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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Rice
Foods From Spain History: Rice, Asian Origins

Foods From Spain History: Rice, Asian Origins

The rice plant, from which edible seeds are obtained, is a grass belonging to the Poceae family. There are two major species: Asian rice (Oryza sativa) and African rice (Oryza glaberrima).

Rice classification and cultivation

Rice can be grown in one of two ways: in dry terrain or wetlands. In the first case, the grains of rice need to germinate and sprout in dry ground which is then flooded with water; rice grown in wetlands is planted in ground that is already flooded. The latter method is the more common in Spain; even so, the seeds have to be soaked for some hours to make them heavier so that they sink to the bottom.

Rice plants are quite demanding. Being of tropical origin, they require high, constant temperatures and high moisture levels. In regions whose climate resembles Spain’s, with sharp contrasts of temperature and not much rain, the submerged land option is preferable in that the water is an ongoing source of the necessary moisture and also regulates the temperature.

In Spain, rice growing used traditionally to be women’s work. Until the 1950s, bringing a crop to harvest was very labor intensive since the entire process of germination, planting and harvesting was done by hand.

The origins of rice

Paleobotanical research conducted by Japanese and Chinese archaeologists in dozens of excavations along the Yangtze river seem to indicate that Asian rice started to be grown as a crop in China some 11,500 years ago, nearly 3,500 years earlier than the date generally accepted until ten years 1.ago. However, many remain unconvinced since the remains found can not categorically be catalogued as belonging to cultivated species. Nearly all the experts locate the first examples of rice-growing in the Chinese provinces of Hubei and Hunan around 9,000 years ago, between 6500 and 7500BC.

Rice-growing spread through many areas of south-east Asia and central China between 7000 and 5000BC, these being the dates attributed to the first evidence of rice-growing in certain regions of eastern India and 2.Myanmar (known before 1989 as Burma). In Thailand and Korea, evidence has been found of early rice-growing dating from around 3500BC; the equivalent date for the Philippines, Indonesia and Srilanka (known before 1972 as Ceylon) is around 1800BC, and for Japan, around 1200BC.

The other important species of rice in the Poceae family, African rice, began to be cultivated in the River Niger Delta (West Africa) in the first millennium BC. This species is of little relevance to the history of rice in Spain, where it has been of little commercial importance.

Rice heads westward

Reliable sources seem to credit Alexander the Great (356-323BC) with having introduced rice into Mesopotamia in the latter half of the 4th century BC. According to Strabo (64BC-24AD), by the end of that century rice was already an established crop in the Euphrates 3.valley. From Persia it spread to Syria, Asia Minor and Egypt.

Alexander personally sent samples of rice (orýza) to Greece around 320BC, although it was not a success as a crop. It was considered a very exotic species of plant in Greece; it was used primarily in medicine, especially as rice water, but barely impinged on gastronomic territory. Although Athenaeus and Sophocles (496-406 BC) mention that rice flour could be used to make a bread called oríndes, it is by no means certain that they were referring to the same 4.seed.

The Romans became acquainted with rice via the Greeks, as the Latin version of its name (oryza or oriza) reveals, but they imported it from Syria and Egypt. It continued to be an exotic product, being used mainly in medicinal compounds since infusions made with rice (‘rice water’) were believed to exert a calming effect on intestinal ailments. However, it was beginning to crop up in the occasional culinary recipe during this period: Apicius mentions using rice flour, or fecula, to thicken a 5.sauce.

Early rice-growing in Spain

Early rice-growing in Spain

Between the 8th and 10th centuries, the Arabs introduced rice into Morocco, Spain, Madagascar and Sicily. It did not acquire importance in Europe, as either crop or foodstuff, until the Arab peoples implanted it firmly in the Iberian Peninsula after 711. However, there is a school of thought that maintains that rice reached Spain earlier - in the 6th century - from 6.Byzantium.

The first big rice fields in Spain, and Europe, were planted by the Muslims of Al-Andalus in the river deltas of the Guadiana and Guadalquivir. Around the 10th century (during the caliphate of Abderraman III), rice-growing began in areas of Spain’s east coast (Levante) such as Valencia’s Albufera and the municipalities of Catarroja, Ruzafa, Silla and Sueca. During the 11th century, the plantations were expanded and irrigation systems improved as a result of population growth caused by an influx of Andalusís who had migrated up from the south after the fall of the caliphate and the concomitant civil war. The Spanish name for rice – arroz – derives from the Persian orz, to which the Arabs prefixed the particle al. Al-orz subsequently evolved into ar-orz and ar-ruz, in which form it appears in a 13th century Hispano-Mahgrebi 7.manuscript. The word arroz makes its first appearance in Castilian Spanish in 1251 in a translation from Arabic of a collection of oriental stories entitled 8.Calila e Dimna, commissioned by the figure who would later become known as Alfonso X, the Wise (1221-1284).

