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Feb 7, 2007 02:24 PM

Mexican Rice

I have some questions regarding this subject.

Is it true that rice arrived in Mexico by way of the Manila Galleon Trade?

Could the Spaniards have brought the rice as they brought the rice cooking technique of first frying the rice grains (presumably a vestige of the Moorish Overlordship of Spain)?

I know of five variations of rice cookery in Mexico --are there more?
Arroz blanco (garlic/ onion fried maybe some veggies tossed in)
Arroz Verde ( Rice cooked with a green puree of chiles and herbs)
Arroz negro ( Rice cooked with huitlacoche)
Arroz a la Mexicana ("spanish rice" tomato tinted)
Arroz Amarillo (Fried with achiote seed)

Which states of Mexico heavily employ rice cookery? Reasons?

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  1. Hi Kare,

    The Spaniards first brought rice cookery particularly in the Pilaf / Moorish style. It became popular near Veracruz & the Yucatan... particularly because the area proved to be a good place to grow it (flood plains).

    Popularity of rice in Mexico increased with Asian forced migration to Mexico's west coast via the Manila-Acapulco trade route... particularly among communities with a heavy Asian presence.

    In addition to the variations you mentioned.

    Steamed Rice (with various herbs & seasonings in the steaming water... more common near Acapulco, Oaxaca, Sinaloa & Mexicali)

    Arroz Negro (Rice cooked with Squid or Octopus Ink)
    Arroz Amarillo (Fried with Mexican Saffron)
    Arroz con Rajas y Queso (White rice with Poblano peppers, Au Gratin)
    Arroz con Lentejas (Rice with Lentils & Plaintains)
    Arroz a la Tumbada (similar to Cajun Gumbo)

    I am sure there are others.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Eat_Nopal

      Two more I can think of:

      Moros y Cristianos (white rice and dark beans served together)
      Morisqueta: plain steamed white rice, seasoned only with salt

      Until the early 1990s, the state of Sinaloa produced nearly 25% of the rice grown in Mexico. Campeche followed with 23% and Veracruz was third, with 21%. Fourteen other Mexican states produced the remaining 39% of the rice grown here. Today, those statistics have changed due to the changing climate.

      The USA exports an enormous amount of rice to Mexico--approximately 5.2 million tons per year. The current import duty on rice from the USA is a bit over 10%.

      Two varieties of rice are grown here in Mexico, the Sinaloa (long grain) and the Morelos (short grain). My personal favorite rice, Covadonga, is Milagro Filipino rice, a sub-category of the Morelos variety. The Covadonga rice grain is thick, medium-short length, and cooks fluffy and tender, chewy without being tough. It has just the right toothsomeness for me. Covadonga is produced in Mexico by Companía Arrocera Covadonga, a major rice-producing group since the early part of the 20th Century.

      Although rice is eaten everywhere in Mexico, consumption is still low (just short of one million tons per year) compared to other major rice-eating countries.

      1. re: cristina

        Cristina, do you know of other versions of morisqueta? I This term fascinates me, as it sometimes seems to be a catch-all word for a rice dish. I've seen morisqueta as simply rice and frijoles pintos, and my mother-in-law calls rice topped with a red mole morisqueta. Your definition is a new one to me, only adding increasing my interest. Do you know the origin of the term?

        1. re: maestra

          What I've usually heard is morisqueta *con* frijoles, or morisqueta *con* mole, or morisqueta *con* carne de cerdo, etc. The morisqueta is always the rice, and the *con* can be just about anything. However, as we all know, local usage in Mexico varies substantially from place to place, and which of us would contradict your mother-in-law!

          As far as the origin of the word is concerned, my understanding is that it comes from the Philipines via Spain. And just a look at the word leads me down the slippery slope of the Moors--and it may be just that, the slippery slope. Just because it looks Moorish doesn't mean that it is. Maybe Sam can enlighten us about this one.

          1. re: cristina

            As mentioned in another thread, thanks for the tips, did not get to the recommended restaurants (nor to Guadalajara), but do have a bottle of Flor de Cana for you.

    2. The use of genetic markers has improved the ability to figure out the origins of rice in the Americas. Much of the rice grown in what is now the SE US and in the eastern foothills of the Andes is of west African origin brought to the new world by slaves. Most of the rices eaten today in Latin America and the Carribean, however, are modern Indica varieties introduced since the 70s.

      29 Replies
      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

        Was there any presence of rice before the 70s then? If so what variety? From Phillipines presumably?

