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Rice: Helping to Feed The World

When Oliver Twist, in Mr. Charles Dickens' well-known story, asked for more it was because he was hungry. Sadly, it continues to be a fact that many of our world's people remain hungry. Rice, or Khao, the Thai word, perhaps the world's most widely produced crop, alleviates some of that hunger but it has got to do more. Approximately 3,000 million people regard rice not only as their staple food but a meaningful part of their culture, traditions and society. In declaring that the Year 2004 would be the International Year of Rice, Dr. Jaques Diouf, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, indicated that rice is the main diet for over half the world's population. But populations continue to grow so rice production, both in quantity and quality, must also improve. Agricultural scientists constantly research new strains of rice in a bid to control natural pests and increase nutritious yields.

Thailand is richly blessed with its ability to produce and harvest rice not only satisfying the needs of its people but also exporting thousands of tons to other nations. To generation after generation of Thai people, rice is part of the psyche. It not only fills the stomach but it is part of the soul and spirit of the Kingdom. The Spirit Goddess of Rice is Mae Posop and it is she who gives her bounty to Thai farmers, men and women, in return for their backbreaking labour. Abundantly fertile, yet timid and gentle, Mae (Mother) Posop is seen as a beautiful lady, with long, dark tresses. In paintings, drawing and sculpture, she is usually attired in traditional Siamese garments with a satchel of rice grains in her left hand while a clutch of rice stalks is held in her right. She wears a figure hugging sarong gathered in folded pleats in the front.

The garment is cinched at the waist with a golden belt. On her head she wears a sparkling tiara. It is a sign of her pregnancy when the rice stalks flower; the harvested rice grains are the product of that pregnancy. Each grain carries the essence of Mae Posop's spirit and, when the bulk grain is sold; the buyer will symbolically return a handful of the rice to the farmer for the fertilizing of next season's crop. Every rice-growing season, prayers are offered to the sacred spirit of Mae Posop, she is honoured in song as the rice seedlings are tended and the Goddess is thanked when a rich, bountiful harvest stands swaying in the breeze. Rice is so ingrained in the Thai psyche that people will speak of rice even when they are not actually talking about rice. An example is when neighbours meet and polite greetings are exchanged they will inquire "Gkin khao rue Yaang"? the literal meaning of which is "have you eaten rice yet"? but the question being asked is "How are you"?

In Thailand, rice cultivation and harvesting continues, almost unchanged, as it has done for centuries. Nowadays the water supply is much more organized and dependable (thanks to H.M. King Bhumibol's Royal Project Irrigation Schemes the massive Mae Guang and Mae Ngud Dams are local examples) and the traditional, plough pulling water buffalo has given way to the "mechanical buffalo" (a small, hand guided tractor with wide "paddle" wheels). But much else remains the same. The paddy fields are flooded (each paddy is surrounded by a low, mud dike and there are intricate, interconnecting irrigation channels), fertilizer is added, and the farmer, behind his chugging "mechanical buffalo", ploughs the mud into a smooth, soupy mixture.

Rice seedlings (which have been growing in a concentrated seedbed) are lifted, tied into small bundles and tossed, in an approximate pattern, into the waiting paddy. Now the really hard, back-bending work begins. Neighbours will help neighbours as perhaps a score or more farmers work together to plant a large area of small, individual paddies. The bundles of seedlings will be separated and each seedling planted in formation about 30 cms apart. It is muddy, hard, physical work, from early morning until dusk, but invariably accompanied by much chatter and exchange of gossip (especially from the ladies).

A short lunch break, maybe under a shady tree or bamboo hut, will be the only break in the day's toil. And the work goes on, for days, until the final paddy is planted. Depending upon the variety planted, the rice will grow to maturity over the next few months and the farmer will constantly monitor his paddy and control the flow of irrigation water. A most beautiful, dancing carpet of dazzling, strong green will cover the paddies and give visual pleasure to anyone who travels the highways and byways of rural Thailand.

When the ears of rice are ripened, the paddy is allowed to drain and dry off. The rice stalks will be cut by hand (using a sickle) and left to dry in the sun for a few days. Then the stalks, with the fat rice grains at the tips, are tied into bundles for hand threshing or, more usually nowadays, stacked into a large rick to await the arrival of a threshing machine (a group of farmers will work together and hire a threshing machine between them). As the rice husks are arced away from the machine onto waiting trucks, the stalks are discarded and the rice grains, Mae Posop's bounty, are bagged ready for the mills and the buyers. The rice grains bring the greatest return but the farmer sells every part of his crop husks and stalks (rice straw) included. These have other uses in market gardening or in the cultivation of mushrooms. Nothing is wasted.

