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Sep 16, 2016

The History of Hawaii's Most Beloved Grain: Rice

Photos by Rice Fest

It's no surprise that Hawai'i has a deep-seeded love affair with rice. In fact, per person, we eat more rice here in the Islands than any other state in the country.

Whether it's a delicious spam musubi, fried rice, or simply two scoops paired with our favorite plate lunch, rice is an undeniable part of our lives. It's with this in mind that we praise our favorite grain in an annual celebration known simply as Rice Fest.

But just how far back does Hawaii's connection with rice go? As it turns out, way back to the 19th century when Chinese immigrant workers made their way in droves to the Islands. Unlike Hawaiians, the Chinese didn't have a taste for poi and—as the story goes—quite literally demanded rice, which was imported at the time.

Sadly, as the Hawaiian population declined in the early to mid 19th century, so too did the need for massive amounts of taro. In the fallow patches that once provided taro—a key element in the diet for Hawaiians for more than a thousand years—Chinese immigrants began growing rice to suit their palate as early as the 1860s. According to Rice Fest, much of present day Waikiki was once home to a variety of rice paddies and even the occasional water buffalo.

The Chinese immigrants were not alone with their infatuation with rice, either.

Rice is the most important staple to the Island people. It appears in the diets of almost all the ethnic groups that came to Hawai'i, except the Portuguese.


Ann Corum, Food Historian

When the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 (similar to a free-trade agreement) was signed between the Kingdom of Hawai'i and the US, rice and sugar production expanded dramatically, taking the Hawaiian economy into a new chapter. At its peak, Hawai'i had more than 10,000 acres devoted to rice production and more than 130 different experimental varieties. Sugar was the only other crop to surpass rice in production. By 1890, it's estimated that Hawai'i exported an astonishing 10 million pounds of rice annually to the world.

The manual labor that was tied to Hawaiian rice paddies couldn't keep pace with the new mechanical-led technological advancements happening on the US mainland. Hawaiian rice production soon dwindled, but our love affair with the grain certainly did not.

In the nearly 100 years since Hawaiian rice paddies ceased producing the treasured grain, our infatuation and cravings for rice have only grown. And that's why, as people who call Hawai'i home, we celebrate this simple staple with Rice Fest right here at Ward Village. Where else can you treat yourself to an array of rice-themed dishes, live music, and games, all the while learning about and celebrating such an important part of Hawai'i's culture?

This month on Sunday, September 25, the 7th Annual Rice Fest will celebrate the joy of this treasured food staple. The event will be held on Auahi Street fronting Ward Centre and will run from 11am - 5pm.

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