The Great Wide World of Thai RiceThailand has long been known as the "Rice Bowl of Asia", not just because of its importance in the country's trade, but also because of the overwhelming importance of rice in every aspect of Thai life. Rice is the staple food of the entire Kingdom and has naturally assumed a great importance in the traditions and religion of the country.
First cultivated as much as 9,000 years ago, it is inevitable that rice should have been selected by farmers to show a wide range of different adaptation to its habitat. Even within Thailand, one can find rice which is grown on mountainsides, depending on the whims of the seasonal rains to ensure its growth, and rice which grows in deep floodwaters, with stems that may extend several meters in length. These are a far cry from the idyllic pictures of verdant rice paddies stretching as far as the eye can see. Thai farmers have chosen types that mature quickly in case of failure of the early monsoon, and others which grow more slowly giving a better crop when conditions are perfect; they have selected some which have light and fluffy grains and others that are sticky when cooked. As Thai cuisine depends so deeply on rice, its very foundation, and as such a wealth of different types have been raised for different reasons, no one should be surprised that rice wears many different disguises in the Siamese kitchen.
Like most of the world's staple foods, cereals such as wheat, corn, barley, sorghum, millet, oats and rye, rice is a kind of grass. The grains, which are the edible part of the plant, are surrounded by a hard indigestible husk which has to be removed by milling or pounding. The extent to which this is done influences the purity of the rice and also the nourishment that it contains. Polished white rice has about 90% content of edible carbohydrates, the highest of any major cereal, but loses most of its minerals, vitamins and other health-inducing chemicals in the polishing process. Traditional ways of removing the husk used to ensure that vitamins A, B, C, D and E were not lost, and that cancer retardants, called protease inhibitors, remained with the grains. In ancient times rice was a far more complete meal than it is now, but the endless array of heavenly dishes that make Thai dining such a pleasure now provide most of these healthy natural supplements instead.
Although Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation, the growing and eating of rice far predate the adoption of the religion, and it is perhaps inevitable that ancient animistic beliefs remain intertwined with this life-grain of the Thai people. For the Thais, rice has a soul, Mae Posop, the "Rice Goddess" or "Rice Mother". She is born from rice, she falls pregnant when the rice flowers and she gives birth to rice. When a trader buys rice from a grower, he returns a handful of the crop to the farmer so the soul of the crop is not lost. The farmer also respects and cares for Mae Posop during the dry season when no rice is grown, offering food and shelter and feminine comforts to ease her long wait and to encourage her to guard the granaries where the precious grain is stored. The rice that reaches the table can be broadly classified into 4 different types. There is the dense Khao Nak or Heavy Rice which takes 4 months to ripen while Khao Bao, Soft Rice, matures after only 3 months, and is looser in texture. Khao Jao or Khao Suai is the light, fluffy loose-grained rice popular throughout Central and Southern Thailand, and which finds its way into dishes around the world, while Khao Niew, sticky or glutinous rice, is most popular in Northern and Northeastern Thai dining.
Of the loose-grained types, Khao Hom Mali, called fragrant rice, or literally jasmine-scented rice, is the best known. It is debatable whether this or the Indian Basmati rice is the world's finest, though no Thai would be in any doubt! There are many other regional types of rice, all with distinct characters, which their growers' would claim are best of all. Many have evocative names such as Khao Dawk Makham, or tamarind flower rice, which date back many generations.
Sticky rice, which, as its name implies, can be pressed into a ball and dipped into sauces, is similarly divided into many different regional types, distinct in color, taste and time to maturity. The rice balls are always made and eaten using the right hand, a point that the first time diner should bear in mind. Apart from the ordinary white sticky rice, turning to opalescent pearl on cooking, there are black and red types as well. In Thai these are called Khao Niew Dum and Khao Niew Daeng respectively.
But rice contributes far more to Thai cooking than merely being the easily recognized foundation of almost all Thai meals. "What about noodles?" You may say, "Everyone eats them at lunch time." Most noodles are made from rice flour so even when enjoying your bowl of Guay Tiew, you are eating rice. Rice noodles come as the broad Guay Tiew Zen Yai, the narrow Guay Tiew Zen Lek or the thin Guay Tiew Zen Mee. Even the popular nests of Thai vermicelli known as Khanom Jeen are made from rice flour. Rice flour can be made from non-glutinous rice, Paeng Khao Jao, or from sticky rice, Paeng Khao Niew. Is that all there is to rice then? Believe it or not we've hardly started on the uses of this versatile cereal that have been developed in Thailand over the years. It is used in such a wide range of savory dishes, desserts and roadside snacks that it almost defies belief.
Anyone who has enjoyed a meal of sticky rice dipped into the delicious relish called Laab may wonder where the distinctive flavor comes from. From rice of course! Rice grains are roasted and ground, giving both taste and color to the dish.
After rice has been cooked there is always a layer stuck to the bottom of the pan. Do you throw it out with the washing-up water? No way, you soak it and lift it off in sheets. Dry them and get tasty crispy rice, Khao Tung, which is toasted or fried to make a popular snack.
Left over sticky rice? No problem. Just let it ferment and turn it into Khao Maak, a favorite traditional sweet. Roast your sticky rice with the husks still on and pound it with a pestle in a mortar, and it is pressed flat. The husks can be removed by shaking and blowing. White sugar, coconut meat, and salt are added to the rice . You've got Khao Mao sold in markets all over the North. What on earth is in those funny bamboo tubes that are being sold by the roadside? You've guessed it, rice, Khao Laam, a popular sweet snack.
After all these years of growing and eating rice, the Thais have developed many specialized utensils to deal with all aspects of the cultivation and cooking of their most important food. With the advent of modern machinery, rice mills, trucks to carry the great sacks of grain, electric rice cookers and so forth, most of these have fallen into disuse and are rarely seen. But in the rural communities of the North, much has not changed. Sticky rice is still steamed fresh each morning in a basket that has hardly changed over the centuries, even if the heat that boils the water comes from a gas cylinder. The farm worker still goes to his fields with his sticky rice container, plain or ornate, slung over his arm, hanging from the handle of his hoe or, more likely these days, the handlebar of his motorcycle.
The methods of preparing rice are legion, and the mouth-watering recipes are countless. If you want to know more, read on next month.
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