Christmas Classics: The History of Rice Pudding

By Nicky M. | Arcadia Staff
Chances are good you’ve tried rice pudding at least once before. That’s because humans have been eating the dish for thousands of years across the world – but did you know it wasn’t always sweet? As holiday plans and parties get into gear, we’re sharing a last minute recipe for your holiday table, and diving into the delicious history of rice pudding!

The Dessert of Kings

Today, rice pudding is considered a humble dessert – a simple mixture of rice with milk, sugar, and spices. But for centuries, rice pudding held a place of distinction in the royal courts of Europe. The true root of rice pudding is hard to discern – the dish can be traced to multiple culture across millennia, including ancient China, the Byzantine Empire, and ancient India, where rice was a major food source. In India, rice pudding (known as kheer) is a staple food that potentially dates back as far as 6000 BCE, as it was included in the Ancient Indian diet prescribed by Ayurveda, an ancient alternative health regime.

However, many early rice puddings did not resemble the sweet dessert we think of today. For example, early renditions of Indian kheer did not use rice at all, instead substituting sorghum, a type of cereal grain. This had changed by the 1300s, when rice pudding was first recorded in Europe. This pudding too, however, lacked in the essential sweetness to the dish – the “Ryse of Flesh” was instead a savory dish, featuring rice with broth, almond milk, and saffron.

A creamy rice pudding.

A sweetened rice pudding didn’t arrive until the 15th century, but by then, rice was already considered the food of the elite. Because rice did not grow well in the European continent, it had to be imported from Asia along the Silk Road or by water. The extensive trade routes made rice an expensive commodity that only the rich could afford.

As the world seemingly grew smaller through the effects of globalization, the import of rice became more affordable and common, and by the 18th century, rice pudding was considered an “every day” dish. The gradual decline of the dish continued into the 19th and 20th centuries, as the “cheap” meal became a staple of children’s school lunches. Today, rice pudding is considered an easy and versatile dessert, which many of us associate with our childhood.

This holiday season, bring back a classic, and try this recipe featured in Lost Tea Rooms of Downtown Cincinnati:

Rice Pudding

1 quart milk
½ cup rice
1 tablespoon flour
1 egg
¼ cup milk
Sugar, approximately ¹/3 cup
Salt, approximately ¼ to ½ teaspoon

Put milk in the top of a double boiler. Add rice to cold milk, and cook until the rice is tender. Beat together the flour, egg and milk. Stir this into the rice and cook until it thickens. Stir in a little salt and add sugar to taste.
Serve hot or cold.
Yield: Approximately 6 servings

This recipe is from Depression Era Recipes (copyright September 1989) and has been kindly provided by Patricia R. Wagner. Published by Adventure Publications Inc., Cambridge, MN.

Author’s Note: Whole milk produces a creamier pudding. Try some of these optional additions: ½ teaspoon nutmeg or cinnamon, grated lemon rind, ½ teaspoon vanilla, ½ cup chopped dried apricots, ½ cup raisins.
As typical of many recipes of the time, no measurements were given for the sugar and salt. The approximated measurements worked for me.