The Exotic Taste of Rice
Going old-school with an old-world classic: recreating an ancient rice pudding recipe.
"Wuite interesting. Would like more like this. Article is timely, since trade may be in conversations now. Also, it shows how it nay be somewhat difficult to use onky ingredients grown or raised with in a 100 miles." 5 stars by Judy
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Rice pudding is simple.
Neutral in color and mild in taste, it has a minimal list of ingredients and always pleases a crowd.
It’s also familiar. So, when we kept seeing rice pudding recipes in manuscript recipe books from centuries ago, we wondered why.
And what, if any, differences were there between past and present versions?
In the spirit of our project, Cooking in the Archives, we decided to make two distinct rice pudding recipes. A rice pudding face-off!
While in the twenty-first century the ingredients required to make rice pudding are pantry staples – rice and sugar are readily available, as is dairy – in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English households, rice pudding was probably a more exotic affair.
England does not produce any of its own rice, so we asked where did the rice came from.
This sent us on a hunt for early modern England’s rice suppliers.
Today, as in the past, the majority of the world’s rice is produced in Asia. Both recipes we cooked come from the eighteenth century.
Until the later decades of the seventeenth century, England’s rice came from Asia through overland routes or through overseas trade.
The rice that made its way into England’s kitchens in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would likely have come from British colonies in South Carolina.
Carolina Gold Rice was developed from African seed stock and is distinct from Asian varieties.
It thrived in the Low Country, anchored South Carolina’s economy, and was largely cultivated by African slaves.
Scholars of American history and food are currently debating the theory of “Black Rice,” which argues for the centrality of West African women’s agricultural knowledge to the successful cultivation of rice in the Carolinas.
The recipes we decided to cook were both included in manuscripts from a particular historical moment: the moment when the rice supply-chain changed and Carolina Gold Rice arrived in England’s kitchens.
A whole grain rice pudding from LJS 165. Image provided by the Author.
Each recipe is just one in a cluster of rice pudding recipes, demonstrating cooks’ variations on a base recipe. (Rice pudding could also be adapted into other recipes; two rice pudding recipes in MS Codex 631 include instructions for adapting them to almond puddings instead.)
For contrast, we chose to cook one recipe that started with whole rice and another that used rice flour as a base.
A quart of Creame a pound of Rice 2 Eggs, Orang add a 1/4 of a pound, Cinamon a quarter of an Ounce, a little Rosewater & Ambergreese some grated bread 3/4 of a pound of suger some Marrow boyle Salt in the Creame.
To make a rice pudding:
Take six ounces of Rice flower a quart of milk set them over [th]e fire & stir them welltogether while they are thick, then put in half a pound of Butter six eggs one nutmeg sweeten it to y[ou]r tast, Buter y[ou]r Dish that you Bake it in.
Image provided by author
Our rice pudding-off was a success!
These rice puddings couldn’t look or taste more different. The “whole grain” rice pudding from LJS 165 is toothsome, with surprising depth of flavor from the caramelized sugar and rosewater.
The cinnamon adds a spicy note, but the orange flavor is harder to identify. This rice pudding is especially thick.
The rice flour pudding from MS Codex 631, on the other hand, is bland.
Nutmeg is the primary seasoning; even the strong notes of nutmeg don’t cut just how creamy this pudding tastes.
With a very firm custard texture, it would form a good base for other tastes, such as fruit, or with additional flavors added.
In the eighteenth century, rice pudding represented the world in a bowl. Rice from West African seeds was cultivated in American soil by enslaved Africans in the Carolinas and shipped east across the Atlantic to England.
The sugar probably came from the Caribbean.
Nutmeg and cinnamon from places like the Moluccas made their way west through Asian and European ports.
Oranges imported from Seville and other warmer climates scented the dish.
The eggs, milk, cream, and bread are the only ingredients early modern cooks would have been able to source locally.
These ingredients rely on both trade and labor – their production depended on plantation agriculture and their presence in England came from a highly developed global network.
Paying particular attention to this single ingredient, rice, has reminded us to consider how ingredients entered early modern kitchens before they became the recipes in a household manuscript.
What surprised us most about making these dueling rice puddings was the true difference in taste.
In both, the taste of the rice remains – even through the single note of nutmeg in the rice flour pudding and the dense combination of flavors in the rice grain pudding.
The taste difference, furthermore, is deliberate: the presence of multiple rice pudding recipes within the same manuscript recipe book indicates attempts to explore the versatility of this ingredient, to incorporate other flavors into a recipe that has one umbrella name but many flavorings and techniques.
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In both cases, we were able to follow the ingredients and techniques fairly closely (minus ambergris and marrow), so what we tasted in our dueling rice puddings seems, to us, a likely descendant of these puddings as they were originally prepared.