Medieval rice pudding

Because it was such a difficult crop to grow, rice remained a luxury product throughout the Middle Ages. Noteworthy among traditional Arabic-Andalusí recipes are those for dishes in which rice is cooked (over the fire or in the oven) in fresh milk or almond milk, which can be sweetened and flavored with various spices. The usual thing was to grind the rice grains before cooking so that the end product resembled sweet porridge. A late medieval cookery book from the Kingdom of Aragón, the oldest of its kind in the Catalan language, includes this same recipe for cooking rice with almond milk and 9.cinnamon.

Rice, a non-Christian and unhealthy food

The Christian reconquest of the Levante by the army of Jaime I of Aragon (1208-1276) between 1232 and 1245 wrought drastic changes to Valencia’s rice fields. For one thing rice was perceived as a Muslim food, the growing of which took up space that could be devoted to traditionally Christian 10.products; for another, the medical and dietary theories that were starting to take shape, especially from the 14th century on, caused links to be detected between the wetland environment where rice was grown and public health problems. Proximity to the rice fields was believed to cause illness and, furthermore, food grown in muddy, foul-smelling conditions could not be nutritionally beneficial. In some places, therefore, prohibitions concerning rice-growing were issued intermittently in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th 11.centuries, especially after the expulsion of the Spanish Moriscos in 1609, during the reign of Philip III (1578-1621). Against all odds, however, it did not disappear completely as a crop.

Expansion, crisis and recovery of rice-growing in Spain and the Americas

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) planted rice in America during his second voyage (1493), though there is no evidence of its being grown there on any significant scale until 1580. One of the first Spanish American references to rice occurs in a book by José de Acosta published in 1590, in which mention is made of “cassava [...] and potatoes, and potato flour and 12.rice”. In the course of the 16th century, Vasco de Gama (1469-1524) took rice to Portugal from India, and Spanish troops introduced it into their territories in southern Italy. Although rice-growing in Italy began in Milan on the banks of the Po towards the end of the 13th century, the first attempts at growing rice in France and Germany were made in the mid 16th century. It was not grown in North America (South Carolina) until the late 17th century, when rice seeds from Madagascar are believed to have arrived there in a Dutch ship.

From the 16th century on, descriptions of meals eaten at the Spanish Court make quite frequent mention of a dish called manjar blanco: this medieval sweet rice dish - a favorite with the aristocracy - was made with ground rice, breast meat of poultry, almonds and cane sugar. Over time, the recipe discarded the meat element and it became the dessert dish that is still eaten in certain parts of Spain (such as Montblanc, Tarragona and other municipalities in Catalonia), a kind of solid custard (or blancmange) made with rice flour, ground almonds, sugar, cinnamon, lemon peel and water.

European economic crisis and rice production fall

In the 17th century, the expulsion of the Moriscos combined with the European economic crisis triggered a dramatic drop in the population of Spain, the knock-on effect of which decimated demand for certain crops, including rice. Even so, documentary evidence dating from half way through the century attests to the existence of rice fields in Murcia, on the fertile banks of the Segura river, and beside the Argos, in 13.Calasparra.

The 18th century, by contrast, saw an increase in population, which tripled in Valencia between 1718 and 14.1787, and farming and rice growing thrived once more in consequence. Rice plantations increased in size in Valencia and Murcia, creeping ever closer to centers of population in defiance of official bans. The epidemics of tertian 15.fever (malarial fevers so called because of their repeated three-day pattern and caused by Anopheles mosquito bites) that occurred as a result claimed many lives. After the worst outbreak of malaria, in 1804, rice fields were forced to retreat further away from the 16.towns.

The 19th c.: problems in the Spanish rice trade

The 19th c.: problems in the Spanish rice trade

The Peninsular War and invasion by Napoleon’s troops from 1808 to 1814 caused a serious economic crisis. Once the war was over, Spain experienced another period of population growth which again, with the help of the effects of the law of disentailment, gave a new lease of life to the cultivation of rice and other species traditional to Valencia - mulberries (for the silk industry), oranges, hemp, and so on - during the 19th century. The expanded area given over to rice growing was boosted significantly by the passing of a law in 1860 which established which pieces of land were suitable for the crop; this was not entirely advantageous, however, since it resulted in expansion into less productive terrain, so that production costs rose proportionally.

