All Rice!

How can something so simple be this good? Fried, boiled, steamed – brown, white or wild – how much do you know about this most important staple food for a large part of the human population? Here’s what I know about my favorite food – fun trivia I’ve picked up from eating buckets of rice all over the world.

Text and Photo by Jennifer Ellson

In China, one asks “have you had your rice?” (“ni chi fan le ma?”) in lieu of “how are you?”

Meanwhile, rice is so well-loved in Japan that two car brands were named after rice. Toyota means ‘fertile rice paddies’, while Honda means ‘the base rice field’.

Back in China, there is an old wives tale that a girl who doesn’t finish her rice will have a future husband with many pockmarks on his face – as many as the girl’s uneaten grains! Oh how cruel! But there’s also a Chinese belief that leftover rice is a cure for migraines, so I guess there’s the silver lining for her: ugly husband, but migraine-free.

Here are other facts and trivia:

Filipino rice cakes

Without a doubt, Asians love their rice – we love our rice! It’s not surprising, really, since some 90% of the world’s rice is grown in Asia.

In the Philippines, older people often tell inexperienced young ones that they have to eat more rice before they can have the same wisdom as the elders (“Marami ka pang kakaining bigas!”). There is a saying that Filipinos have two stomachs – one reserved for rice, and a generic one for everything else. And even when the generic stomach is full, if the rice stomach is empty, then one will never be satisfied. As a Filipino, I guarantee that it is true!

People in the Philippines love their rice indeed. It starts at a very young age, when most newborns are given ‘hugas bigas’ or ‘am’, the nutritious water obtained from washing rice grains, as a milk supplement, or sometimes even as a replacement.

Similar to their Filipino brethren, Indian babies’ first solid food is basmati rice given during the Hindu Annaprashan, or the first rice-eating ceremony. Rice is also the first food a new Indian bride offers her husband.

In Indonesia, the goddess mother Dewi Sri is also known as the rice mother, and has power over birth, life and rice. Yes, rice is regarded with the same importance as life itself, being the staple food of Indonesians, and offerings to the rice mother include putting pinches of rice along the edges of rice paddies to keep evil spirits at bay.

Japanese rice has its own god, Inari, who protects the valuable rice fields and ensures a successful crop each year.

Thailand and Cambodia have their own rice goddesses and since ancient times, Cambodian and Thai royalties have celebrated the beginning of the rice growing season with an annual Royal Plowing Day ceremony in the month of May.

Rice is definitely loved in Southeast Asia. Rice is eaten at least three times a day that side of the earth near the equator. A typical breakfast in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and every other ASEAN member nation would include rice porridge with shallots and fried garlic, fried rice with egg, steamed rice with chicken, fish and sambal sauce – often all at the same time! Of course every dish during lunch and dinner is accompanied by rice, sometimes with rice wine to boot. As if that is not enough, Southeast Asians eat rice cakes and other rice-based snacks between meals.

It is just proper that this tiny grain is given the respect it deserves. Rice is a labour-intensive grain that requires a lot of sweat and tears to cultivate, among many other things. It has been said that it takes 5,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of irrigated rice, and to plow a hectare of land in the traditional way, a farmer and his water buffalo must walk 80 km.

So remember this the next time you order your yang chow fried rice, rice pilaf, nasi goreng, risotto, or even your California sushi roll. Think of the hardworking farmers who laboriously made it all happen for you to enjoy your meal. Hence, there should be NO GRAIN LEFT BEHIND.

And remember the Chinese saying about having a husband with pockmarks on his face? You don’t want to risk it, do you?

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All rights reserved (Jennifer Ellson)

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