Rice from the State of Morelos, the best rice in Mexico

Get to know how the rice planted in Morelos comes from the experimental field in Zacatepec, where experiments are conducted with modified rice grains.

Rice from the State of Morelos, the best rice in Mexico
Rice from the State of Morelos. Image: Arrozmorelos.org

Since its discovery 7 thousand years ago, the planting of this type of crop is vital in feeding the world's population. Even though rice is not a Mexican crop, it has been accepted as one of the main ingredients within its gastronomy, giving the dishes peculiar and unique flavors that have placed Mexican cuisine among the best worldwide.

It is estimated that 1,100,000 tons are consumed annually in Mexico, of which only 1% is produced in the country, the equivalent of 150,000 tons. Of this production, the State of Morelos contributes 10 thousand tons and benefits at least 22 municipalities that produce this grain.

The rice that is sown in Morelos comes from the experimental field of Zacatepec, operated by the National Institute of Forestry Research, where they experiment with modified rice grains.

But the importance of rice from the State of Morelos, not only lies in its contribution to national production but also has a characteristic that makes it very special: it is the only one that has a Designation of Origin (D.O.). The D.O. is a distinction granted to a food product, whose quality and characteristics are due, fundamentally and exclusively to the geographical environment in which it is produced, transformed, elaborated, and/or packaged, and therefore, it has a high quality in its gastronomic execution.

Thus, on February 16, 2012, the Federal Official Gazette published the General Declaration for the Protection of the Denomination of Origin (D.O.) Rice of the State of Morelos, to protect the plant, the seed, and the grain of this cereal. In this way, it seeks to achieve differentiation, strengthen the production system, and improve the commercialization of rice as actions to prevent piracy.

Did you know that rice is the most consumed and cooked cereal in the world?

The Earth is inhabited by 7.3 billion human beings. Of these, half have rice as their food base. Each year, the world produces nearly half a billion tons of grain - making it the third most productive agricultural commodity in the world, surpassed only by corn and sugarcane - with over 80 percent of the products being consumed by people in 11 Asian nations. China is the world's leading producer of rice, with over two hundred million tons per year, of which its huge population of one billion seven hundred million people consumes one hundred and forty-eight million; the rest is exported.

China is also the cradle of rice. Between 11,000 and 6,000 years before our era, in the Neolithic, the first domestication of rice took place in the Zhu Jiang basin, a river system that flows into the South China Sea -where Hong Kong is now located-. Two thousand years later, the Majiabang culture was able to establish itself around Lake Tai, near the mouth of the Yangtze River, in the same region where modern-day Shanghai is located, because it had managed to domesticate the wild rice growing there.

It took man several millennia to bring the rice from eastern and southern China to the southeast and south Asia. Around the century before our era, its cultivation was common in some cities of Persia and Mesopotamia, where it had arrived from Hindustan thanks to the exchange that the Persians maintained. Two hundred years later, the conquests made by Alexander the Great in Asia allowed the Greeks to discover rice, to which they did not attribute a food value but rather a medicinal one. The same as the Romans would give it in subsequent centuries, although in some texts it is recommended to use rice starch as an ingredient to give better consistency to sauces.

It would be the Muslims who, as usual, would introduce rice into the diet of the West. The conquest of the Persian Empire, in the first half of the VII century, gave the men of the desert the opportunity to know and appreciate the cultivation of the rice that, promptly, they disseminated to the territories that were falling under their power and that, for their climatic conditions, they were allowing it.

This process even made it possible for the rice to reach areas of the world that remained free from Arab rule, as is the case of the Volga basin and the Caspian Sea coast. It was brought to the Iberian Peninsula between the 8th and 10th centuries and was cultivated mainly in two regions: Valencia and the island of Mallorca. Meanwhile, the neighboring Italian peninsula was reached by the initiative of a Milanese family, the Visconti, who tried to reduce the very high costs of grain on the market.

The cultivation of rice quickly established itself within the Iberian diet, especially after the Muslims improved the irrigation systems introduced into the peninsula by the Romans. However, during the Reconquest it was common that, after the capture of a town or city by Christian troops, the rice fields were eliminated to prevent the spread of disease; after the destruction, what was left in the plots was poor-quality grain, which the poor took advantage of without removing the husk.

