Rice and everything oh so nice!
This month we are celebrating the staple food that bridges all Southeast Asian regions and communities, rice.
Rice is so deeply embedded in Southeast Asian culture, that in many instances the word rice appears in common phrases centered around eating. In Lao and Thai, 'khao' is the word for rice and when someone says "kin khao", it means "let's eat". In Vietnamese, cơm is the word for rice and "to eat" is "ăn cơm".
Traditionally, rice is spiritually revered. Many Southeast Asian cultures worship rice goddesses. In Indonesia the rice goddess is called "Dewi Sri" and is a symbol of life and fertility. Dewi Sri actually predates the major religions Hinduism and Islam. Some Javanese, Balinese, and Sundanese people of Indonesia still worship and respect Dewi Sri in the present day. Traditions include holding ceremonies and festivals,, making offerings, and establishing shrines for Dewi Sri, in hopes of a plentiful harvest and prosperity.
The Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts published a collection of stories about rice titled “Tales from the Paddy Fields”: Southeast Asian Folktales on Rice Culture. The following is an excerpt from “The Origin of Rice”, based on a Javanese folktale:
“It was the young man’s great desire to have the rice seeds. One night when all the gods and goddesses had fallen asleep, he secretly took a sack of rice seeds, and brought it back to the earth.
Arriving on Earth, he invited his friends to work together to loosen the soil, then did hoeing, plowing, harrowing, irrigating, and planting the rice seeds. After months, the rice plants were grown well. Then the green grains pulled out, then turned into golden yellow. Once the time came, they harvested the rice and cooked it into delicious foods.”
In Thailand the rice goddess is known as 'Mae Po Sop' and in Cambodia is known as 'Po Ino Nogar.' Farmers and villagers often provide offerings in rice paddies to protect their harvests. Both Thailand and Cambodia commemorate the beginning of the rice growing season (which coincides with the beginning of the rainy season) at the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony in May. The exact date and time are determined by royal Brahmni astrologers, and the practice dates back to the Sukhothai Period (1238-1438) in Thailand. During the ceremony, rituals include the Ploughing Lord, or Phraya Raekna, loosening the soil of the ceremonial grounds with a sacred wooden plough that has a pair of sacred oxen hitched to it. Today, it is considered a national holiday in Thailand. This year, the ceremony will take place on May 10th.
In fact, rice is so important that it accounts for half of Southeast Asian diets. Collectively, regions of Southeast Asia produce 30% of the world's rice, producing 220 millions tons in 2018. Vietnam and Thailand are among the top exporters.
Originating in the Yangtze River valley basin in China over 8,000 years ago (or maybe earlier, there is not a consensus at this time), rice was soon domesticated throughout Southeast Asia. Rice is typically grown in paddies and can thrive in multiple environments including mountain slopes, lowland valleys, river deltas, and terraces. The human made terraces that exist across Southeast Asia are a testament to how deeply ingrained rice is to our culture and history. The Ifugao Rice Terraces in Philippine Cordillera mountain range on the island of Luzon in the Philippines is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Developed by the indigenous Ifugao community, it has been maintained by generations for over 2000 years.
Climate change also poses a threat to the future of rice cultivation. Increasing frequency of droughts creates challenges for farmers, especially smaller scale farmers who rely on the rainfall for their crops and in turn their livelihoods. Traditionally, farmers introduced nutrients into the soil and water with chopped rice straw and animal waste. Now, many farmers use more chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and use higher-yield varieties of rice to produce greater amounts. Furthermore, rice needs copious amounts of water to grow and many regions in Southeast Asia rely on heavy rainfall to sustain their terraces. The flooding of terraces creates an environment for bacteria to grow and produce greenhouse gases. Thankfully, some organizations and scientists are working to create drought resistant varieties and other solutions to help rice survive climate change.
Recently the COVID-19 pandemic has put serious strains on rice farmers and migrant workers throughout Southeast Asia. In some instances, the government in Thailand has been able to provide assistance to farmers, and private institutions in Vietnam have helped support farmers. Unfortunately other regions including Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia have had struggles accessing clean water, credit and capital to sustain their farms and themselves.
Rice is too important to Southeast Asian culture for people to lose sight of its roots. It is so much more than just food. It serves as a source of income for many, connects people to their heritage, nourishes families, represents long standing traditions and resilience, and culturally links all Southeast communities and its 11 countries (and more nations around the world).
Tuk Tuk Box is grateful for rice farmers around the globe that have been tilling the soil for generations in order to provide this essential grain, including Christy's family who cultivated rice for over a century in the Northeastern region of Thailand.
To help sustain some of the Southeast Asian farmers around the globe, we recommend supporting some the amazing organizations working to preserve this invaluable art form:
There are so many aspects of rice and its cultural, political, environmental, and social implications that we weren’t able to touch on. However, we hope this encourages you to learn more about Southeast Asia’s staple food!