The Curious Staple – Rice is actually one of the strangest basic foodstuffs in the world, and vital to the Thai economy!

Thai Rice

Rice? What’s strange about rice? What is this guy on about? There are two or three basic sorts, and 33% of the world’s population eat it every day. You can boil it, steam it or fry it. And that’s it. So what’s the fuss about?

Ah, well, yes. Except . . . nothing is ever as it seems. Once you start poking around, looking at things a bit more closely and digging under the surface, there are always a few surprises to be found. It’s certainly true that rice is the staple diet of some 2.5 billion people. And everyone’s first thought is that we’re talking about the Asian races here. But then there’s also a large belt of the southern part of North America, quite a few of the less-developed nations in South America and a large part of the Caribbean, too. And in the last 20 years the consumption of rice in Middle Eastern countries has similarly doubled – and that’s something that can’t be said about other staples like pasta, grain or potatoes.

But here’s the first oddity. Rice is biologically classified as one of over 10,000 types of edible grass. And, no, I’m not going to get into all the scientific names and jargon; we’ll keep it simple. But out of all these thousands of types of rice, only three sorts are eaten universally. They are easily categorised into long, medium or short grain varieties of one particular type, with the most-readily identifiable variety belonging to the ‘oryza’ family. And then, persisting with simplicity, there are three-and-a-half colour variations on the shelves to go along with this.

Three-and-a-half? Yep. There’s the usual creamy-grey colour (and more about this in a moment). There’s brown rice. And there’s red rice. And to that you can add the dark varieties such as ‘black’ rice, ‘forbidden’ rice, or ‘wild’ rice. Although these last few are not the usual run-of-the-mill mainstream rice, but more properly fall into that obscure hinterland of ‘edible grasses’. But to talk about colour is to confuse the whole issue of ‘rice’ in general – just try Googling ‘rice’ and see how much each of the stories vary from each other. Because (and this is where the fun begins to start) when the rice comes out of the field it is a mid-brown in colour. And then that very same rice ends up on the supermarket shelves and restaurant tables as
anything between a pale brown and a pure, startling white.

The simple fact of the matter is that all of the Asian nations culturally insist on eating white rice, and it’s quite a study to get down to the roots of this. White rice is the whole grain brown rice with every bit of nourishment stripped away, reduced to pure vegetable starch, and with nothing in the way of any nourishment left behind. So the first major puzzlement in the ‘simple’ story of rice is, why on earth those generally poor and not-so-well-nourished Asian nations would want to throw away a universal source of vitamins and protein? It’s insane.

China is not so difficult to figure. In the 19th century, the British East India Company made culturally devastating inroads into the fabric of Chinese society. Along with their perceived refinement and ritual, they brought with them potatoes and white bread, both of which were alien to the Chinese, but came to represent expensive icons of prosperity and social
standing. Also, the British took Chinese rice and milled it down to a white inner layer, removing the essential oils and making it no longer susceptible to mildew and rot, and thus practical to transport over long distances by sea. White
became desirable.

Thailand didn’t have to suffer the British. But Thai society is driven by appearances and perceived social status. For many hundreds of years Thai citizens wore a very obvious brand of their standing in society (and it’s still true today). The upper classes worked indoors in managerial or administrative positions. The lower classes laboured outside in the fields. White skin represented not only social status, but also the colour white was an icon of purity and cleanliness. Brown rice was, and still is, perceived in some way as being ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’. And so the rice was carefully separated from its protective hull, then milled to remove the outer layer of bran and nourishment, then finally polished to make it look as glossy and pure as a million little pearls. Ironically, the only sector of the community that gets to enjoy the full nourishment of brown rice is those who are imprisoned in the nation’s jails. They get the ‘dirty’ rice.

But hold on! There are other reasons too! Brown or wild rice needs to be cooked for a lot longer – up to 40 minutes. No way is a busy Thai eatery going to mess with that. Then you need to spend time actually chewing it; the inner bran
layer is thicker and slightly nutty in texture. Nah. That’ll never catch on. Plus you can’t make sticky rice out of it – so that’s 30 million farmers and their extended families out of the frame right away.

Getting even sillier, talk to an American and he’ll include ‘instant microwave rice’ and ‘boil-in-the-bag’ rice in with the rest. And that comes down to ‘Uncle Ben’. He might not be exactly a figurehead in Thailand, but in other parts of the world he’s become a positive credit to his rice!

Rob De Wet