WORLDFOOD – Rice Story

30 May 2003

Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in the south is known as the ‘rice bowl’, and this region together with the Red River Delta up north is the heart of Vietnamese rice cultivation. Roughly half of Vietnam’s rice is grown in irrigated lowlands, and the other half under rain-fed lowland conditions. Mixed cultivation is common—rice farmers often use their rice fields to cultivate fruit trees, fish, and even shrimp in saline areas.

Rice has become the most important crop, ahead of corn, potatoes, soybeans, bananas and sugar, and takes up 6.3 million hectares or 80% of arable land, but recently risiculture has suffered a difficult period. Cultivation has been severely compromised by a brutal cold spell that destroyed early rice seedlings across 32 northern provinces, ruining a third of the crop. Also, recent shipments to Iraq, Vietnam’s major rice trading partner, have been disrupted by war, affecting a quarter of Vietnam’s total rice exports.

Traditional Vietnamese rice cuisine is rooted in the country’s southern region, which is home to the paddy fields. In northern areas, Chinese-style rice noodle soups are more common. Where served, rice forms the central staple of a meal, and unlike in Laos, Vietnamese don’t favor glutinous rice varieties.

Rice is typically accompanied by soup and perhaps one or two stir-fried main dishes, and sometimes a shrimp or beef salad. The fish sauce nuoc mam is an indispensable condiment on every table that flavors almost every dish. Sometimes, richly-marinated meat or fish is simmered in a wok with fish sauce, as the Chinese would do, making a savory topping for a bowl of rice. One of Vietnam’s internationally known dishes, Pho, is made from broth filled with rice noodles—you can buy it on the street corners and in alleys, where local vendors hawk their wares. The word Pho has been worked into local idiomatic language: eating rice at home is likened to being married, while enjoying Pho on the street is a euphemism for having a lover.

Laos—or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (as it is formally called)—is landlocked between Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and China to the north. Historically, there is a traditional distinction of local ethnicity based on how rice is consumed around the country. Annual rice production ranges between 1.2 to 1.7 million tons, it accounts for 70 percent of employment, and is largely subsistence-driven with only less than 5 percent traded.

Laotian researchers have identified over 8,000 varieties of rice, almost all of which are waxy or glutinous. These traditional varieties are associated often with colorful local names and legends. The Mae May (‘widow’) produces unripe grains, while Tom (‘muddy’) has a brownish color. Khen Sua (‘shirtsleeve’) is so called because a farmer is said to have hidden it in his shirtsleeve after picking it from another field in order to smuggle it back home. According to legend, the Khen Sua seeds later fell into the hands of an old woman who planted and distributed them all around the Pek district, where this variety continues to be cultivated to this day.

Laotians eat kao niaw (sticky rice) with pa daek (a paste made of preserved fish and salt), and they prepare their kao niaw in a variety of ways—steaming and conserving it in different types of hand-woven bamboo baskets. When eaten, a small palmful of sticky rice is worked into a ball and dipped by hand into sauces. There are many flavorful dishes that complement the sticky rice, including bamboo shoots soup, traditional meat salad known as koy, or a dish of fatty fish. This is washed down with local rice wine (khao kam) or rice whisky (lao lao). At feasts, a popular cold dish based on rice vermicelli (kao poun), is served with a salad and spicy coconut-based gravy.

Prehistoric Cambodian temple reliefs depict scenes of traditional rice cultivation, and accounts by early Chinese traders in Cambodia attest to the central role of rice in this country’s culture and religion. Cambodia is one of the centers of rice biodiversity, with nearly 4,000 varieties of Oryza Sativa. However, the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979 was responsible for the destruction of essential scientific records and germplasm, as well as the deaths of many pioneering researchers. In addition, entire traditional varieties became extinct after starving people were forced to eat their own rice seed. Also, a number of leading pioneering researchers were executed during this period, irrevocably impeding the country’s attempts at archiving its own natural rice heritage.

Cambodia began exporting rice in earnest in the mid-1990s after two decades of difficulties due to war and the domestic political situation. Rice cultivation presently accounts for around 85 percent of the agricultural labor force, and 1.8 million hectares—or roughly 90 percent—of agricultural land. Local rice accounted for exports of 4.1million tons in 2001, but became severely affected alternately by drought and floods which damaged 15 percent of arable land.

Traditional Cambodian cuisine, as it survives in current times, is commonly described as a melting pot of Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese techniques and tastes. Rice figures prominently in meals throughout the day. Breakfast might start with some sticky rice served with eggs or a small helping of roast pork accompanied by soup. Come lunch or dinner, a steaming serving of a sticky porridge, bo bo, makes a hearty meal, with slices of chicken or prawns, ginger and mushrooms. Although there is heavy use of spices like coriander, lemongrass and mint, the accompanying Cambodian dishes are on the whole less spicy than those found in Thai cuisine, and tend to veer towards sweet and sour flavors. One emblematic Cambodian rice product is khao phoun: rice noodles served in a coconut-based sauce.

Don Bosco, an expert on Asian cuisine, has authored and co-authored two cookbooks.

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