Why Cats & Dogs Disagree or the Risotto Resolution

In which we discover that taking care of animals is its own reward, fishermen are somehow inherently magical, womens voices can achieve change and a good risotto creates its own legend.

So what did you think of the story? I loved this when I found it in Nine Lives: the Folklore of Cats. It is a wonderful book and I couldn’t resist telling you this Korean story. It is considered to be ATU 200D* Why the Cat is Indoors, the Dog Outside in the Cold. It is a long tale just to establish that but I loved all the other tale elements too. I particularly love tales that have a magical fish in one way or another. I may put together a collection of my favourite ones one of these days.

I also found it interesting that the cat and dog had to kidnap the rat king to achieve their goal, as often in tales they make alliances rather than extort assistance. I also enjoyed that the cat was just as loyal to the family as the dog. It also started very far from where it ended and it definitely ended differently than I expected. It is one of many wonderful tales and folklore in the book which I would recommend you track down and read if you can.

Rice Ahoy

So we get to spend some time with our ingredient of the episode which is as you might have guessed from the title is rice. It isn’t just rice though as rice is such a huge subject so I decided to settle on rice in Italy, especially as I have recently discovered some facts that I think you may find fascinating plus I have an excellent recipe.

I suppose however, we should start with some general rice history just to put things in context. The current scientific consensus, based on archaeological and linguistic evidence, is that Oryza sativa rice was first domesticated in the Yangtze River basin in China 13,500 to 8,200 years ago. However, archaeologists working in India have argued that their evidence suggests an origin of rice cultivation in the Ganges river valley, by peoples unconnected to those of the Yangzte.

For both regions there are current controversies about how early rice was cultivated, and how best to identify when rice was domesticated as opposed to being gathered wild. There is an excellent article by Dorian Fuller called Pathways to Asian Civilizations: Tracing the Origins and Spread of Rice and Rice Cultures which you may enjoy if you would like further information. It is suggested that rice then moved out along the various silk roads or trade routes and became a fixture in the meals of various different civilisations.

Travel Mysteries

How did it get to Italy, you may ask? Well there are lots of theories centred around the Arab conquest of Sicily and large sections of mainland Spain and connections between Spain and the Kingdom of Naples. There were paddy fields in Sicily around Sambuca and Sciacca, where the river Verdura gave good swampy conditions but eventually production all moved up to the area around Milan and the Po river as there was more water available.

The first recorded mention of the introduction of rice in Italy is related to the ties between the Kingdom of Naples (the Aragon family) and the Dukes of Milan (Sforza family). It is equally possible however that rice was introduced at different points and from different routes into Italy including trade routes that passed through or ended in Venice. The Romans did import rice but on a very small scale and used it as a medicine. The actual first documented cultivation of rice in Italy was in 1468 in the wetlands of Tuscany near Pisa. The main area for rice production became later and remains currently in Lombardy and Piedmont.

The Theft Behind Risotto

For centuries the only rice variety cultivated in Italy was known as nostrale (“home-grown”). Then, in 1839, Padre Calleri, smuggled home varieties of the Japonica subspecies from the Philippines where he was a missionary and many new hybrids were developed. Among these, the short-grained carnaroli and arborio were perfect for risotto. Today, rice only appears in the southern Italian diet in dishes such as the arancini of Sicily (the fried balls of rice and ragù amongst various fillings), the sartù of Naples (a gorgeous rice timbale), and the tiella of Puglia (a baked vegetable casserole with mussels).

However, rice is very important in the North, it is even suggested that Leonardo da Vinci designed canals to irrigate rice fields during the Renaissance period but we have no direct evidence of this. He certainly invented the mitre canal lock which had a massive impact. More famous now is the Cavour Canal which is an artificial canal built to support agriculture (in particular rice cultivation) which originates from the Po in Chivasso and ends in the Ticino in the municipality of Galliate. It was named after Count Camillo Benso di Cavour who had championed the project, It was built between 1863 and 1866, after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy.

The Stories & Songs of the Mondine

One of the most fascinating stories in this long history for me though was the story of the mainly women who picked the weeds from the rice fields. This job that was done very summer, from May to July, until the 1960s by local women and working class women who came in from outside the area. These women were known as ‘mondine’ and they cleared space in the fields to enable to rice plants to grow. It was back breaking work and they would start very early in the morning until mid afternoon, standing knee-high in water under a burning sun. There was also a lot of disease including malaria.

Local workers lived in their own homes but seasonal workers were accommodated in large dormitories such as the one at the farm Tenuta Colombara, in Piedmont where a former dormitory has been turned into a museum dedicated to remembering the life of the mondine as part of the Museum of Rice Culture. As the current owner of the farm Anna Rondalino says ‘it was a tough job but it was of fundamental importance’. The farm now produces Acquerello, one of the most culinary important rices as used by chefs in the know, including the award winning Massimo Bottura. It is an aged Carnaroli rice which combines the nutrients of brown rice and the easiness to cook of white rice.

