to family and friends to cement relationships or to enhance status. These ceremonies include the following situations: at marriage, at births, before building a house, before a major hunt, and before the start of a new season.

Rice is popularly used in wedding ceremonies because it is the symbol of life and fertility. In Indian wedding ceremonies, a handful of rice is tied to the corner of the sari of the bride when newlyweds take their vows. Upon arrival at the groom's house, she will step on a pan full of rice and the rice spilled out of the pan will be kept by the family for remembrance. In India, Sumatra, the United Kingdom, and some parts of the United States, rice grains are showered on the newly wedded couple for good luck and a fruitful marriage. It is suggested that this tradition might originate from China (Boesch, 1967). In wedding ceremonies in Myanmar, colored rice grains are showered on relatives and friends, as well as on the newlyweds, for good wishes. During Japanese weddings, the newly wedded bride and groom are required to take three sips of sake from each other's cup. Rice grains or rice flour are served during wedding ceremonies. In pokok nasi (a wedding ceremonial offering in Malaysia), glutinous rice is used as bedding for the artificial tree made of boiled eggs, leaves, and stems. In Bangladesh, biryani, a spicy dish consisting of rice and goat's meat, is served at wedding receptions in the urban areas. Special rice cakes called nakshi pithas also are prepared for wedding ceremonies. In the later part of wedding ceremonies in Sumatra, the newlyweds will "pull chicken from yellow rice" by custom.

Rice is an essential ingredient of offerings at birth celebrations. In Perak, Malaysia, rice is traditionally used to present the newborn to the spirit of the river by making offerings (rice packets, betel, and eggs) at the river side; rice dust and parched and yellow rice are sprinkled and scattered on the water. In Korea, Yakbap, glutinous rice steamed with nuts and honey, is served on festive occasions, such as birthdays and New Year's. Rice cakes or rice meals and bobju -wine (a rice wine) are served during wedding ceremonies and the celebration of births. The sharing of rice cakes among one hundred people symbolizes good luck and long life for the baby.

Rice can be found in other significant events. Special sweet and mild sake is used to celebrate Hinamatsuri (the Japanese Girl's Day). Rice paste is involved in purification ceremonies in Malaysia and other countries.

Spiritual Beliefs

There are many origin myths and much folklore about rice (Sri Owen, 1993). It is believed that there are many gods or goddesses related to rice. The gods or goddesses gave rice to humans and taught them how to grow rice. Religious use of rice takes place in India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. In Asia, the rice spirit is female and often a mother figure. Cambodian rural villagers believe that Yiey Tep (a female guardian spirit) stays in the rice field. Therefore, they offer food (often sweet rice porridge) at the corners of rice fields (Solieng Mak, 1998). The Chinese believe that, in order to save hungry people, the goddess Guan Yin squeezed her breast so hard that her milk and blood went into the rice grains. That is why we have both white and red rice. In the northern Himalayas, the goddess Pavarti is believed to be the first to have grown rice. Indians worship rice as Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. For Indians in Malaysia, rice flour is used to decorate the entrances of houses to welcome Lord Krishna and the goddess Lakshmi at Deepavali (the Festival of Lights). Indonesian people perform rituals to honor the goddess Dewi Sri. The "first fruits ritual" occurs before the harvest, in which rice dolls symbolizing Dewi Sri and her partners are made and placed in the rice granary or at home to ensure a bumper harvest. The Balinese honor Dewi Sri by offering dyed rice paste at celebrations. The jaja, which is made from colored rice paste of different shapes and prepared in different ways, is used for decorating offerings of fruits and flowers at merry or solemn Balinese ceremonies or festivals. At many other festivals, cooked and colored rice cakes are offered, decorated with flowers and palm leaves. The Balinese believe that Indra (Lord of the Heavens) taught men how to grow rice and rice is the soul of man. When the Balinese plant the first rice seedlings in the field, a special planting pattern is followed for the first nine seedlings after offerings are made to Dewi Sri (the goddess of rice). Multicolored cones of cooked rice are used for recalling the nawa sanga (rose of the winds) (Piper, 1993). In Japan, it is said that the sun goddess Amatereshu-Omi-Kami first grew rice in the field of heaven, and Prince Ninigi brought it for human culture. Japanese classic records also indicated that rice came from the eyes of the food goddess Ohegetsu-hime. The goddess for rice is Bok Sri in Java. The union of Bok Sri with Djaka Sudana (the male rice spirit) is celebrated by people working in the nearby fields. In Thailand, the rice goddess or rice mother, Mae Posop, is worshiped and believed to bring good harvest. Therefore, no men, loud noises, or talk of death or demons are permitted before harvest since Mae Posop is shy and easily frightened; miscarriage of her pregnancy during harvest time might occur. Khao Chae in Thailand also originated from the celebration of the first day in the lunar calendar when the Mon people offered Kao Songkran (Songkran rice), later Khao Chae modified with ease to be soaked (chae ) in water, to the female guardian spirit of the New Year. The Rungao people in Vietnam believe that the shadow on the moon is the goddess heaping rice.

Other religious beliefs include the following: Pulang Gana is the spirit for rice growth in the beliefs of the Iban people. In Nepal, tika, the holy mark made from rice grains and yogurt, is put on the forehead of youngsters by elders for blessings during religious occasions. Similarly, at the Durga Pcoja festival, rice sprouts are offered to youngsters as good blessings from the goddess Durga.

People believe that rice spirits are involved in rice production. For the Iban, padi pun (the sacred rice) is protected by prohibitions, acts of respect, and deference. For example, it is not handled by men and never sold to others. It is harvested last after harvesting other rice without any break in the path of harvesting. Sometimes, the bamboo pole is used as a bridge to the gap between harvesting locations with singing, prayers, and offerings so that the spirits from all harvested rice eventually come to the padi pun. When the Iban people harvest rice, they use a concealed knife in order not to offend or scare away the rice soul. The Brou people in Cambodia have a similar tradition when clearing the forests for growing rice. They show their respect to the local arak (minor spirits having a particular location) with offerings and ceremonial articles such as a knife, axe, banana shoot, and chick legs on which chicken blood is poured. When harvesting, beer and chicken are placed in the rice field as thanks. Both Iban and Brou people pray for an increase in the quantity of rice in the granary.


Mak, Solieng. "Rainfed Lowland Rice and Agricultural Change in Cambodia." Ph.D. dissertation, 1998.

Newman, Jaqueline M. "Cultural Aspects of Asian Dietary Habits." In Asian Foods : Science and Technology, edited by Catharina Y. W. Ang, KeShun Liu, and Yao-Wen Huang. Lancaster, Pa.: Technomic, 1999.

Piper, Jacqueline M. Rice in South-East Asia: Cultures and Landscapes. Kuala Lumpur and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Sri Owen. The Rice Book. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Virmani, Inderjeet K. Home Chefs of the World (Rice and Rice-based Recipes). Manila, Philippines: International Rice Research Institute, 1991.

Williams, W. W. "From Asia's Good Earth: Rice, Society, and Science." United Airlines Hemispheres, 1996.

Jiming Li