Rice Talk

Rice comes in various forms. Here in the Philippines, we have them in bags or sacks and purchase them by the kilo. But with the era of fast food or supermarket ready foods, rice now comes in bags, cans and even cartons in the US and Europe.

Rice is gold in Asia. A meal is never a meal without rice, especially in the Philippines. A day without rice is a day with no meal. A Filipino or even any Asian for that matter considers a meal without rice simply as a snack. Would you believe that most Filipinos actually eat pasta or noodles with rice? Or that during World War II part of every Japanese soldier’s battle gear was a pot to cook rice in. Talk about carbo-loading or macrobiotic diets!

So rice is very important to Asians. Here in the Philippines, we have the IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) in Los Banos, Laguna that houses the latest in discoveries of rice production. Various varieties of rice have been developed through the years. Rice can now be produced on any type of land and weather. But long before rice research started, rice was already grown in the mountainous regions, even before the Spaniards arrived. One of the wonders of the world, the Rice Terraces of Banawe, stands as a testimony to the creativity of the hardworking Filipinos. Imagine rice fields etched on the sides of the mountains without the use of cranes or bulldozers. Now varieties of rice are produced in rain fed lowlands, uplands, flood prone areas, as well as irrigated fields.

Rice can now be produced on any type of land and weather. But long before rice research started, rice was already grown in the mountainous regions, even before the Spaniards arrived.

Types and Forms

There are 40,000 different varieties of rice worldwide but they can be classified into types: long, medium and short grain, sweet or waxy, aromatic and arborio. The main difference in these rice varieties would be their cooking qualities or their flavors. All the types of rice (except for the sticky or waxy kind) can be used interchangeably in recipes. Nutritionally speaking, the rice varieties are not equal. The natural and organically produced varieties are far more superior to the genetically modified, highly processed and milled, or chemically loaded varieties.

Rice comes in various forms. Here in the Philippines, we have them in bags or sacks and purchase them by the kilo. But with the era of fast food or supermarket ready foods, rice now comes in bags, cans and even cartons in the US and Europe. It can be bought cooked or uncooked, even frozen or dried/dehydrated. Rice is one of the very few foods that is so extensively packaged in so many ways. Because of the packaging, sad to say, rice goes through many degrees of processing or forms. Its different forms can be classified as rough (paddy) rice, brown rice, parboiled rice, precooked rice, and regular-milled white rice.

Nutritionally speaking, the rice varieties are not equal. The natural and organically produced varieties are far more superior to the genetically modified, highly processed and milled, or chemically loaded varieties.

Rice Production

When I was in my teens, my family had vast rice fields on an island called Mindoro in the Philippines. Summers meant two months on the farm just in time for March-April harvest and the May-June planting. In a year in the PI, rice is planted in May and November and harvested in March and October. Rice production back when I was young was not machine oriented, but with all the progress and latest research, rice is now available all year round, produced in large quantities. Unfortunately, this is also possible because of the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers as well as gene modification techniques. It is a good thing that most Filipino farmers are not very open to genetically modified varieties of crops. They have seen how chemicals have slowly eroded their lands to produce less and they are very wary of the new methods being introduced. They have very good reason to be, and so do all farmers around the world who want to practice sustainable farming.

In traditional farming, rice seedlings planted on a separate plot are prepared and each seedling has to be placed in the wet paddies by the farmers, arranged in a straight line. The mighty caribou and plow levels and loosens the paddies. A folk song describes the work as “Planting Rice is never fun. All day long, one has to bend. One can’t sit nor stand.” Having to bend all day under the hot sun, placing each seedling to grow is literally back breaking, but life teaches us simple truths – that good things come from good labor and efforts.

A few months of utmost care from rodents and insects with ample water from the rainy season (opting out typhoons) and proper irrigation ensures a bountiful harvest. And harvest time is really fun and hard work too! The rice stalks heavy with grains are cut and bundled into stacks. The grains are then separated from the stalks by the threshing movements of the men. The women clean the rice out by placing them in native woven trays and pour them into the ground, using the wind to separate residue husks or stalks. These grains are laid under the sun to dry and when ready brought to the rice mills.