Thai farmers cultivate a variety of rice strains (as the market demands) while Thai housewives and restaurants present the rice in a choice of cooking styles. Unpolished, brown rice is the most nutritious but markets seem to prefer white, polished rice so that's what most people are accustomed to (the whiteness of rice is associated to the purity of Buddhism). In Thailand, it is usually steamed, boiled or fried depending upon personal taste and ranges from the fluffy fragrance of Jasmine rice to the glutinous Sticky rice.

Each type has a special place in Thai cuisine. Jasmine rice, either boiled or steamed, is the centre-piece of a meal which will feature an array of accompanying spicy or mild, sweet and sour Thai dishes. Sticky rice, which rapidly fills a hungry stomach, is usually served from a bamboo steamer. It is picked up in one's fingers, kneaded into a small ball, dipped into a flavouring or sauce and popped into the mouth. Sweetened sticky rice is also served as a rich, yummy dessert when it is presented with ripe, golden mango and a topping of coconut cream. Long grain rice is usually used for savoury dishes and short grain rice for sweet puddings.

Finest quality Thai rice is exported around the world (especially fragrant Jasmine) and, aside from Thai restaurants in Europe, Australasia and the Americas finds its way to western tables in other recipes. What "farang" hasn't relished a creamy rice pudding with a baked topping dotted with cinnamon? Or savoured the aroma and tastes of the Mediterranean in a rice pilaf, Spanish paella or Italian risotto? Rice in an almost limitless variety of styles. It is also served as a flavoured porridge (Joak) and noodles are made from rice flour. Long grain rice is used for brewing rice vinegar while, for those who prefer something stronger, arrack, sake and rice wine all come from this wonderful grain.

Of course, Thai cooking has long been regarded as one of the world's healthiest and tastiest cuisines to which Thai rice makes the perfect partner. A large container of rice is always the centrepiece. Surrounding the large central bowl of rice there will be several dishes offering a balanced selection of flavors and textures. In addition to the rice, a typical meal might include a soup (Tohm Yaam), a curry (Gaeng), fresh vegetables (Yaam), a fried dish (Phad), a spicy hot dipping sauce (Naam Prig) and a steamed selection. The soup is served together with the other dishes whereas western custom is to serve the soup as the first course.

Khao Paad, moderately priced at streetside stalls, is regarded as a quick dish which is easy to make. Fry 1 tablespoon of chopped garlic over high heat then add 6 shrimps and fry until cooked. Break an egg into the pan and scramble. Pour in 1 tablespoon of sliced onion, oyster sauce, soya sauce, sugar, respectively and 1 dish of rice, stir-fry until mixed well, add the sliced tomato and chopped spring onion. Fry until the tomatoes are cooked. Spoon up onto a plate and sprinkle with coriander leaves and ground pepper.

We offer this recipe for that delicious dessert mentioned earlier Mango with Sticky Thai Rice (Khao Niew Mamuang ) with which you can impress your dinner guests. Use short grained Thai rice, which has been soaked, overnight in cold water and steam until cooked through. 300 gms (1.5 cups) sticky rice - cooked & still warm, 240 mls (1 cup) coconut milk, 2 Tablespoons sugar, Half teaspoon salt, 3 large, ripe mangoes (fresh is best but canned if unavailable), 2 Tablespoons coconut cream. In a container, combine the coconut milk, sugar and salt, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Mix in the still warm cooked rice and set aside for 30 minutes. Peel the mangoes and slice the flesh away from the central stone. Heap the rice in the centre of a serving dish and arrange the chunks of mango flesh around it. Pour the coconut cream over the rice. Serve and enjoy!

In this year of 2004, the United Nations International Year of Rice, many people will not have the opportunity to dine on Mango with Sticky Thai Rice but those who do, like Oliver Twist, will ask for more. And not because they are hungry! It is good to remember what rice means to the world - as a food, as a culture and a society - and good to remember Mae Posop and the abundance she gives to the world through the endeavours of the rural Thai farming community. Do have a great holiday visit to Northern Thailand and enjoy our cuisine with a plentiful serving of world-renowned Thai rice!

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