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(c) New Internationalist

Red rice, decolonized

Madagascar

The Economist’s famous Big Mac Index was invented as a way of judging what the exchange rate between two currencies ought to be. If a Big Mac costs a dollar in the US and three kronor in Sweden (a third difference) but the actual exchange rate is 50 per cent then it follows that the dollar is overvalued.

Whatever its merits, the popularity of the index shows that food – and, more specifically, how much money people spend on food – can tell us a lot about society. Madagascar, where I was this January, and its relationship to rice provides an excellent example of how the price of a staple can tell the story of a nation.

More than 40,000 varieties of rice are said to exist, and every continent and subcontinent has a variety suited to its environment. In the markets of Madagascar you encounter three general types: imported oryza species from Thailand and Indonesia, local oryza types and local red rice known as vary gasy.

Red rice is not to be confused with brown rice. It is de-husked and milled similarly to white rice but the red colour comes from the pigment anthocyanin. Unlike white rice, red rice has a rich, nutty flavour, which means that it doesn’t go well with everything and often has to be served with butter or ghee to soften the natural flavour.

Rice is the staple in Madagascar, an island with a singular culture influenced equally by indigenous, African and Asian society. Most Malagasy people eat rice three times a day, often unaccompanied by anything except water, making Madagascar a great market for the Asian rice exports.

But milled white rice has none of the nutritious parts of the seed, and the remaining product is at least 90 per cent carbohydrates. This partly explains Madagascar’s atrocious rates of malnutrition. According to the World Bank, over half of Madagascar’s children under five are chronically malnourished – there is plenty of food in most of the island but little of it does the body any good.

The popularity of Asian white rice speaks to the complexities of post-colonialism. French colonization saw the elevation of imported products over indigenous ones. Imported white rice is seen as superior in quality, while red rice that has a longer history on the island has long been seen as a food for ‘poor folk’. Perversely, until recently, imported white rice was cheaper than local red rice because of the absurd economies of bulk importation and the declining interest in growing and buying red rice.

However, with a simmering domestic crisis over the 2018 presidential election, importing white rice has become more expensive and unreliable; for the first time in recent history red rice is becoming more popular. I spoke to a few traders in Antananarivo and they told me demand is increasing. But because so few farmers were growing it, the price of red rice has spiked too – deepening the cost of the crisis.

This phenomenon of local staples fluctuating with global market dynamics happens around the world. In Madagascar it’s red rice, but elsewhere it’s cassava, millet, sorghum or local varieties of potatoes. Cultural colonization rewarded the large-scale abandonment of more hardy, adaptable indigenous or local foods in favour of aspirational, imported Western diets. To me, this suggests that decolonizing African platters is an integral part of the broader decolonization project: of creating resilient and representative societies.

New Internationalist issue 518 magazine cover This article is from the March-April 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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