If you have been following my blogs of life over here you’d think that I have an obsession with rice because this is yet another entry that has it as a topic. In some ways you’d be right. The labour intensive process of growing rice and its role as a central food source makes it important in itself. Historically rice has been grown here for possibly well over 5,000 years, which well a truly integrates it into Thai life.
However rice also expresses something more than just its nutritional value. In a rural sense the seasons of the year are defined by the stages of rice production. Rice is a shared medium between family and friends much in the same way we’d share a bottle of wine over dinner. A common cooking pot of rice or bamboo container of sticky rice is shared freely between those gathered to eat as the basis to a meal to which other ingredients are added. It’s like a statement of being Thai. If that all sounds a bit over the top you haven’t felt the connection involved with eating the rice produced on a Isaan farm by those who have grown and harvested it. Buying a packet of rice from Woollies just doesn’t touch the almost emotional connection involved with rice here.
I have to say that having now seen all of the stages of rice growing from start to finish I now have a respect for the grain itself and feel slightly guilty if I have to leave some on the plate at the end of a meal.
We’ll now move from the philosophical and have a look at the practical aspects for completing the rice harvest cycle.
My last visit to Gaun’s family farm in Si Bun Ruang, Isaan, had me busy for half an hour planting rice seedlings, if you remember that blog entry back in August.
Since that time I have been on a promise to return to Isaan in November to harvest those seedlings I planted. Unfortunately harvest time coincided with us moving to Chiang Mai on 1 November, which involved a lot of running around to set-up the new house, and the Loi Krathong festival on the weekend of 16 – 17 November, which I wanted to experience. The rice was ready for harvesting a week before we could make it to Isaan so I missed out. All was not lost – read on.
We drove from Chiang Mai to Isaan, a two day 660 km journey, and arrived on 19 November, booking into the same resort we had stayed last time.
The rice harvesting on Gaun’s farm had already been completed, which means the top half of the rice stalks had been cut by hand and laid out in rows in the field. Gaun’s family had arranged for me to help out at a farm close to their farm that was still in the harvesting stage. I would like to tell you what a big day I put in but honesty wins out and it was a photo opportunity only.
The family was pretty unimpressed with the quality of this crop and now looking at it with my Thai farmer’s eyes I’d have to agree.
These cut stalks are then individually tied into small bundles at a later time and left in the field. It is then someone’s job, such as me in this case, to pile these bundles up ready for collection.
Once all these small bundles are collected the Thai tractor workhorse is disconnected from it’s water pumping duties, tyres fixed and it’s hooked up to a trailer ready for work.
I don’t know what these pieces of equipment are called but with it’s tyres off it pumps water from dams or bores to irrigate the farm. With tyres on it becomes a small tractor with a top speed of about 10 kph downhill with a tailwind. I’ve seen them fitted to power small farm trucks out on the highway. Make a great pavlova too I believe.
I am pleased to report that I actually did a full half day’s work collecting and stacking and it nearly killed me. I know I am unfit but the heavy work in high temperatures made me realise just how adapted these farm workers are to such a demanding physical life.
You’ll notice how changed the countryside is since the photos I took on my last visit here. The lush green of newly sprouted rice in the wet season has given over to a largely brown, dry and dusty landscape as Thailand moves into the dry season. Does it remind you of anywhere?
The object of this work collecting the rice harvest is to get it all into one place so the threshing crew can come in and do their thing to separate and bag the rice. Bob Sekhon, a newly acquired blog reader and rice and rubber expert, emailed me to advise that the rice with the husk, or covering on, is called padi, so that is how it will be referred to from this point.
The secret of timing is to get the rice once it has ripened, is that the right terminology? – you know what I mean – that is the fields have turned from green to brown, but not too overdone that the rice is starting to fall off the stalks.
What I found really interesting is that I expected this harvest to be then sent somewhere to be sold thereby generating an income for the family. Not so. This lot is transported to the home rice storage barn, and there is often one of these structures on Isaan rural homes, and will be used to feed the family for the next year. If there’s any left over it will be sold.
A couple of days later I was sitting on my newly acquired block of land probably waiting for a truckload of soil to arrive. I started to think about rice, yes I have been here too long, and it struck me that the version I had seen being stored in the photo above wasn’t white! Now when I buy my supermarket packet of rice and also the rice I get served at meals here we’re talking KKK white. What was I missing?
I raised this question with Gaun, who gave me one of those WTF type expressions and almost took me by my uneducated western hand to the house opposite our land, which is owned by a doctor, not that that is relevant! In true Thai fashion if you want attention you just walk onto the land and shout out “anybody there”, well I guess that’s what she does because my Thai doesn’t extend beyond “thank you” and “how are you”. In this case the daughter of the doctor responded that she was round the back and I presume Gaun then explained to the daughter her, Gaun’s, problem with my lack of rice knowledge.
I was just along for the ride at this stage but it all came together when Gaun then took me to the back of the doctor’s land and there in a separate shed stood this impressive piece of machinery.
This is a small privately owed milling machine, I Googled that word, and it is used to process the padi harvested by the local Moo Baan (village). The doctor doesn’t take money for the service , he takes rice.
Also in true Thai style, which can be overwhelming in its friendliness, a man turned up from nowhere to get the milling machine going so I could see it in action.
The rice seems to follow a path that takes it through multiple layers of sieves that are being vigorously shaken until the husk is separated from the rice kernel. The rice being processed here is coincidently output from Gaun’s farm.
The white rice in its present state has the ‘germ’ intact and therefore more nutritious. Most of the rice sold in Woollies etc has been ‘polished’ and the ‘germ’ removed. Rice oil is extracted from the ‘germ’ (thanks Bob). For more information see Wikipedia extract at the end of this blog.
The rice you next eat has probably been grown on some huge farm owned by a multinational company, planted and harvested by machine. However it may just have come from some small farm in Isaan where a family has dedicated an immense amount of hand labour and toil to give you a product that links to their culture for thousands of years.
Treat it with respect.
Thanks for reading.
The germ of a cereal is the reproductive part that germinates to grow into a plant; it is the embryo of the seed. Along with bran, germ is often a by-product of the milling that produces refined grain products. Cereal grains and their components, such as wheat germ oil, rice bran oil, and maize may be used as a source from which vegetable oil is extracted, or used directly as a food ingredient. The germ is retained as an integral part of whole-grain foods. Non-whole grain methods of milling are intended to isolate the endosperm, which is ground into flour, with removal of both the husk (bran) and the germ. Removal of bran is aimed at producing a flour with a white rather than a brown color, and eliminating fiber: neither of these objectives is desirable from the nutritional viewpoint. Germ is rich in polyunsaturated fats (which have a tendency to oxidize and become rancid on storage) and so germ removal improves the storage qualities of flour.