Rice and Spice



Rice and spices are part of everyone’s life in Southeast Asia.

Most children consume them every day as their main staples. Yet, there is much more to them than their gastronomic value. They inform many aspects of identity, social organization and traditions in Southeast Asia.

Using the example of these very widespread commodities, the “Rice and Spice” unit examines the economic, social, cultural, and political importance of rice and spices over several centuries.

Students will discover:

  • Lifeways, practices and traditions of different Southeast Asia communities and how they have evolved over time and space.
  • Ways in which rice and spices, and food cultures in general are linked to spirituality, class structure, and social relations, and inform peoples’ sense of place, history, culture, identity, and interconnectedness.
  • How traditions travel and evolve over time and space.


UNIT 3 : Rice and Spice


Introduction to rice cultures: How significant is rice in the cultures of
Southeast Asia?


Spirituality, myths and legends


Spice, rice and the economic histories of Southeast Asia


The spice trade, European domination and regional response


Food, health, and healing


Rice, capital, debt and rural hardship in Southeast Asia from the nineteenth
to twentieth centuries


Food cultures and the cuisines of Southeast Asia: What is the significance of
spices and fermented fish products in Southeast Asian cuisines?


  • Ayurveda – one of the world’s oldest holistic (whole-body) healing systems developed thousands of years ago in India. It is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body and spirit.
  • arthritis – joint pain or joint disease.
  • asam jawa – tamarind.
  • batik kebayakebaya refers to a traditional blouse-dress combination that originates from Indonesia and is worn by women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar, Singapore, southern Thailand, Cambodia and southern Philippines. Batik is a technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to cloth.
  • bile – a dark green to yellowish brown fluid produced by the liver. Bile helps with digestion.
  • bureaucratic – relating to the business of running an organization or government.
  • camphor – a waxy, flammable, white or transparent solid with a strong aroma. It is found in the wood of the camphor laurel tree. This substance is used for its scent and for medicinal purposes.
  • chettiars –is a title used by various mercantile, agricultural and landowning castes in South India, especially in the states if Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
  • choleric – bad-tempered or irritable
  • cinchona bark –the cinchona is a tree. The bark is used for medicine.
  • confinement – the term used to describe the time during which a woman is in childbirth. The postnatal confinement of a woman after childbirth is practised by some Asian cultures.
  • copra - dried kernel of the coconut used to extract coconut oil.
  • curcuma longathe scientific name of the turmeric plant.
  • diabetes - a group of metabolic diseases in which the person has high blood glucose (blood sugar), either because insulin production is inadequate, or because the body's cells do not respond properly to insulin, or both.
  • federations – political entities characterized by a union of partially self-governing states or regions under a central (federal) government.
  • galangala rhizome of plants in the ginger family.
  • gula melaka – sugar from the coconut palm.
  • hepatitis – an inflammation of the liver.
  • humoral system – a system of medicine detailing the makeup and workings of the human body, adopted by the Indian Ayurveda system of medicine, and ancient Greek and Roman physicals and philosophers, posting that an excess or deficiency of any of the four distinct bodily fluids in a person (humors) directly influences their temperament and health.
  • humors – in the humor system, humors refers to the distinct bodily fluids in a person.
  • jamu – traditional herbal medicine in Indonesia.
  • Jamu Gendong – gendong means to carry. Jamu Gendong means jamu that is carried.
  • kapok – a tree is that is cultivated for the seed fibre. Also known as the Java cotton, it is used as an alternative to down as filling in mattresses, pillows, upholstery, etc.
  • kunyitginger
  • lemongrass – a plant in the grass family. It has a subtle citrus flavour and is widely used as a culinary herb in Asian cuisine. It is also used as a medicinal herb in India.
  • Mbok Jamu – Mbok is a form of address for older Javanese women. Mbok Jamu refers to older Javanese women selling jamu.
  • melancholic – depressed in spirits.
  • ministeriales – agents who carried out administrative duties and functions of government
  • monopoly – the exclusive possession or control of the supply or trade in a commodity of service.
  • peddling – the act of trying to sell something by going from house to house or place to place
  • phlegmatic – having an unemotional and stolidly calm disposition
  • post-natal – the period after childbirth.
  • Rangoon – the former name of Yangon, Myanmar.
  • rheumatism – any disease marked by inflammation and pain in the joints, muscles, or fibrous tissue.
  • rhizome – underground root
  • sanguine – optimistic or positive
  • sisal – a plant -- its fiber is used for rope, twine, paper, cloth, etc.
  • sulphur – a chemical element that is a bright yellow crystalline solid at room temperature.
  • tamarind – pod-like fruit which is used extensively in cuisines for its sweet and sour taste.
  • terminus – last stop