It is always like a side dish.
Rice seems almost like a humble accompaniment for a concert of strong tastes in Asia.
Staple to Asian meals, it comes in a wonderful variety of forms. It’s not only a side-dish but can be an appetizer, like the Thai rice crackers with moo yong, or dried pulled pork which can either be salty or sweet. Rice based dishes can also be a full main course, like fried rice with vegetables and egg. Some of the most popular desserts in Southeast Asia like khao niao mamuang, mango and sticky rice of Thailand and the bubur injin, Balinese red rice pudding feature rice as a chewy element in the dessert.
Rice is most always eaten with something else.
When the main dish is a salty and fried protein like the gourami fish fried to a crisp, rice cuts the saltiness of the fish.
In other dishes, the rice is a fragrant accompaniment to a meat dish, such as in the famous Singaporean hawkers’ specialty chicken rice. The soup in the Singaporean dish is made from the chicken stock with a little flavor from sweet gourd and fresh, chopped spring onion. In a recipe for chicken rice that a friend showed me to do, a lot of flavor seeps into the stock as it boils with the ginger and scallions added to the boiling chicken.
Although the taste from the stock is subtle, the punch in the chicken rice dish is from the sauces you dip the chicken into. In Singapore hawkers markets or restaurants serving this dish elsewhere, often you can choose from three dipping sauces for this dish: black soy with chopped chili, red chili sambal, and my personal favorite, garlic and ginger sauce.
Rice is a useful dampener of the burn you get from spicy Asian dishes.
In Bhutan, the nutty-tasting red rice come in mounds with the ema datse, the Bhutanese signature dish made from fresh chili peppers sautéed in a kind of local cottage cheese.
In Thailand if you are ever eating at a food stall and inadvertently swallow or bite into a green-colored prik key noo, the Thai diminutive chili that seems to have an inverse proportionality to its lethal spiciness, a local might tell you to eat a handful of rice to quell the burn from the chili pepper.
I remember the first time I was in in Koh Samui before it became the posh resort island it is now, I chanced upon a road stall selling khanom cheen, a rice-noodle dish in the Southern provinces, which has a sauce made from fish curry, often in the South topped with pineapple chunks. The small stall was so crowded, with people slurping their food and sweating and exclaiming pleasure. I had to try it. To my uninitiated tongue, the spiciness of that first khanom cheen in Thailand held a magnitude beyond a scale of 1-10. It was blow-up-the-roof spicy. Seeing my red face and bulgy eyes, hand flapping in front of a panting mouth as if it would help, the kind Thais eating with me called to the khanom cheen lady and almost instantly a plate of white rice was thrust in front of me, everyone at the stall gesturing with their hands that I should eat it. I grabbed a handful of the steamed rice and held it in my mouth, and slowly the pain from the extreme chili of the khanom cheen faded.
A bigger role to play
In Bali, rice has its own goddess, Dewi Sri who is Bali’s most popular goddess. The Balinese have rituals to ensure a bountiful harvest and protection of the rice crop from infestation and disease. The UNESCO Heritage awarded system of management and cooperation around the equitable supply of water known as the subak has existed for more than 1000 years and remains today a valuable interdependent system that reaches social, economic and spiritual implications for the life of the Balinese rice farmer.
A wonderful book about the culture of Bali including a chapter on “Rice, work and wealth” is Miguel Covarrubias’s Island of Bali (illustrated by author, Periplus 1937).
In past trips to Bali, I had been interested in the rice terraces for their natural beauty and setting for photoshoots for small groups of hobbyist friends.
Almost a decade later, it is difficult not to notice the villas and boutique hotels that have increasingly sprung up around the Ubud area where rice fields used to be. The subak is still in operation, and perhaps because we know that tiny disturbances in a system can cause great change in another part of it, known as the Butterfly Effect, I wonder how the lost rice paddies will impact the larger subak and social fabric built around rice growing in Bali.
With about 7 million tourists a year and about 4 million locals to feed, and less rice grown, will Bali with its twice-a-year rice yield still be able to feed all the people on the island in the future?
Most Asian dishes come with the accompaniment of rice. Even when you order a specialty like barbecued duck, you will invariably be served about a cup of rice. Often for one reason or another (and I’ve been guilty of this, too), people eat half or a little more of this serving and leave the rest on the plate to be thrown away. Maybe you’ve not had a Chinese grandmother who has lived through famine and war, who scolded you when you wasted rice.
Watching the farmers here in Bali and the labor-intensive cultivation of the crop, I can’t help but remember my grandmother’s admonition to take only what I can and will eat.
Rice from seedling to plate
When rice fields are being prepared for a new planting of the crop, they are flooded. The flooding soaks the cracked earth after the previous harvest and softens it for plowing and for harrowing, which is running a plow over and over the paddy, combining the rice stalks into the muddy soil to make a natural fertilizer.
A small bed of sprouted baby rice plants are usually grown in a small plot close to where they will be planted.
Rice is planted in rows because farmers found that the space between plants helped to increase yield.
Rice first grows a deep and soothing green. In this stage, the farmers regulate the water in the paddies to prevent infestation and other vulnerabilities of the growing grain.
When the rice is ready to harvest, it is often considered ‘ripe’ and has a golden color. Farmers will cut the stem of the plant above the ground, and leave some of the stalk behind for compost in the next planting.
In Bali, farmers still manually thresh the rice to remove the heads from the stalks. Then the rice is dried under the sun.
After the rice dries, the husk is easier to remove and farmers winnow the yield to remove bits of weed and other materials that have mixed with the rice before they fill 50-kilo bags with it to sell or store.
This humble and important food in Asia and around the world might seem to be an introverted element in a meal. Often, rice does not insist being the ‘hero’ of a dish. Its importance to the family, the village and the culture suggests a value beyond your table and mine.