At the start of 1953 the eyes of the world were focussed on the pending coronation of Queen Elizabeth in London. However in Nepal the focus was on the tapioca harvest and the rise of rice as the upcoming choice for milk based puddings. Tapioca was in steady decline and even the great British public schools which for years had underpinned the tapioca industry with an insatiable demand for the grain for its school dinners were now looking at rice, the new kid on the block.
Nepal had placed tariffs on the import of pudding rice during the summer of 1952 but it was unable to stop the flood into the country and so in January 1953 Nepal introduced a countrywide ban.
Meanwhile the British were planning a new assault on the summit of Everest after an expedition the year before had come within 778 feet of the top. Edmund Hilary had been selected as a key member of the team but was on the point of withdrawing from the expedition when he heard of the rice pudding ban. Growing up in New Zealand he had been introduced to the creamy concoction at an early age and before the ban had approached Ambrosia, a major pudding purveyor, as a potential sponsor of the expedition. With funding on the verge of being withdrawn and a potential grain war developing with the Syrian sago producers who had thrown their hat in with the Nepalese, the climbers came up with a plan to secure funding and ensure their favourite pudding fuelled their assault.
Labels from rice pudding tins were steamed off and tapioca pudding labels applied. The labels were then ironed flat and padded up to look like notebooks so they could be re-applied to the tins on achieving the summit.
Five rice puddings were disguised in this cunning way and then mixed in with a complete carton of tapioca. The whole plan now hinged on none of the Nepalese guards opening one of these cans. Hilary just had one problem now which was causing him some sleepless nights, he didn’t want to mislead his climbing partner and proud Nepalese friend Tenzing. He decided to come clean and tell him and hope he didn’t report them to the authorities. The tin can ruse worked perfectly and the prized cargo crossed the border and arrived safely at base camp in early May 1953. Hilary though was wracked with guilt and the night before they left to begin their attempt took Tenzing aside and confessed that the whole expedition was funded by rice pudding money and was taking an elicit 5 can cargo to the top. In his autobiography Hilary shared the moment.
” At first he said nothing and I began to sense it was all over, but then a huge grin spread over his face and he began laughing. “Edmund my friend I hate the stuff its like eating frogspawn, whatever that is.” I clapped him on the shoulder and he told me to get my kit we were off to the top.”
On the night before the final push, Hilary and Tenzing removed the tapioca labels and carefully taking apart their notebooks extracted the precious 5 rice pudding labels. In acknowledgement to the semolina farmers of Colombia who had donated generously to the expedition they reapplied the correct labels with a semolina based glue and prepared for their date with destiny.
On the 29th May 1953 Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay stood on the top of the world took a few pictures, embraced and then sat down to eat Ambrosia Creamed Rice cold straight from the tin. It was not only the greatest mountaineering expedition but the introduction to the world of a new delicacy without which most of the British student population would have succumbed to malnutrition.
Nepal could fight it no longer and the tapioca industry quickly collapsed. Rice pudding swept the world and master chefs took it to new heights with the introduction of decadent additions such as strawberry jam and nutmeg. School dinners were transformed and within 3 years of the Everest assault British schoolchildren had grown on average by three inches.
One of the original labels
Tenzing with tin opener