        1. re: kare_raisu

          No. Again, the earlier rices in the region came with the slaves from west Africa. The original landraces from the Philippines/SE Asia are not a significant part of the early New World materials.

          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

            That cannot be possibly correct, given the importance of Rice in the Spanish diet. It certainly came with the first few waves of Spaniards.

            1. re: Eat_Nopal

              I know cortes stole the entire meat supply of Santiago in Cuba to facilitate a hasty expedition to Mexico -- are there ship records listing 'arroz' on Spanish supply manifests?

              1. re: kare_raisu

                I saw an account Magellan's voyage in which rice was included when they reprovisioned at various points in the trip. I didn't notice whether they started out with rice.

                1. re: paulj

                  This is certainly a clue - not to mention from a significant voyage.

            2. re: Sam Fujisaka

              Sam, you mention only the se us and eastern foothills of the andes? What of the other latin countries not in these regions?

              And you also use 'much' - what about the rest?

              1. re: kare_raisu

                Check out:

                Carney, Judith. The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.

                Judy is a friend of mine. We were Rockefeller fellows at about the same time. She was with the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo (CIMMYT in Mexico) and working in Gambia and Senegal in the 70s and 80s when she did the socio-historical studies. Later developments in molecular marker technologies have allowed us to confirm her hypotheses.

                Oddly enough I'm writing this reply while at CIMMYT in Texcoco for a week (working on a project to improve micronutrients and drought tolerance in staple crops).

                To Judy and me, the notion that the Spanish and not the slaves brought rice, rice cultivation, and rice cultures is a bit ethnocentric. She got initial inspiration when driving in Vera Cruz she saw a sign for a small community bearing the same name as one of the traditional Gambia rice varieties.

                I usually try not to be so wordy, but you all have smoked me out.

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  That is very interesting. However, I have no particular allegiance or affiliation to Spain or Spanish culture... so ethnocentrism is certainly not at play. It just seems that Spaniards (particularly those of Moorish & Andaluz extraction) came first (in fact Guadalajara a word derived from Arabic was founded by Andalucians in the mid 16th century)... there wasn't a massive influx of Africans until the late 16th century.

                  It does happen to be true, that the places in Mexico best suited for rice cultivation (Campeche, Veracruz etc.,) also have the biggest African footprint... so can it be possible that African strains came later, but were preferred and maybe superior for the geography of those areas?

                  Also I would be highly surprised of the Asian immigrants didn't bring their own rice as well. (Asian slave trade preceeded African slave trade by a few decades).

                  1. re: Eat_Nopal

                    Although it is likely that Spanish ships carried milled rice in their food stocks, seed management is quite a different matter.To cross oceans with a crop required very carefull management of usually small quantities of seed and then very similar agroecological conditions in the destination areas and the matching skills in crop management. West African women transported selected and loved seed and knowledge and encountered similar rice environments in the new world. Rats and spoilage would have been constant threats to seed managed by sailors as opposed to very interested parties (albeit including Captain Bligh of Bounty fame and his breadfruit seedlings).

                    I am not aware of Europeans bringing appropriate seed and agronomic knowledge to the new world. Quite the opposite, they were interested in taking goods back to Europe. The Asian rice cultures, moreover, were irrigated paddy systems, not really appropriate to new world conditions.

                    Gene collectors from the different international agricultural research centers have searched for and collected thousands upon thousands of traditional varieties and wild relatives in order to be able to take advantage of genetic traits not necessarily found in current varieties (and such materials are international public goods, not patented). Genetically, crops like rice with generations between 90 and 150 days leave their genetic footprint in wild relatives, weedy rices, and currently encountered varieties. Molecular marker technologies allow us to identify gene sequences and to trace ancestry.

                    All evidence that I know of supports West African origins of rice in the new world. Any counter evidence would be welcome, however.

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      Your reporting of the history of rice strains is very interesting. However, Europeans were constantly trying to make their staple crops grow in the New World (after all, we are all more comfortable eating what we are used to), so such items as wheat, barley, rye etc were often introduced early by settlers. While I am not surprised that much rice in the US is African in origin (the English were not rice eaters, after all), I am more surprised that the Spanish settlers didn't bring some of their rice with them. I am not doubting your data, just registering my amazement.


                      1. re: Ed Dibble

                        This is an excellent point, ed. Some of the first agricultural efforts in Mexico made by the conquistadors was the growing of "Old World" grains. A great book called "Que Vivan los Tamales!" goes into some depth on this subject. and the ideological struggle between wheat and corn and its class associations.

