The Exotic Taste of Rice

By Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia

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.[1] 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.[2]  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.

Our rice puddings come from LJS 165 and MS Codex 631. 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.

The Recipes

A whole grain rice pudding from LJS 165.

LJS 165 image

Rice Puding
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

Rice flour puddings from MS Codex 631.

To Make a Rice Pudding

Take six ounces of Rice flower a quart of milk set them over [th]e fire & stir them well
together 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 /

The Results

rice puddings 1

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. 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.

[1] Renee Marton, Rice: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), esp. 35-43; Francesca Bray, “Introduction: Purity and Promiscuity,” in Rice: Global Networks and New Histories, eds. Francesca Bray, Peter A. Coclanis, Edda L. Fields-Black, and Dagmar Schafer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 6-8.

[2] Bray, “Introduction,” 10.  We would like to thank Katie Rawson (UPenn) for telling us more about Carolina Gold Rice.

Alyssa Connell holds a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She studies British literature of the long eighteenth century (1660-1800), specializing in travel writing, book history, cartography, and epistolary fiction. She has taught classes on periodical culture, Jane Austen, eighteenth-century travel narratives, British Romanticism, and nineteenth-century fugitive stories, as well as a monthly community literature seminar in Philadelphia. With Marissa Nicosia, she is the co-founder of Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, a public history digital humanities project that curates transcribed and updated recipes from early modern English household manuscripts for an audience of food historians and culinary enthusiasts alike.

Marissa Nicosia is an Assistant Professor of English at Penn State Abington where she teaches, researches, and writes about early modern English literature, book history, and political theory. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania and previously taught at Scripps College. Marissa’s current book project studies the history play in the seventeenth-century to argue that the genre forged speculative political futures. Her work has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon- Rare Book School Fellowship in Critical Bibliography and the Folger Institute. With Alyssa Connell, she is the co-founder of Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, a public history digital humanities project that curates transcribed and updated recipes from early modern English household manuscripts for an audience of food historians and culinary enthusiasts alike.


4 thoughts on “The Exotic Taste of Rice”

  1. That Carolina Gold rice is an oriza sativa. It was developed perhaps from Madagascar rice (which is Asian in origin) or another Asian-origin rice, but not from Oriza glaberrima, the African rice that originated in Africa.

  2. What I wonder is why these old recipes were written so un-systematically. I have yet to see one of these ‘we cooked some old dish’ posts where the recipe says ‘2 eggs, 1 pound of flours, quart of milk’ etc. – it’s always written in a much more prose-like way, seemingly deliberately mixing up order of ingredient/quantity, adding different phrasing etc. Any ideas on why that might be?

  3. It would be great if dates had been included in the body of the article for the recipes from LJS 165 and MS Codex 631. Clicking through to the first one reveals it contains entries from as early as 1690; but it seems like a confusing assortment of stuff is to be found in it spanning more than a hundred years.

    The latest entry is a copy of an 1802 court proceeding at the Old Bailey against 2 men, Levy Cohen and Ephraim Jacobs, charged with forging notes from the Bank of England, which concludes with a verdict of not guilty

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