First grown in India before 4000 BCE, rice (Oryza sativa) was known to the ancient Greeks in the time of Alexander, who encountered it in Persia. However, it does not appear to have been used as food since only medical authors mention some recipes, including a pudding with goat’s milk. Rice flour is used in a couple of recipes by Apicius as a sauce thickener.
Rice was grown in Mespotamia and Iran before the Christian era and it occupied an important place in Persian cooking from Sassanid times onwards and over the centuries it gradually crowded out grains.
In medieval Arab cooking its earliest use was in rice porridges (aruzziyyat), rice puddings with milk (aruzz bi ‘l-laban), or as a thickener. It was most frequently cooked with the other ingredients (meat, vegetable) in the broth. Several cookery books contain recipes for so-called mufalfal (‘peppered’ < fulful, ‘pepper’) rice, which is a kind of pilaff and involves rinsing the rice before adding it to a stew with meat. The terminology refers to the rice grains being loose, rather than the addition of pepper.
In many areas, rice was an important ingredient in elite cookery, which was reinforced under the Mongols. Rice flour was also used to make bread, but this was generally considered food for the poor.
Rice was introduced in the Western Mediterranean by the Arabs, who cultivated it in Sicily and al-Andalus; in the latter area, its use was mostly restricted to those areas where it was grown (e.g. Valencia), which explains why there are very few Andalusian dishes requiring it.
Medicinally, rice was said to be nourishing, especially when cooked with almonds and milk, and sweetened with sugar. It was also thought to be astringent and useful against ulcers, as well as increasing semen. Some scholars held that eating rice caused good dreams, whereas roughness in the stomach could be remedied by an enema of rice. It was said to cause constipation, which can be counteracted by soaking the rice in water overnight, drinking milk after eating it, or by cooking it with a large amount of fat.
Today, rice is a staple in many Arab cuisines; in some Gulf countries, it is even called ‘aysh, ‘life’, in reference to its importance in the diet. In North Africa, however, couscous or pasta are generally preferred to rice, which is not used in many dishes. Mufalfal rice is now associated with Egypt, not in a stew, but as a side, and often includes vermicelli (sha’iriyya). It may even include pepper!