The Rice in Spain, Not So Easy to Explain

For a long time, when I thought of Spain, Extremadura came to mind. Not the fertile fields of Al-Andalus or the craggy green mountains of Catalonia.

Extremadura’s vast barrenness revealed a deep truth to me when I first saw it.  I’d studied it, as well the lives of the conquistadores from Extremadura, the ones who’d swaggered their way through what is now Latin America. Their legacies hung like a stubborn morning mist over every country I ever visited south of the U.S. border.

Driving through the parched western reaches of Spain, I understood why months on a leaking ship and eating hardtack appealed more to men like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro than farming the water-starved ground of their birthplace. Especially with mythical (and eventually real) pots of gold and silver looming tantalizingly at the end of all those torturous voyages across the Atlantic and the many murderous treks over foreboding mountain passes.

The draw of the familiar being what it is, there’s no wonder why the endless dry deserts of the American West encouraged Spanish settlement. Memories of home plant themselves deep. We may think we hate a place or the people we’ve left there. But many times the siren call lures us back to those places (and people!), as if the Universe wants us, nay, needs us to make peace within ourselves.

Spain lures me back, too. I spent several years of my life studying the language, more years stumbling through conversations with native speakers, my broken Spanish evolving like a fish walking on land in the recesses of earthly time, and ending with faint resemblance to that of Don Quixote. Along the way, I dipped my nose into García Lorca‘s work and a few of the great classics, such as Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s La ciudad y los perros.

Of course the food always enchanted me. How could I not mention food? After all, this IS a blog about food. But there’s really a lot more going on than that.

So I’ve been cooking, too.

Various versions of Spanish rice lately. With raisins, chickpeas. A traditional recipe. To which I added small diced bits of butternut squash. It turns out that there’s rice cooked in Spain with all sorts of vegetable and meat bits. Pages and pages of recipes in most Spanish cookbooks. Rice morphed over to Latin American, and Mexico, where so-called Spanish rice appears on every Mexican restaurant menu in America.

These rice recipes really caught my attention.

Paellas five rice recipes from Spain on wood table (© Lunamarina |

So, yes, I want to talk about rice. I need to.

For I wonder how South Carolina came to grow rice after 1694, where did it go after leaving the docks of the New World? Given that in England and many parts of Europe in the 17th- and 18th-centuries, rice sometimes seemed to be looked upon as a lower-class food? Especially in Italy and Spain. Never mind that the nobility and royalty took to rice as early as the days of The Forme of Cury (1390), in the form of pottages. Monks once used rice in ointments, as an ingredient that bound everything together. And cooks latched on to rice and rice flour as thickener for certain dishes, including cheesecake.

What is it about rice that’s made this staple such a compelling food item? It usually requires water, lots of it, to grow, to yield a bountiful harvest, to fill people’s bellies. It’s labor intensive, requiring constant care attention like a sickly infant.

But there’s a catch to such bounty, such a hunger killer.

Another killer lurk wherever rice took up abode.*

In 1562, laws limited rice cultivation to within 1 league of the rice fields near what is now modern-day Valencia. Why? Malaria. Mosquitoes. Actually, it may well have been earlier that such an edict went into effect. James I of Aragon required that Oryza sativa cultivation be restricted to the Albufera lagoon region.

Mosquitoes, yes. All the idyllic talk of the wonderful past, the organic, the natural. Lovely. But lethal. So much so that by the 1740s concerned citizens drained rice fields near the Rio Gallego and Zaragoza, the link between mosquitoes and malaria seemingly quite clear.

Then I asked myself another question.

Why the prolific use of rice in Spanish cooking?

I’ll admit I didn’t find much about it in the beginning, other than a few allusions to the Moors/Arabs bringing it to Spain in the Middle Ages. According to Claudia Roden, the Moors used Berber peasants from North Africa to produce rice. The modern Spanish word for rice – arroz (arròs in Catalan)- stems from an Arabic word for rice, al-ruza It didn’t surprise me to learn that Catalonia, Valencia, and Murcia produce the most rice. Again according to Roden, there’s even a label put on these rice varieties, much like wine in France: Denominaciones de Origen. Short-grain rice, or Bomba, is preferred for dishes like paella. (Note: Arborio is a reasonable substitute.)