                        Certainly with the Moors being vanquished by Spain in Grenada the same year of Columbus's discovery would lead one to believe their presence (food included, rice couscous) would have been still strong.

                        1. re: kare_raisu

                          Identification of unique gene sequences is a powerful tool--but perhaps people in the US do not believe in such stuff? Just hope you all do support the exoneration of innocent peope on death row based on DNA analysis.

                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            Personally... I trust the technique, but note that science can be very linear. It involves controlled experients to prove one causal relationship... but often ignores complex interrelationships. For example, take the heart disease medicines that were taken off the market recently.

                            I fully support science... but whenever it is at odds with simple common sense... I become a skeptic. If you think about it, this is the most sensible position since scientists are usually wrong 1,000 times before they get something fully correct.

                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                              Right, I'm wrong 1000 times before I get it correct. I just wonder, did that qualify me as a scientist or did I become that way after? 999 chances more to figure it out.

                      2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        This is a perfect example of failing to see the forest because of the trees.

                        The hypothesis that one can determine the origins of rice cultivation in the New World based exclusively or primarily on genetic markers can only be maintained if one assumes that the varieties of rice available in sixteenth and seventeenth century Spain and Portugal were genetically pure, i.e., uncontaminated by West African strains AND can also demonstrate that the varieties of rice found in the former European colonies was uncontaminated by non-African varieties prior to the introduction of Indica: both of which are highly improbable.

                        I am not aware of Europeans bringing appropriate seed and agronomic knowledge to the new world.

                        If that is true, I have to question seriously whether or not you have done even cursory research into the history of European agricultural experiments in the New World. There is an EXTENSIVE body of literature by sixteenth and seventeenth Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan missionaries documenting their attempts to transplant and European agriculture to the New World. (Have you ever heard of, e.g., "sugar cane"?)

                        1. re: mclaugh

                          I'll give this a last go in good humor.

                          Although the genetic evidence is quite clear, it is precisely the strong ethnographic and historical data I mentioned first that supports the West African origin of new world rices. The genetic evidence, furthermore, makes no assumptions and picks up any ancestry. "Contamination" is irrelevant.

                          My apologies for leaving out the later Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan attempts to bring temperate climate agriculture to the tropics. But like the Pilgrims in cold temperate areas, they encountered more than their fair share of failure. On the other hand, there eventually were a large number of crops that made it from the Andes to other regions of the world.

                          I will repeat one point, shipping milled rice in your food stores is not the same as transporting rice seed and appropriate agronomic knowledge. Rice seed--too wet, hot, dry, get problems. Sowing and caring for upland rice is different than paddy rice, something west African women knew well. I simply don't understand the rationale for rejecting their role in bringing rice to the new world.

                          Sugar cane is a tropical and sub-tropical crop not from northern Europe that is vegetatively propagated--a no brainer in terms of establishment in the tropical and sub-tropical new world compared to rice.

                          While you and E N have so graciously pointed out what an idiot I am and how "science" is some simple minded moronic approach, I have yet to learn of any evidence on your part--evidence that would be welcomed and not rejected out of hand no matter how much it disagreed with whatever view I currently hold.

                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            The Wikipedia article on rice talks about 2 species of domesticated rice, one Asian (Oryza sativa) and African (Oryza glaberrima). It says, though, that the African species did not spread much beyond Africa, while the Asian spread into Africa, as well as elsewhere. I wonder whether these Mexican markers point to the African species, or a variety of the Asian that passed through Africa.

                            What are the origins of the rice grown in Spain? Presumably it came via the Moors. Dry or paddy rice? Arabs/Moors could have also brought Asian rice to Africa.

                            I can picture African slaves bringing rice growing and processing knowledge with them. It is a bit harder imagining them bring seed rice, at least not when chained in the tight conditions on slave ships. But there may have been variations in the slave transport system that I am not aware of. I don't know anything about who provided food and cooking for the slaves during transit.

                            What of the transfer of cooking methods and recipes for rice? I don't know much about Spanish rice cookery beyond paella. Most of the Mexican rice dishes that I've seen have a passing resemblance to paella or pilafs.

                            How about the bean and rice dish, moros y christianos. Does this date to Spain before 1492? Lentils and rice is well established in the Middle East. Garbanzos and other beans are common in Spain. I don't know about black beans.

                            How is rice used in west African cooking?

                            Here's an article about O glaberrima
                            African rice (Oryza glaberrima): History and future potential
                            Olga F. Linares
                            It cites Portuguese accounts of rice agriculture in west Africa. It also says that concensus is that the Portuguese introduced O sativa at the beginning of the 16th century, and it spread through out west Africa from there.

