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Rice, Alexander the Great’s Gift to the Western World

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Rice is one of the most important foods worldwide, with everyone aware of its value all over the globe, but this pearly white cereal took a long time to become part of ancient European cultures, with many years passing before its real properties and uses were understood.

The single most cultivated cereal in the world, rice, is the main food source for about half of the world’s population.

Gastronomically speaking, it represents the base of many international cuisines, mainly those of Asian countries.

India today leads the export market, covering almost forty-four million hectares of cultivated land, and it boasts the highest number of varieties of rice produced. Historically speaking, the cultural homeland of the product is identified as India.

The alimentary importance of the grain is equal to its religious one, practically making a grain of rice a national flag of that country.

As we all know, this uniquely useful cereal took a long time to enter the ancient European cultures, and, even after it did, it unfortunately took many years before its real properties and uses were understood and exploited.

Conquests of Greek Alexander the Great brought rice to the West

Alexander’s expedition was the first true globalization of human history. It was a journey of conquests that went far beyond his military exploits, and it opened the doors to an unprecedented cultural and mercantile development.

It is thanks to his journeys that European territories discovered the use and utilization of many new types of foods.

During military campaigns, the food supplies of Alexander’s army were always lacking, hindering the great leader’s quest to reach the ends of the earth. The journeys of conquest of the young Macedonian king therefore ended in India upon the mutiny of his army after spending many years away from their families and homeland.

Thanks to this last stop, India, Alexander discovered the importance and value of rice, and he took it back with him on his journey home.

Writings of Seleucus Nicator state Alexander fed troops with rice

Seleucus I, a general of the Macedonian army and later ruler of Alexander’s empire, tells of the key role rice played in feeding the army at that time. According to his post-Macedonian campaign testimonies, during the last period of their stay in Bactria, Alexander found himself forced to change the eating habits of his men. They had to adapt to the foods of the unknown land.

He accordingly introduced three new foods to their diet: sesame, dates, and rice. This last food had of course already been cultivated and consumed for an unknown number of centuries in Asian lands.

Impact on Western culture was delayed

Thanks to Alexander, rice finally arrived in the Mediterranean lands and in the Macedonian empire. However, it was not immediately used as a common food component.

The importation of the cereal passed through Alexandria in Egypt through the “Gate of Pepper,” the route of the spice trade at that time. Incredibly, it is in fact as a “spice” that rice was defined at that time, in other words, an exotic element to be used sparingly in daily life.

During the first centuries of its appearance in the West, the grains and cereals that were already present and cultivated historically in Europe were preferred, leaving rice to be used only in medicine and cosmetics.

The use of rice in medicine, cosmetics only was a major oversight

The main use of the cereal in those early days was as a treatment against digestive and gastric disorders. This evaluation was common to many doctors and scholars of the period after the Macedonian conquests.

The Romans had developed effective remedies to fight intestinal inflammation. Even Galen, the doctor to the greatest Roman gladiators, used it to treat the various pathologies of these fighters.

But where did this theory come from?

We must take a step back, exactly a century before the events of Alexander. Around the fifth century BC, several Greek and Persian travelers arrived in the regions of modern Ethiopia, speaking of a strange cereal, alien to the Mediterranean world, with powerful healing properties.

It is therefore this belief, that the rice plant was used as a medicine only, which would be the practice of doctors for generations to come, that postponed its entrance into the realm of food for Europeans.

The first recipes begin to make their way West

Despite the first misunderstandings about the new cereal in cooking, the inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin had inherited many recipes which were eventually recreated in the Mediterranean lands, according to Asian culinary testimonies.

For example, Aristophanes, the ancient Greek writer of comedies, in his verses refers to a recipe for a rice roll, which he most likely heard from stories and tales of Persian travelers.

Even Sophocles adds to the story of rice in Europe, recording that Ethiopian peoples made bread from rice flour.

Thanks to the journeys of the young Macedonian king, Alexander, the Mediterranean territories became much more aware of a world which did not belong to them.

Despite the great opportunity to develop and enhance a product so fundamental for many other peoples, the fate of rice remained for centuries almost unchanged.

In fact, the full understanding of the potential of the cereal did not come until its cultivation in Mediterranean countries around the 15th century AD, thanks to the arrival of the Aragonese in southern Italy.

This finally occurred almost a millennium after the long trading journeys from Asia had made rice an almost niche product, something so precious that it was considered a spice.

Certainly, however, no time has been lost since then, given the importance and omnipresence of this food in today’s European culture.

We can almost feel like forgiving our ancestors for this oversight when we realize how much we enjoy rice in all its many permutations today, including in Greek cuisine.

We are…what we used to eat.

Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here. 

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