Words by Sim Ee Waun
Rice is hardwired in all 667 million Southeast Asians who live in this warm part of the world. For many here, it is food, livelihood, landscape and indeed, life itself.
*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in the May/June ‘Southeast Asia’ 2020 issue of Wine & Dine
Ever since the early Chinese of the Yangtze River first moved from collecting wild rice to cultivating it 13,500 to 8,200 years ago, the love for the grain has spread across Southeast Asia — down to the riverine communities of the Pearl River delta, to the great Mekong and Irrawaddy, and later across to the Indian subcontinent where it was first cultivated in 3000 BC in the Indus Valley.
The great padi fields of Southeast Asia attest to this long tradition of rice. Historically, advances in rice farming technologies and securing rice supply drew people together and formed the foundations of kingdoms in these parts, such as the Khmer, Ayutthaya and Sukothai kingdoms. The padi fields of ancient Angkor boasted three or four harvests a year and fed its glorious kingdom, and fertile plains of the Chao Phraya, with its muang-fai method of irrigation, did the same for the Siamese and continues to do so. Further beyond, ancient fields such as the two-thousand year old Banaue rice terraces in Luzon, and Bali’s thousand-year-old Tegallalang and Campuhan terraces still yield life-giving rice today.
Little has changed our voracious appetite for rice. Today, the 11 Southeast Asian countries that make up ASEAN account for 25 per cent of global rice production and 22 per cent of global consumption, based on the figures by Asian Development Bank. Vietnam and Thailand are two of the world’s top three exporters of rice, accounting for 48 per cent of global exports, the third being India. It is apt we are called the rice bowl of the world.
Those unfamiliar with Southeast Asia tend to view the countries here as a homogenous collective. But the reality is these tropical countries sitting along the equator are in fact extremely diverse culturally and ethnically. Even then, rice binds them all. From the piquant cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam and the fiery flavours of Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia, to the playfulness of Filipino food, the mellow dishes of the Chinese diaspora, and the complex flavours of the Indian communities, rice anchors them all and reigns as the most basic yet crucial staple in all Southeast Asian societies.
Here, rice is the primary source of energy-giving carbohydrate that fills and sustains. Once cooked, its expanded volume fills hungry stomachs and fuels the person, a most important quality in the traditional agrarian societies in which the cuisines evolved where hands-on-deck were greatly needed out in the farms.
A blank canvas
Rice is also an excellent canvas for the region’s immensely flavourful cuisines. Neutral to taste, rice puffs up on cooking and absorbs the flavours of all these varied dishes. As such, every Southeast Asian cuisine has their own version of spice-laden curries or gravied dishes, crisp fried dishes, intensely flavour condiments like sambals and pickles that play against the pillowing background of rice, building a culinary symphony of sour, salty, sweet, umami in every mouthful.
Yet rich as these dishes are, they are all designed to be eaten with rice, without which they may be rendered unpalatable. No one thinks of eating a curry on its own, or a spoonful of sambal neat. Though bland on its own, rice is beautifully fragrant when cooked, and it is this clean, inviting aroma that is, for Asians, the comforting, soulful smell of home.
More than just the grain, rice is also ground into flour and that makes up a whole variety of other foods here. It accounts for another important staple, rice noodles. This genre includes the likes of bee hoon and kuay teow which form the basis of many dishes across the region — from laksa, bihon goreng and char kuay teow in Singapore and Malaya, to Burmese mohinga and Vietnamese pho. Similarly, rice flour is a common ingredient in the plethora of Southeast Asian confections — or kueh as we call it— from Chinese carrot cake and chwee kueh, Filipino bibingka, Malay kueh lapis and kueh tutu to Thai kanom krok or coconut rice dumplings, just to name a few.
*Read the full article in the May/June ‘Southeast Asia’ 2020 issue on Magzter for free, and enjoy complete access to three more issues until 31st October 2020.