What is the history of rice cake popularity, and how are they made?

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History of the Popularity of Rice Cakes

The history of rice cake popularity is a short, modern history though rice cakes in one form or another have existed since ancient times in Japan, China and Southeast Asia. For example, mochi glutenous rice cakes have been a traditional feast-day and upper...

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History of the Popularity of Rice Cakes

The history of rice cake popularity is a short, modern history though rice cakes in one form or another have existed since ancient times in Japan, China and Southeast Asia. For example, mochi glutenous rice cakes have been a traditional feast-day and upper class delicacy since ancient time in Japan's history. Short grain rice cultivation, brought to Japan by Chinese and Korean immigrants, was well underway as early as 2000 years ago. Rice cakes of the popularity that you ask about depend upon puffed rice kernels and puffing was introduced by Dr. Alexander P. Anderson who, stumbling across "puffing" while trying to ascertain the water content of a single granule of starch, introduced the first puffing machine at the World's Fair in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1904. His eights "guns" that puffed grains for Fair goers were dubbed "The Eighth Wonder of the World" by an advertising billboard poster. 

Once the puffing principle, technique and technology had been discovered by Anderson, the competition to puff ready-to-eat American breakfast cereal took over the economy of Battle Creek, Michigan, with Kellogg's and Quaker Oats being two memorable and still active names to endure through the early puffing frenzy. After puffed breakfast cereal, came puffed rice cakes. Health reform and emphasis on natural foods began in the late 1800s and was principally centered in Battle Creek. Two leaders were men with the well known name of Kellogg: Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Keith Kellogg, most notable for his idea of adding sugar to Dr. Kellogg's manufactured corn flakes. Health food stores began opening in the early- to mid-1920s, with Martindale's and The Original Health Food Store leading the way in Philadelphia and New York, respectively. These stores sold the new puffed, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals and their creative cousins, the rice cakes. As health food manufacturing companies proliferated, beginning with companies like Sherman Foods in 1924 and El Molino Mills in 1926, the public became more interested in health reforms and health foods sold in health food stores. One store, Nature Food Center, has grossed $50 million a year in modern times (Shurtleff and Aoyagi). 

The aftermath of World War II awoke an interest in vitamins and supplements. By the 1950s, Lindberg's Nutrition Service was one of the largest health food store industry names, and, in 1952, Dr. Joe D. Nicholas introduced the Concept of Totality, which was the forerunner of the preventive and holistic approach to medicine known today and which was based on nutrition, environmental and psychological factors. By the 1960s, the concepts of prevention, totality, holistic treatment and health foods, supplements, vitamins and nutritional eating had become a solid cultural phenomenon, so much so that by the 1970s and early 1980s items like yogurt and rice cakes and granola, which had been strictly specialty health food store merchandise, were pushed out into mainstream markets and called to the attention of typical shoppers (Shurtleff and Aoyagi). From there, it is not a far jump to the 1990s and rice cakes' role in diet and snacking history. In 2014, rice cakes are still a strong component of healthful dieting and snacking efforts and will remain so as manufacturers continue to tempt with delicious flavors and improved textures.

Manufacture of Rice Cakes

Manufacturing begins with raw ingredients. The two raw ingredients for rice cakes are water and rice. Short grain glutenous, or sticky, rice, whether white or brown, is preferred. Long grain rice does not fluff up to the extent short grain rice does when cooked or puffed, therefore long grain rice has an inhibited ability to clump and "stick" together and is harder and stiffer. Water content in manufacturing rice cakes is critical because either too much or too little water will make rice cakes crumble or crack apart, an unsatisfactory result for quality, marketable rice cakes. Salt and herbs or spices and sweeteners interfere with the process so are not added as ingredients in the production process but are sprayed on at the last stage of manufacture.

Rice has moisture within each kernel. Consequently, when exposed to the right amount of heat and pressure, the moisture will explode and the kernel will expand from the outward pressure of the explosion, in just the same way that heat and pressure make pop corn pop. The greater the expansion, the more flavorful it will be and the more satisfying the texture will be. The manufacture of rice cakes requires that additional water be added to the rice kernels as they are small and hard and in some ways unlike our favorite puffing kernel, pop corn.

  • Rice is selected according to grain requirements for stickiness, expandability, flavor.
  • Raw rice is soaked in water until the specified moisture level is attained.
  • Moist, raw rice is fed into hoppers that distribute it to cooking heads / shape molds that produce one rice cake every 15 seconds.
  • Cast iron cooking head-molds are heated to hundreds of degrees.
  • A slide plate creates a vacuum in the cooking-mold chamber holding the moist, still raw rice.
  • Pressure from the vacuum expands the chamber; expansion increases the pressure on the rice.
  • Heat and pressure force the rice to explode and expand to fill the mold chamber.
  • Errors at this stage may have occurred in the air-to-rice ratio or in the moisture-density ratio.
  • Correct ratios allow the natural properties of the bran, germ and endosperm to adhere or bond to each other eliminating the need for clumping additives.
  • One cake falls to the conveyor belt when the slide plate opens to release the rice cake.
  • Cakes move on the conveyor belt under spray heads that spray on salt, herbs, spices, sweeteners or other flavor creations.
  • Cakes continue on the conveyor to move into a tunnel dryer that dries the moisture added by the flavor sprayer.
  • Baggers in the bagging area take each cake by hand, inspect it and stack it or reject broken or ill-formed cakes.
  • Stacked rice cakes are sealed in shrinkwrapping.
  • The shrinkwrapped stack is placed in a labeled, identified overwrap bag and sealed.
  • The sealed bags are packed in cartons for shipping.

Quality Control

Quality control requires constant monitoring of the ambient moisture levels as well as moisture levels throughout the process and the factory. Ambient moisture from the weather of the area may affect production so on a dry day, more moisture may be added to the raw rice during the water soak phase while on a moist day, less moisture may be added. Just as moisture levels may interfere with the production of rice cakes, so might residue in the machines from the rice cake production process. Consequently, the machines are cleaned every few hours. Cakes or bits of broken cakes that are rejected for quality control reasons are given a second life through creative marketing as bite-sized snacks or by being pressed into chips or crackers.


William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. History of Seventh-day Adventist Work with Soyfoods, Vegetarianism, Meat  Alternatives, Wheat Gluten, Dietary Fiber and Peanut Butter (1863-2013)

"A new, super-nutritious puffed rice for breakfast cereals and snacks." Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

"Rice Cake." How Products are Made. Ed. Stacey L. Blachford. Vol. 4. Gale Cengage, 2002

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