Rice, Rice Baby

Though rice might not feature in a hit 1990s Vanilla Ice rap, this grain tops the charts in other ways: it's the staple food for more than half the global population, and it's grown by more farmers than any other crop on Earth, from Japan to West Africa to Italy's Po River valley. Rice is so central that it's been used as currency, embedded itself in language, and formed the basis of beloved dishes, from sushi to jollof to risotto. But this adaptable grass has two features that have molded rice cultures and directed the grain's destiny: it can grow in an aquatic environment, but it requires cooperation to cultivate. In this episode, we explore how rice's relationship to water and community have shaped stories all over the world, from Japanese-American rice growers in California's drought-prone San Joaquin valley to Bangladeshi farmers facing flooding from climate change. Plus: could taking rice out of water not only build a better future for African-American rice farmers in the American South, but save the planet in the process?

Episode Notes

Lisa Hamilton

Lisa Hamilton is the author of The Hungry Season: A Journey of War, Love, and Survival, and a freelance writer focusing on food and agriculture.

Sharon Zhang

Sharon Zhang is a professor of biology at Savannah State University and the author of The Story of Rice.

Pamela Ronald

Pamela Ronald is a plant pathologist and geneticist at University of California-Davis. Our thanks to her colleague Randy Ruan for showing us around when we visited the lab! 

Rice growing in the greenhouse of Pamela Ronald's lab in California. (Photo by Nicola Twilley)

Ross Koda & Koda Farms

Ross Koda is the co-owner of Koda Farms, which grows Japanese-style rice and makes rice flour in the San Joaquin Valley of central California. Eater also visited Koda a few years ago, and made a video about how Koda farms, mills, and packages their delicious rice. You can buy their Kokuho Rose and their Blue Star Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour online and at specialty stores around the country. Recently, Ross has started making sake, too!

Koda Farms' Kokuho Rose rice, featuring a photo of the farm's founder and Ross Koda's grandfather, Keisaburo Koda. (Image courtesy of Koda Farms)

Konda Mason & Jubilee Justice

Konda Mason is the founder and president of Jubilee Justice, which helps Black farmers grow rice using the system of rice intensification (SRI) method.

Barak Kushner

Barak Kushner is a professor of East Asian history at Cambridge University. You can hear more from Barak about Japanese culinary history on our ramen episode.

More from our partners at Eater

If you're hungry for more, join the mochi obsession and try your hand at mochi waffles, made using Koda Farm's rice flour.

Transcript

Click here for a transcript of the show. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.