The rice was introduced to America on the second voyage of Columbus, although it had a mixed acceptance, which may have depended on the place of the peninsula from which came those who inhabited a particular site. Thus, it is known of its arrival to the New Spain of the hand of one of the slaves of Cortes, of who is counted that of a sack of rice it extracted three grains of wheat and, without wanting, it left them thrown in the floor, which later gave origin to sowing in all rule; the protagonism of the anecdote, as it can be seen, has it the wheat. Rice, on its part, is relegated to oblivion.

Rice spread throughout the Novel Hispanic territory perhaps, as one hypothesis suggests, by the work of slaves, who carried a few grains of the rice grown in Africa and planted them where they could best. In contrast, a second hypothesis indicates that, regardless of the rice arrived by the Atlantic, the largest amount of grain would arrive in Novo Hispanic territory on the Manila Galleon, in its annual voyage between America and Asia and that, upon its arrival in Acapulco, it unloaded a considerable amount of goods of Chinese origin, among which rice could have been found. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, at the beginning of the XIX century, the production of the cereal was of little importance in New Spain, according to Baron Humboldt, who was quick to indicate that, if the mouths of the rivers that drain into the Gulf of Mexico were taken advantage of, rice could one day be an important crop.

It was in the 1830s when rice began to take its definitive course in the country. An individual named Ricardo Sánchez, a merchant from the town of Jojutla - then part of the State of Mexico and, since its creation in 1869, from the State of Morelos - moved regularly between his place of origin, Mexico City, and the port of Acapulco. On one of his trips to the coast, he paid attention to the way the rice was produced, and, upon realizing that the conditions needed for the cereal to grow were the same as those in his place of origin, he decided to try his luck. He bought some long grains of purple rice and planted them, with such success, that the following year he planted white grains.

The quality of the rice planted in Jojutla was evident from its early days. The benefits it brought to the community allowed Ricardo Sanchez to become mayor when the state government granted the town of San Miguel Jojutla the status of a free and sovereign municipality in 1847. The crops slowly expanded throughout Morelos, without losing their quality or unique characteristics; proof of which was the awarding of the gold medal at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900 as "the best rice in the world". Its usual consumers, Mexicans, who thought that the long grain rice produced in Morelos was ideal to be prepared with tomato and thus accompany the mass of the holidays, couldn't agree more with the prize won.

Rice is cultivated in Morelos between 800 and 1,200 meters above sea level, during the spring-summer cycle, sometimes directly and sometimes through a system known as transplanting. In the first case, a sowing machine is used to disperse the grain that has been previously submerged in a drum with fungicides. In the second, the sowing is done by hand through the aerial system, which will be the first step to obtaining seedlings, which, once they reach the desired size, will be relocated to the place where they will grow definitively.

Of the three modes used in the world for rice production, Morelos favors the one that requires moderate flooding of the fields for transplant sowing, of a few centimeters, and which is different from the one used in Southeast Asia, where rice fields are flooded with almost half a meter of water. Meanwhile, direct sowing is done in prepared soils that are irrigated from time to time, taking care that the soil does not dry out too much between one water application and another.

Recently, serious thought has been given to reducing the volume of water used in rice cultivation since, on the one hand, the vital liquid becomes scarcer as time goes by and, on the other hand, it has been discovered that flooded rice fields generate a significant amount of greenhouse gases, which makes it necessary to seek some kind of solution in this regard.

The rice that is sown in Morelos comes from the Zacatepec experimental field - operated by the National Institute of Forestry, Agricultural and Livestock Research - where since 1946 it has been experimented with modified rice grains to ensure its yield, which far exceeds that obtained in other parts of the planet, being located above nine tons per hectare, although it is estimated that the plantations can produce up to seventeen tons per hectare in the areas considered very suitable for cultivation - which constitute just under a quarter of the area planted in Morelos - and up to fourteen in those considered simply suitable - which represent less than two percent of the total.

Morelos rice is ready to be harvested when the humidity is between twenty-two and twenty-five percent, which is between 165 and 185 days after planting or 125 to 145 days after transplanting. Much of the rice in Morelos is harvested by hand: at six o'clock in the morning, the farmers go out to the field, arrange in a convenient place the so-called rice boats -a metal boat, a little more than half a meter high and half a meter diameter-, cut the bunches of plants almost at ground level and hit them against the edge of the boats until the grains are detached. When the jars are full, they take sacks of ixtle and empty the rice into them, place a piece of plastic - or the same sack - on top and sew up the mouth. To prevent the rice from changing its composition and suffering any kind of deterioration, the sacks are placed in the shade.

