Rice, the main source of sustenance for half of the world’s population, comes in an endless variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Rice grains can be long, like those of basmati rice from India and jasmine rice from Thailand; tiny, like mochi-gome from Japan, which is similar in shape to Italian arborio rice; or somewhere in the middle. Likewise, the color of rice varies greatly.

It can be black (from Indonesia and the Philippines), purple (also from the Philippines), red (throughout Asia), yellow, pink, blue, cream, white, and many shades in-between.

Unlike most grains, rice grows either in water or on land. And, while rice flourishes in a range of climates, from the Himalayas to swamps by the sea, Southeast Asia’s tropical climate and very long growing season create an ideal environment for its cultivation.

The 2,000-year-old terraces of the Ifugao of Luzon in the northern Philippines are a testament to the region’s dedication to this grain. One of the world’s wonders, the terraces cover an area over 400 kilometers (250 miles) square, and reach, in rolling, leveled sections, from the valley floor to over a 1,000 meters (1,100 yards) high. More than 20,000 kilometers (12,500 miles) of stone walls, built without machinery or draft animals, keep in the paddy waters.

If you’re interested in a full history of rice, I recommend Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal. (Collier Books:1986). See especially pages 155-191.