Food for thought: Rice

Dan Bender in a kitchen

Dan Bender

Humans have been eating rice for about 15,000 years, and an estimated 8,000 strains of this global staple have been cultivated in just the last few thousand years.

Rice originated in East Asia, reaching the Middle East via the world’s trade routes by around 200 BCE (before the common era), where it was typically served with braised meats and raisins. By 1234 Henry III was enjoying rice in England, and by the 15th century the Italians had started growing the short-grain variety for their risottos. Two centuries later, the subjects of Charles I were boiling rice with milk and sugar and calling it an aphrodisiac.

In Sri Lanka, rice cultivation may have started as early as the 1st century CE (of the common era). Rice is a mainstay of the local cuisine, which makes liberal use of spices—a legacy of this South Asian country’s role in the lucrative spice trade route that used to span the Indian Ocean. In lamprai—a Dutch-influenced traditional Sri Lankan dish—local short-grain samba rice is boiled in stock with a fiery curry, then wrapped in a banana leaf and baked. The banana leaf serves as the perfect cooking vessel as well as a plate.

Here’s how to savour your first taste of lamprai. Peel away the leaf to release the fragrant steam redolent of chilies, clove, cardamom and cinnamon, the scents of early modern spice routes. Your typical accompaniments would be an eggplant pickle, a boiled egg and, if you’re lucky, flakes of dried fish. The banana leaf marries the tang of the pickle and the unctuousness of the egg with the spicy fish flakes to offer a delightful mélange of land and sea. Add some plain yoghurt to combat the spices, as a good lamprai could be hot enough to make you cry.

Professor Dan Bender is a Canada Research Chair in Cultural History and Analysis at UTSC.