The mondine ate Panissa – rice with meat and beans and they were usually paid in a mixture of rice (not always good quality rice) and money. Female children often worked in the fields and babies would also be brought to the women in the field at lunchtime to enable them to be breastfed. The mondine were in the majority very left wing and many were members of their local communist parties probably due to their terrible working conditions.

They were one of the only workforces to protest under fascism and gain concessions, including better pay, shorter working days and the right to bring food into the fields for their break times. And when they joined wider protests, the mondine would be put at the front, as they were less likely to be arrested due the importance of their work. They were in part responsible for the rice crop which, as Italy cannot grow enough wheat to produce the amount of pasta needed to supply the country, was hugely important under fascist rule.

They also carried out important work as part of the anti-Nazi resistance during World War II alongside the men in their families (generally men would do active combat and women would hide partisan fighters, provide food and pass on messages) although many of the women were passed over for recognition of their dangerous work after the war.

The mondine were also know for their singing to keep up their morale and one of Italy’s most famous protest songs was born among the mondine in the 19th century. The original lyrics of the song known as Bella Ciao describe “insects and mosquitoes”, the boss’s “cane”, the “curved” backs of the mondine, the “torment” of wasting their youth toiling. Its repetitive quadruple meter seems designed to mark the long working hours and make time go faster. The words “bella ciao” (“goodbye beautiful”) were sung thrice in the second line of each verse, but the identity of the bella the mondine are waving goodbye to remains unclear. It could be their beautiful youth, their freedom, or even themselves.

Songs of Resistance

In the 1940s, an unknown author adapted the mondine’s song of protest for the Italian resistance movement, telling the story of a young man who leaves his girlfriend to join the partisan militia, and, probably for the last time, says goodbye. This version offers a much darker narrative: “Take me,” the narrator asks the partisan, “because I feel death approaching.”
“If I die as a partisan,you must bury me / up in the mountain / under the shade of a beautiful flower / and all those who will pass by / will say ‘What a beautiful flower / This is the flower of the partisan / who died for freedom’”.
The repetition of “bella ciao” in this last-farewell story seems to convey the impending danger of the invader approaching, as much as the narrator’s inability to say goodbye for the last time.

But it was French-Italian actor Yves Montand who first brought “Bella Ciao” to a global audience. The Tuscan-born artist reportedly performed it for the first time outside Italy in 1964, starting its journey from partisan folklore to international anti-fascist triumph. So it was not only their actions which were in support of resistance to the fascist regime but also their songs. There are still mondine choirs in existence and their songs are outliving the women whose voices were originally raised in these songs. They also used their songs in their fight for better working conditions. The chant “Sciur padrun da li beli braghi Bianchi” for example invited field owners to empty their wallets and pay their workers decent wages.

A Final Thought

I have only one more thing to say about the mondine before we look at some of the folklore and superstitions around rice and that is a quote from Elizabeth Leemann in her article: Italy. The mondines’ bitter songs

“Fascist propaganda at the beginning of the 20th century made them the embodiment of Italian femininity, both ultra-productive and fertile. Yet in their songs, the mondine opened a space for self-expression where they openly rejected the representation of their bodies by the regime. Drawing direct inspiration from Fascist songs, they succeeded in hijacking the state’s message, saturating it with socialist and communist language. By using their bodies to sing acts of resistance, the mondine gained independence and became an integral part of Italian history.”

Pick Your Favourite Origin Story

When we consider the folkloric origin stories of rice, there are so many that we could be here until next episode so I have chosen three of my favourites. The first two are from the Miao people of Sichuan: It is said that their ancestors did not have the necessary seed to sow their fields. They set a green bird free which then flew up to the rice granary of the heaven god and returned with the heavenly rice seed.,

Another myth of their people recounts the time of the distant past when dogs had nine tails, until a dog went to steal grains from heaven, and lost eight of its tails to the weapons of the heavenly guards while making its escape, but bringing back grain seeds stuck onto its surviving tail. As a result of this when they hold their harvest celebration, the dogs are the first to be fed.

My third is from Japan where Inari, as a goddess, was said to have come to Japan at the time of its creation amidst a harsh famine that struck the land. “She descended from Heaven riding on a white fox, and in her hand she carried sheaves of rice.” Inari in the god’s masculine aspect is often pictured as an old, bearded man sitting on a sack of rice. Sometimes he is pictured riding on a white fox. In the feminine aspect Inari is pictured with long flowing hair and sheaves of rice plants. Outside the shrines of Inari there are often many fox statues as the fox is considered as he messenger and servant of Inari. Some statues may show the fox with a key in their mouth. This is symbolic for the key that will unlock the rice storehouse, it is the key to wealth.