19th c. free trade laws influence on rice

Other factors exerted an adverse effect on the trade in rice, production of which was on the increase: laws permitting free trade and free imports of rice were passed in 1852, and in 1857 a Cadiz merchant obtained permission to import rice from the Philippines. The absence of economic protectionism for the product, high production costs, several poor harvests in the 1880s and the fact that supply of rice far exceeded demand all combined to create another crisis of confidence about the viability of rice-growing as the 19th century drew to a close.

20th c.: consolidation of rice-growing in Spain

In the first thirty years of the 20th century, rice-growing began to take on a significant role in Valencia’s economy. This was particularly true from the First World War (1914 – 1918) on, when demand increased for all types of cereal, among other essential products, destined for the rest of Europe. It was this fact that lay behind the Spanish Government’s attempt to limit rice exports so that domestic demand, which was also growing, could be met. During the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) and the post war period, consumption of rice increased still further.

However, from the 1940s on, production started to decline in Spain’s eastern provinces such as Valencia and Murcia the water for whose rice fields was provided by the rivers Turia, Júcar and Segura) in favor of such new regions as Seville, Extremadura, Huesca, Zaragoza, Navarra and Tarragona, where the crop was implanted mainly along the banks of the rivers Ebro, Guadiana and Guadalquivir.

Spain’s main rice varieties

Spain’s main rice varieties

The setting up of the Estación Arrocera de Sueca (Sueca Rice Research Station) in Valencia in 1913, in the wake of widespread crop failure (due to the disease straighthead) during the rice crisis of 1911, marked the start of serious efforts to obtain genetically improved strains of the rice varieties cultivated in Spain. This research organization was later replaced by the Rice Department of the INIA (Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Agrarias) National Institute for Agrarian Research), which is still in existence today.


Until the period 1930 – 1960, the varieties grown in Spain, such as Bomba and Bombón, were tall, susceptible to disease and generally sensitive, and responded only feebly to nitrogenized fertilization. In the 1940s, a variety called Balilla Italiana was introduced: this was a lower-growing, less susceptible plant and became the most widely grown variety in Spain between 1946 and 1963. It was ousted by Balilla x Solana – an artificial cross between Balilla and Solana – which, by 1965, occupied 45% of the area given over to rice-growing and which remained Spain’s leading variety until 1972, when the Bahía variety (a Balilla cross, cultivated since 1967) replaced it in 50% of the rice 17. fields.

From the 1960s on, cultivating and harvesting processes became increasingly mechanized, and producers found themselves gradually having to raise the quality of their product to meet the demands of a now better-off public. They also started to grow long grain rice varieties which until then had not been a cost effective option.

Paella, a Spanish classic

Paella, a Spanish classic

Paella is a dish traditional to the poor rural areas of the Valencian region. This Spanish classic, now known virtually the world over, dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries when it came into being as a way of providing the poor peasants of Valencia with a simple source of energy-giving nutrients by combining the products of the surrounding countryside with rice.

According to Dionisio Pérez (1871-1935), “a true paella, an authentic, genuine and traditional paella, contains nothing more than eel, snails and green beans. That is the paella they make beside the Albufera, and must be cooked in the special pan with a slightly convex bottom, that must be placed over a wood fire, and it must be eaten not with bread but rather with some spring onion with each mouthful; in the absence of these classical elements, however, every place in the Kingdom of Valencia, and every village in the other provinces, has put into paella all the edible meats and all the fish and all the seafood and all the pulses that are good to eat, and the prodigy that is rice goes well with them all”. There are two further ingredients without which no paella is complete, that cannot be left unmentioned: olive oil and saffron.

In other words, paellas have traditionally been made in inland towns and villages by combining the rice and vegetables with all kinds of poultry and game meat, and in coastal ones with fish and seafood. The kind of paella that mixes meat, fish and seafood – the type that has ended up being eaten all over Spain – is actually a very recent phenomenon.

The word paella in fact derives from the Valencian name for the pan in which this rice dish is coked. It is essentially a frying pan with two loop handles, originally with a concave base but later manufactured with increasingly flatter bases to spread the heat more evenly. This type of utensil was already in use in Ancient Rome, where it was known as a patella. The pan eventually gave its name to the food cooked in it.


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).

Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

Early rice growing in Spain (1st part)
Illustration from a Kalil awa Dimna Manuscript (1220). Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, France. Licensed under Creative Commons PD Art Yorck Project by Eloquence.

The 19th C. problems in the Spanish rice trade
Traditional esparto espadrilles worn by La Albufera peasants until the Spanish Civil War. Museo del Arroz de Cullera, Valencia,Spain. Pablo Neustadt/©ICEX.

Spain's main rice varieties
Sueca Rice Research Station in 1923. Courtesy of IVIA.

Paella, a Spanish classic
Paella española. Spanish paella. ©José Manuel Merello (1960-).