Considering that there are more than 40,000 cultivated varieties, it’s no surprise that rice has fed people so successfully for so long. Many believe the wonder crop was first cultivated in China as early as 2,500 BC before spreading to Tibet, India and beyond.
It was in India that one of Alexander the Great’s military campaigns came across rice in the 4th century BC. In his work Geographica (“Geography”), Greek geographer Strabo (c. 62 BC–24 AD) quotes a source from the campaign: “The rice, according to Aristobolus, stands in water in an enclosure. It is sowed in beds. The plant is four cubits in height, with many ears, and yields a large produce.” Thanks to some of Alexander’s men, rice made its way to Greece, where it spread to other parts of the Mediterranean.
Despite its early entry, rice was relatively rare in Greece until the 1950s. It was long regarded as a form of medicine, especially for an upset stomach, as evidenced by its mention in ancient medical texts written by the physicians Dioscorides and Galen, or a luxury item, which explains its use in lots of celebratory recipes. Many of the traditional Greek dishes that we associate with rice today used to be made mainly with wheat in one form or another, including pligouri (cracked wheat) and trahana.
Rice became more widespread thanks to the Marshall Plan, a U.S. aid program aimed at supporting and developing European economies in the wake of the Second World War. One of its initiatives in Greece was to train farmers in the area around the estuary of Sperchios River on rice growing and production. Now the country grows enough rice to meet domestic demand and export as well.
Over time, rice came to symbolize abundance and prosperity in Greece. It’s not uncommon to find gamopilafo (which translates as “wedding rice”), a rustic risotto-style dish from the island of Crete typically made with goat broth, at weddings and other large events. Rice is also thrown at weddings to wish the newlyweds good luck. Come Christmas, chickens and turkeys are stuffed with rice for the same symbolic reasons.
Nowadays, you could say that rice is a staple ingredient in the Greek cuisine. In addition to being a key player in stuffed dishes (such as stuffed grape leaves), it’s also used in soups, spinach pies (to absorb the water), in meatballs like yiouvarlakia, combined with pulses like chickpeas or lentils, in old-school pilafs with aromatic butter, with seafood such as mussels with rice, and in various desserts, including pies and milk puddings. Rice flour has also replaced conventional flour in several gluten-free recipes.
One of the most popular and common recipes in the Greek cuisine combines a seasonal vegetable and rice, cooked with herbs and olive oil. This can be made with eggplant (melitzanoryzo) or tomato (tomatoryzo), both typical summer dishes. In winter we enjoy a prasoryzo (with leek) or lachanoryzo (cabbage with carrot and celery), whereas in spring an aromatic hortoryzo with wild greens and herbs, or a delicious zucchini flower rice is more common. Spanakoryzo, or spinach rice, is the most widely known outside of Greece, and over here it’s a staple dish made almost year-round. During autumn and winter I like to keep it plain and lemony but during spring I add fresh tomato, as it sweetens the dish up and lends a summery aroma to the final product.
1 kg fresh spinach, washed well and cleaned from stems (do not use baby spinach for this recipe)
1 onion, chopped
7-8 spring onions, chopped
1 spring garlic (or one clove of garlic), chopped
3 tbsp olive oil + ¼ cup
75 gr long grain white rice (nihaki in Greek) or a risotto rice
1 medium ripe tomato, peeled and grated
200 ml hot water
Salt and pepper
3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
Lemon juice to serve (optional)
You can roughly chop the spinach, but I like to keep it as whole as possible so that it doesn’t overcook or melt.
In a large saucepan put 3 tbsp olive oil and sauté onions and garlic at medium heat. Add the spinach (in batches if all cannot fit) and stir. Add the tomato, sprinkle with rice and stir again. Add the hot water, salt and pepper, half cover with lid and simmer at low heat for about 15-20 minutes until the rice is done. Add in the dill and the rest of the olive oil and stir. Serve with fresh lemon juice and enjoy it with a chunk of good feta on the side and fresh bread.