A Plethora of Superstitions

Next we have some of interesting rice based superstitions:

Rice has always been a strong symbol of health and prosperity. You might not realise it, but throwing rice, confetti or rose petals at weddings has a long superstitious tradition – it was believed that rice would appease evil spirits so they would not harm the wedding couple. Throwing rice was meant to bring happiness, fertility, wealth and prosperity to the newly-wed couple.  

There is also a superstition that says bringing uncooked rice as a housewarming gift will make sure no one will go hungry under a new roof. Equally, sprinkling uncooked rice around the new home will help to bring prosperity.

You should never put chopsticks into a bowl of rice in the upright position otherwise you may be cursed with evil ghosts and spirits in your home. This is thought to be because this action is symbolic of incense, which is used to attract spirits and ghosts back to the world thus the person is inviting unclean spirits and ghosts into their home, and causing bad luck to themselves.

In Indonesia there’s a belief that you should avoid eating rice from a small plate, as this will cause your close relations to spurn you. Spilling rice all over the table is also a definite taboo, as this will cause your mind to become polluted.

In the Philippines it is believed that if you eat the hardened rice from the bottom of the pot in which the rice was cooked, you will be the ‘last one in everything’, be it a race, in class, at work, or in life.

My final one is possibly the scariest: apparently if you go to bed hungry, your soul will get up and steal cold rice from the pot.

A Glassmaker’s Influence

After that chilling thought I will let you have my recipe as a comfort. It is of course a risotto, a vegetarian unless you choose to use meat stock or add meat.

Did you know that according to folklore, risotto emerged in Italy in 1574. A stained-glass maker, working on Il Duomo in Milan, added saffron to his glass recipe to achieve a bright yellow colour. Liking the results, as a joke, he also coloured the beef mar- row and rice with saffron at a wedding feast, but the guests found the dish delectable. It became known as risotto alla Milanese. However, according to Alan Davidson the first recipes weren’t published until the mid-19th century by Artusi, the first celebrated Italian cookery writer, and Vialardi, later chef to King Victor Emmanuel.

This recipe is elegant in its simplicity and you can enjoy it as that or you can add any of your favourite risotto ingredients to make it your own. I even use this recipe, which is adapted from the divine Anna del Conte, as a meditation tool. If you fancy trying that then the link to the instructions below. Otherwise just enjoy a delicious risotto, maybe even with that exciting carnaroli rice I mentioned.




Prep time


Cooking time




  • 2 pints of stock (your choice can be homemade, from a cube, powder or even one of those lovely squidgy things)

  • 2oz butter chopped into little cubes

  • 2oz grated Parmesan or veggie hard Italian cheese plus any extra you fancy for serving

  • 10oz risotto rice

  • 1 onion, chopped

  • A splash of oil, I prefer olive


  • Add the olive oil and about 1/3 of the butter into a wide relatively shallow pan (but not as shallow as a frying pan if you can)
  • Add onion to butter and oil and fry over medium heat until softened and turning brown around the edges (around 5-10 mins)
  • Whilst onion is cooking heat stock to a simmer in a saucepan
  • Add rice to pan and make sure all grains are coated in the oil/butter mixture and stir around for a minute. You should see the grains go almost see through at the edges.
  • Add 1 full ladle of stock to rice and set timer for 18 minutes then stir gently and then add another ladle of stock once all liquid is nearly absorbed. Repeat until the timer goes off. You may still have a little stock left, it will depend upon your rice. Don’t worry about it. Take risotto pan off heat and add remaining butter and grated cheese to pan on top of rice mixture. Do not stir. Put lid on pan if you have one or cover with foil or chopping board and leave it to rest for 3-5 minutes. Do not skip this step.
  • Remove cover, stir and serve with extra cheese if you like. See note for add ons or variations


  • I sometimes add pesto at the just before covering stage & serve with baked mushrooms. I occasionally add roasted veg & cooked greens before taking it off the heat. I sometimes reheat chicken in the stock & add just before taking it off the heat. You can pretty much add anything pre cooked but if it’s cold you should add before the last ladle of stock. I sometimes keep it as is and add a runny poached egg when serving which I poach in any leftover stock whilst the risotto is resting.
Further Reading


The Puzzle of Italian Rice Origin and Evolution: Determining Genetic Divergence and Affinity of Rice Germplasm from Italy and Asia

Pathways to Asian Civilizations: Tracing the Origins and Spread of Rice and Rice Cultures
Giorgio Locatelli. Made In Sicily

The Museum of Rice Culture

Italy. The mondines’ bitter songs – Elizabeth Leemann.

Featured Image: A rice field