Raw Bomba white rice (© Alexat25 |

How long have Spanish cooks been plumping rice grains in their casseroles?

A quick thumb-through of the Libre de Sent Soví turns up a recipe for rice cooked with almond milk, a sort of blancmange. If we move onward in time, we come across Ruperto de Nola’s Llibre de Coch, with a recipe for oven-cooked rice.  Then comes Juan de Altamiras’s Nuevo arte de la cocina española of 1745 and his dish of rice cooked with eel. No surprise that , since the often-watery conditions necessary for growing rice would bless the existence of eels, too. Martínez Montiño, in his 1611 Arte de cocina, pastelería, vizcochería y conservería, said of his rice fritters, “They taste better than they look!”**

  1. RICE CASSEROLE IN THE OVEN (from Ruperto de Nola, Llibro del coch, 1520)


Clean the rice, discarding stones and filth, and wash it with two or three times in cold water and then with hot water.  After it is washed well,  dry it on a wooden chopping block in the sun or by the heat of the fire. When it is dry, clean it again in such a manner that it is very clean. Take a very clean casserole and pour in good fatty meat broth, and set it to boil on the fire; and when it begins to boil, put in two or three threads of saffron so that the broth becomes quite yellow.  When the broth is very yellow, add the rice bit by bit, stirring it with a stick or with a large spoon; when the rice is in the casserole add whatever quantity of broth that seems necessary to you to so that it’s simmering no more. and taste it to see that it is well-salted and fatty. Put the casserole in the oven to cook. Just before it finishes cooking, remove it from the oven and pour some whole fresh egg yolks over the rice.  Return the casserole to the oven to finish cooking. It is done when the rice has  a good crust on top. To prepare separate dishes, in each one put one or two of the egg yolks which were upon the rice, if  the oven was not prepared ahead of time, put the casserole on a coal fire and put an iron lid full of coals on it. This way it will come out of there as if it had been cooked in the oven, and perhaps be better because it remains nearer for sampling. This is good rice.

The rice in Spain, there’s more to explain, isn’t there?

For more about rice in Spain, plus a little more:

Cynthia Bertelsen, “Thinking about Rice in America: Mysteries, Myths, and Misconceptions

A Brief History of Rice in Spain

Joyce E. Chaplin,  An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Peter A.  Coclanis, “Distant Thunder: The Creation of a World Market in Rice and the Transformations It Wrought.” American Historical Review 98: 1050–78, October 1993.

Peter A. Coclanis, “Rice. South Carolina Encyclopedia, updated December 2, 2016.

Raymond Crist, “Rice Culture in Spain.” The Scientific Monthly 84 (2): 66-74, 1957.

Vicky Hayward, New Art of Cookery by Juan Altamiras (2017)

Lamin BS Jaru, “Agriculture and the promotion of insect pests: rice cultivation in river floodplains and malaria vectors in The Gambia.” Malaria Journal. July 27, 2009.

Linkages Between Malaria and Agriculture.”

Lourdes March, “Rice, a Staple Food in Spain.” Proceedings, Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, 1989, pages 158-161.

_____. El libro de la paella y los arroces (1985)

Carolyn A. Nadeau, Food Matters: Alonso Quijano’s Diet and the Discourses of Food in Early Modern Spain (2016)

Marisa Nicosia, “Rice Pudding Two Ways

Timothy Winegard, The Mosquito (2019)

Clifford Wright, on the history of rice growing, mostly in Italy


*Malaria and the development of agriculture go hand in hand, particularly large-scale agriculture. See HERE for a recent discussion of this issue.

**I discuss all of these early Spanish culinary references in my recent book, “A Hastiness of Cooks.”

A modern version of Ruperto de Nola’s baked rice from 1520 (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

One thought on “The Rice in Spain, Not So Easy to Explain

  1. HI Cynthia:
    As usual your blog is so spot on. Thank you for all that rice history. I visited rice paddies of the l’Ampolla Delta last May. Love the fact that the local rice varieties are AOC..

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