The sacks are weighed in the presence of the farmer and the field engineer sent by the mill to supervise the operation. Upon arrival at the mill, they are weighed again, samples are taken of the grain contained in the different sacks to verify its humidity level, and the next morning the grain is put to dry in the sunrooms or, if the harvest is advanced and space is limited, in the dryer hoppers.

Then, the grain is combed to eliminate waste and leave a layer of rice of uniform thickness -about two to four centimeters- and left for a full day, which in the harsh Morelos sun implies a reduction of the grain's humidity of up to seven percent. The rice is then taken to rest for a period of five to ten days and, if required, is then put back to dry. To save time, it is possible to dry it mechanically, in enormous waterfall dryers which it enters after passing through a sieve that will eliminate the impurities it carries from the field. What takes nature days, the machine solves in a matter of three or four hours.

Freed of excess moisture, the rice passes through vacuum cleaners or screens that remove the debris, then enters machines equipped with rollers to remove the husks - which represent fifteen percent of its total weight - and finally goes to the so-called paddy table, where it ends its cleaning process. The term paddy comes from the Malaysian word padi, a name given to rice and with which it is known in many parts of the world, especially in the fields where it is grown.

The rice is already cleaned, and brown is taken to a polishing machine to acquire the white shade that will make it attractive to consumers, although the color has no relation to its quality or the level of impurities it contains. Whitening is, so to speak, a purely cosmetic procedure. The bean is then ready to be classified, packaged, and sold.

The quality of Morelos rice is unquestionable. Its long grains support better the action of heat without opening, breaking, or deforming, which is ideal in a culinary environment in which the cereal is first fried and then submitted to the action of water -or the broth of some meat-, where it is left for more or less long periods -thirty or forty minutes- until it finds its proper cooking point and seasoning; in addition, vegetables or ground garlic and onion, tomato or tomato.

Morelos rice is ideal to prepare sweet or salty dishes without being beaten in the process. Similarly, Morelos rice is thick enough to be incorporated into stews and sauces or to be served with some traditional mole -in the case of Morelos, the clemole- and accompany them without stealing their characteristic moisture, which could happen with other varieties of rice from South and Southeast Asia.

For the same reason, it has been the constant object of plagiarism and acts of unfair competition, through which unscrupulous producers, both in the country and abroad, pack rice of any type and quality and sell it on the letterhead of "Morelos rice" (which is not the official one but confuses consumers). The problem this involves is twofold because, being cheaper rice, the one that is put on the market by Morelos producers sells little.

Moreover, once the consumer realizes that what he or she has bought is not good - and sometimes not even acceptable - the word spreads that Morelos rice is not what the advertising says, causing producers to be discredited and closing down their markets. The solution found to combat this problem was to ask the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property, in 2011, to declare the protection of the appellation of origin, a process in which the National Institute of Forestry, Agricultural and Livestock Research intervened in its favor.

The project of the Official Standard NOM-080-SCFI-1994, which established the basic denominations of rice, their sizes, weights, and colors, was obtained.

Given that the threats to the product were not decreasing but, on the contrary, tending to increase due to the commercial opening experienced by Mexico, it was insisted on in September of the same year and, finally, in February 2012, the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property issued the declaration of protection to the appellation of origin "Arroz del Estado de Morelos".

This is only the first step. It is still necessary to have the rest of the elements that provide strength to a denomination of origin, such as the official standard, the determination of the qualified instances to undertake the certification of the product, and the conformation of a regulatory council that looks after the interests of the producers.

Although the official standard exists, it needs to be updated and, according to the experts, it should be expanded to include not only the size or weight of the grain but also the rules related to the product, the defects it may have -and the tolerance level for them- and the classifications in which it will be included, among other aspects. While this is happening, Rice from the State of Morelos retains its well-earned prestige, is introduced into the markets -as is the case with European Rice- and is integrated into the diet of the inhabitants of the planet.

Sources: Mexican Institute of Industrial Property and Arrozmorelos.org