Regular Milled rice is the most commonly used variety in the Philippines but with the growing awareness of health and nutrition, Filipinos are now buying black, brown and red rice too.

Rice production back when I was young was not machine oriented, but with all the progress and latest research, rice is now available all year round, produced in large quantities.

History of Rice

Rice feeds two-thirds of the people of the world and yet very little information on the origin of rice is known. History, from archeological facts, shows that for the past 5,000 years rice has been feeding man. In the IRRI website, www.irri.com, it states:

The first documented account is found in a decree on rice planting authored by a Chinese emperor about 2,800 BC. From China to ancient Greece, from Persia to the Nile Delta, rice migrated across the continents, eventually finding its way to the Western Hemisphere.

Early rice production was concentrated in the river deltas in central Asia encompassing India, China, Vietnam and Thailand. Rice production in the BC period started in the uplands or drylands but later on was transferred to the wetlands of the Asian basin. As early as second millennium BC, Chinese or Vietnamese traders brought rice production to the Philippines. The Malays introduce rice production to the Indonesians later on.

The first documented account is found in a decree on rice planting authored by a Chinese emperor about 2,800 BC.

Rice in the US

Early settlers in America planted rice when in 1685; a storm battered ship sought refuge into the Charles Towne, S.C. harbor. In exchange for repairing the ship, the captain gave Golden Seed rice as a gift to the colonists. The Carolinas and Georgia were the perfect places for rice production and by the year 1700; colonists were producing 300 tons of rice and exporting it to England. The Civil war, hurricanes and the introduction of varieties of crops moved rice production to the west – the Gulf Coast. In 1884, the Southern states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas were the country’s major rice producers.

It was during the Gold Rush in 1889 that rice production began in earnest in the western U.S., a time when people of various races migrated to California- among them were 40,000 Chinese whose staple food is rice. With such a large demand, Sacramento Valley was tapped as ideal for rice production. Years after, we now have the famous California rice exported to many key cities in the world.

The Carolinas and Georgia were the perfect places for rice production and by the year 1700; colonists were producing 300 tons of rice and exporting it to England.

Rice and Technology

The world’s top producers/exporters of rice are Thailand, Vietnam, United States, China and Pakistan. The US is one of the most consistent and only non-Asian producers of exported rice in the world. Unlike the Philippines, American farmers do not use their ox-and-mule drawn plows or rely heavily on seasonal rains. Rice production has become a technology or precise science involving lasers, computers and specialized machines.

Land planes plow and push the soil to level the land. Small slopes or hills are leveled into flat planes for uniform irrigation. Systems using lasers guide the farmers where water control points can be placed. Seedlings are planted by the acres by grain drills to minute precision or dropped over dry or flooded fields by airplanes.

Irrigation has also become a sophisticated system. Gravity guides water pumped from deep wells or rivers to provide the fields with accurate amounts of water 2-3 inches in depth during the growing period. Airplanes then spray fertilizers into the fields.

As soon as the rice plant is mature, the water in the fields is drained. Machines cut the rice and separate the grains, funneling them into trucks to be brought to the dryers. Warm, dry air removes all moisture to ensure suitability for storage. Rice grains are then transported to the rice mill.

It was only when I read this whole process of rice production via machine, that I understood why the California rice looks so different from the Philippine rice we have here. Although our rice production is not fully mechanized, our rice still looks very much like it used to when no machines were used. The California rice looks so uniformly and exactly cut and grown, I knew it just had to be produced by machines.

I have heard people remark how the California rice really tastes good but believe me, nothing tastes better than organically grown, sun dried, and hand pounded rice. We still have that here in some areas of the Philippines. Cooked in a clay pot lined with banana leaves, steamed with pandan leaves for added aroma over firewood is the authentic way of preparing it. You should try it. Now that’s real rice. The old ways truly are the good ways.

… although our rice production is not fully mechanized, our rice still looks very much like it used to when no machines were used. The California rice looks so uniformly and exactly cut and grown, I knew it just had to be produced by machines.

What you have in your mind?