                            Note also that there are two main strains of O sativa, japonica and indica.

                            Unless the Mexican rice has markers suggesting it is O glaberrima, or a hybrid of O glaberrima and O sativa, I think it would be hard to distinguish between O sativa that came to Mexico directly from Spain, v. O sativa that came by way of the Portuguese and Africa.


                            1. re: paulj

                              Exactly. Glaberrima genes are found in early new world rices. Almost everything else from modern times, genetically, are Indica types of Oryza sativa.

                              Spain has an area of paddy (wet, puddled) rice. I believe the same is the case in Italy--and that their risotto rices are flooded Japonicas. Food, seed, ideas, knowledge, passed easily on the east-west axis between what is now Europe and east Asia before the European settlement of the new world. Paper, sugar, tea, spices, pasta, gunpowder, silk, and the like are well known cases.

                              Beans (Phaseolus) are an Andean crop. I believe (maybe wrongly) that chickpeas are from south Asia and cowpeas from west Africa. Moros and cristianos has to be post-contact: rice had to come to what are now the Americas to combine with beans.

                              Rice, sweet potato, cassava (in some areas), and yams are traditional east African staples.

                              Form seems to follow function in terms of cooking rice. Milling reduces spoilage and cooking time (thus reducing fuel requirements), and some sort of boiling or (less frequently) steaming is near universal.

                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                I found a Cambridge article on rice

                                "African cultigen has been found as far afield as Central America, most likely as a result of introduction during the time of the transatlantic slave trade (Bertin et al. 1971)."

                                But also:
                                " Mexico, for example, received its first lot of rice seed around 1522 in a cargo mixed with wheat."

                                And Carolina rice is supposed to come from Madagascar from a wrecked (pirate) ship around 1690. Madagascar and east Africa could gotten their O sativa direct from trade with India, much earlier than its arrival in west Africa.

                                By 'early new world rice' I assume you mean rice grown in isolated, traditional communities, where it can be assumed that the rice strains have been passed on for generations. This wouldn't refer to rice consumed in most parts of the country. The mention of Central America in this article brings to mind parts of the coast of Nicaragua which were colonized by ship wrecked Africans in the middle of the 17th century (Bluefields, Mosquito Coast).

                                So it seems to me that the rice consumed in most of Mexico (along with the recipes) came by way of Spain, though there may be pockets of rice cultivation and usage which can be traced to Africa.


                                1. re: paulj

                                  TT Chang says in what you cited, "Central and South America received rice seeds from European countries, particularly Spain, during the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. In addition, there was much exchange of cultivars among countries of Central, South, and North America (Lu and Chang 1980)." TT had his office just a bit down from mine for several years at the Internationl Rice Research Institute. He was then an old fart like I am now. He published what you read quite a bit before Judy Carney's work and prior to our being able to use genetic marker tools. He is now long gone, but I am sure he would be greatly pleased that you all share his views. In tribute to TT Chang, I'll say no more.

                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    Sam, Cristina called my attention to this thread, and I find it very interesting, having lived in Africa and being surprised to learn that rice was a traditional African foodstuff. Later, I learned that the Chamorros of Guam were producing rice prior to European contacts and that Guam produced rice until the recent past. Would you happen to know of Oryza glaberrima (or any other species of rice) is being used in hybridization programs today?

                                    1. re: Father Kitchen

                                      The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the West Africa Rice Association (WARDA) are working together to improve the weed competetiveness of O. sativa with genes from O. glaberrima. IRRI does quite a bit on wide crosses with wild relatives (these are a range of different Oryza species) using embyro rescue techniques; but has been a bit behind the Chinese in developing hybrid rices. One reason is that farmers using hybrids must get new seed every season; and IRRI has tried to improve productivity of non-hybrids as a more pro-poor strategy.

                                2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                  If sweet potato (as opposed to true yam) and cassava are of African origin, then the respective Wikipedia articles need to be corrected.

                                  1. re: paulj

                                    "Traditional staples" does not imply center of origin.

                            2. re: mclaugh

                              I may be barking up the wrong tree here, but could some of the Spanish sailors and settlers have come from rice growing regions of Spain?

                              Valencia, on Mediterranean coast, is the largest rice growing region of Spain, with an apparent preference for the short grains used in paella. But, a bit of a search on Wikipedia, Spanish and English versions, turns up the fact that 40% of Spain's rice grows in the marshes along the Guadalquivir River in Andalusia. And the Spanish article on Andalusian food refers to this area as "el mayor productor de arroz (largo) de España" (major long grain rice producer in Spain).

                              I got to looking at Andalusia because Latin American Spanish is supposed to have been derived, or at least be strongly influenced, by the Andalusian dialect, presumably because many of the sailors and settlers came from this SW part of Spain. Could the general preference for long grain rice in Latin America come from the same source?

                              Are there other Andalusian influcences on Latin American cooking?
                              Some possibilities:
                              Pestino - some sort of fried batter, passed through honey
                              Pristino - a fried Ecuadorian desert dipped in a brown sugar syrup
                              Alfajor may be another sweet that came from Andalusia to South America
                              Garapinadas - candy coated nuts; peanuts in Ecuador; almonds in Andalucia?


                              1. re: paulj

                                Funny that you should mention that. When the Andalucians choose the Guadalajara ara for their major settlement they were primarily seduced by the River Lerma flood plain areas.

                                (The city was founded on 3 distinct sites... but they kept getting booted by natives...eventually had to settle for the uninhabited valley where Guadalajara now lies)

                                1. re: paulj

                                  Andalusian influence would be especially strong because Spain used to restrict contact with the New World to voyages to and from Seville.

                                  Also, Andalusia would be the center of Moorish influence as the Moorish rule survived there until 1492. Islamic food writers consistently see Islam as a major influence on Spanish cuisine - particularly by bringing rice to the Iberian peninsula.


                                  1. re: paulj

                                    oops - on further reading it turns out that most the Andalucian long grain rice is grown for export, and the variety is a modern one from California. I don't know what would have been typical in the 16th century.

                  2. In much of Latin America, a long grain rice that cooks up loose and fluffy is preferred. Even 'plain' rice is toasted briefly in fat, along with a some onion, before adding the water, in effect a simple pilaf. Coloring the fat with achiote is also common.

                    Having eaten a lot of rice like that, I was surprised to learn some years ago that the preferred rice for a true Spanish paella is a short grain, similar to the Italian arborio.

                    In Ecuador, rice is a staple in the coastal regions. In the mountains it shares that role with potatoes. Some meals feature both.


                    1. Thanks! Sam. I wish more people understood that for the poor, hybrids and patented clones, no matter how productive, are often not the answer.

                        1. re: kare_raisu

                          I recently discovered, via a couple of Diana Kennedy's books, vermicelli cooked in the style of rice, Sopa Seca de Fideo. The short (1" long) thin pasta sold in 8oz packets for soup is easier to handle when toasting than long strands of capelini (which escape every which way).

                          I think there is a variation of paella that uses pasta in place of rice.

                          I am also reminded of a halva from India/Pakistan which is made with a very thin vermicelli, sevian. There too, the vermicelli is toasted in butter before a syrup or milk is added.


                          1. re: paulj

                            Here in Mexico, we have several brands of pasta for fideos. My favorite is La Moderna, which you can usually find in most Latin supermarkets in the States.

                            There is a large number of tiny pasta shapes: lengua (tongue), municiones (BBs), ruedas (wheels), letras (alphabet), moños (bowties), lentejas (lentils), fideos (four different kinds of very thin spaghetti), four kinds of codos (elbows), four kinds of caracoles (shells), estrellas (stars) dinosauros (dinosaur shape!), animales de la selva (wild animals), ojo de perdiz (partridge eyes, like tiny rings), and semilla de melón (melon seeds) are just a few of the pastas made especially for preparing fideos.

                            Here's how I like to make sopa seca (dry soup) de fideos:

                            3 Tbsp vegetable oil (I use corn oil)
                            1 chile serrano, finely minced
                            1/2 large white onion, finely minced
                            1 pkg La Moderna pasta for fideos (I prefer to use lenguas or municiones)
                            2 tsp (or to taste) Knorr Suiza de Tomate

                            Sauté the chile and onion in the oil in a heavy skillet until the onion is translucent. Add the pasta and continue to sauté, stirring frequently until the pasta is light golden brown. Add water to about 1/2" over the level of the pasta. Add the Knorr Suiza. Bring to a full boil, cover the pan, and lower the heat to a low simmer.

                            Cook until the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is tender. Keep an eye on your skillet, you may need to add a bit more water. Don't let the pasta stick.

                            Serve at once, scattered with crumbled queso cotija.


                            1. re: cristina

                              The photo with the Spanish wiki article on Fideua looks as though it was made with La Moderna Fideo :-) There seems to be some debate as to how recent or traditional this dish (the noodle version of paella) is.