Rice Nationalism

Ricefield at sunset, near Siem Reap

Ask anyone in Asia who grows the best rice and the answer is inevitably the nation of origin of the person questioned. In Cambodia, it’s likely to be an exact village of origin at a specific date. There is no room for objectivity because the rice harvest is chained to the national identity of every nation who eats it as their primary carbohydrate. Apparently, you can get caught up in the nationalistic fervour. Karen Coates over at Gourmet magazine’s food blog writes:

In years of bouncing around Southeast Asia, I’ve had many a conversation with locals and expats about the seeming superiority of Cambodian rice. I am not alone in my assessment. But why? Is it really better than rice in Thailand (my home for the past three years and therefore my natural point of comparison)? Or is it just my imagination?

Yes, it’s your imagination. Maytel also lands a bodyslam on the shaky agricultural underpinnings and the fetishization of poor farmers at their expense at Maytel:

But lets get one thing straight, subsistence peasant agriculture in the tropics is not some rare heirloom tomato variety found at your local USA farmers market. It’s not du puy lentils. There is nothing to glamorise and doing so often compromises the food security of these farmers. From what I found imposed ideals of ‘organic’/ ‘artisanal’ varieties, inevitably results in lower yields and is about as unhelpful as you can get in a country like Cambodia.

16 thoughts on “Rice Nationalism”

  1. My response to Maytel:

    There’s no arguing taste, as they say. And I suppose there’s no arguing a lack of taste either.

    You’ve missed the point here, and perhaps missed the difference between opinion and fact.

    Cambodians do frequently claim to have the world’s best rice, which is precisely what I reported. Their opinion, their premise, their words, my elaboration. That’s not a glamorization of Cambodia’s low yields, low exports or lack of irrigation. It’s what they said.

    Likewise, it is a fact that many Cambodians grow rice without chemicals (for many reasons, including money). If you haven’t met many of these farmers, perhaps you might want to expand your interview base to get a well-rounded view. Of course many farmers use chemicals. But many others do not. That is not glamorizing the farmer. It’s just a fact.

    My opinion on the matter (which was not even included in the blog post) is that in general, I prefer Cambodian rice to rice from other countries. My opinion. In general, it holds together better on the plate. It doesn’t crumble. It doesn’t taste like mush. It’s a bit sweeter, with heartier texture than many of the mass-produced Thai white rice varieties served at street-level restaurants (in Thailand and often in Cambodia).

    My opinion: they grow an equally pleasing rice in the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo – more poor farmers who use no chemicals and think they have the world’s best rice.

    Fact: Bangkok Airways alone grows more than 140 varieties of organic rice, which are scrutinized by scientists in search of the “perfect” jasmine with the perfect aroma, texture and flavor. Why all the fuss, if all rice tastes the same? Or are Thai tastes more discriminating than those of impoverished Cambodians?

    If a person cannot taste the difference between one rice variety and another, well, so be it. I do think it’s the equivalent of saying a store-bought hothouse tomato tastes the same as an heirloom tomato from the backyard, which tastes the same as a farmer’s market cherry tomato – different plants all grown under different conditions. If you don’t taste a difference, you don’t taste a difference. I can’t fix your mouth.

    I agree that it is ridiculous and condescending to glamorize poverty. But to imply a poor Cambodian farmer is too dumb or not qualified to have a highly refined rice palate is equally demeaning. Who better to taste the subtle differences among rice varieties than the person whose whole life and livelihood depend upon it? Vintners can judge their future wines by tasting grapes from the vine. Do you think there’s no difference in taste to them? Do you think the vintner has taste buds of a higher caliber? The rice farmer’s palate will always be more discriminating than yours or mine. He spends his entire life on rice. And so my short blog post has nothing to do with the fetishization of poor farmers at their expense. It’s simply giving respect where respect is due. (My opinion.)

  2. I do agree that you can taste the difference between varieties and even grades of rice within the same variety (I don’t think anybody is disputing that). Anybody who eats it becomes completely attuned to the differences if they’re eating it every day, rich or poor. The issue of palate is interesting though – having personally served arborio rice to some horrified Cambodians.

    I don’t agree that this is at all based on national borders – there’s excellent rice to be had almost everywhere that grows it. The rice grown in Svay Rieng then milled across the border in Vietnam is going to taste the same as the same variety on the opposite side of the border.

  3. It does have to do with borders when there are differences in soil, nutrients, water quality, air quality and overall environment. While true, more Cambodians use chemical fertilizers and pesticides than in the past, as a regional comparison, the rate is quite low. Hence, less environmental disturbance. Add to that the differences in population pressures over the years. Those are just a couple of factors. For one source on the matter, check The Atlas of Cambodia: National Poverty and Environment Maps (2006).

    Interesting that you use Svay Rieng as an example. If you look at a soil map of Svay Rieng, you will see that at least three distinct soil varieties exist smack against the Vietnam border: one that is loamy to clayey, easily managed and has a high agricultural yield; another of a similar texture, suitable for rice production, but difficult for tilling; and a third that has a sandy surface, is difficult for growing rice and has low fertility. Thus, it would follow that Svay Rieng rice would vary in taste from one mile to the next, based solely on soil makeup. Take it across the border, and you find even further differences in environmental conditions.

    And that’s just Svay Rieng.

  4. I’d agree with Phil’s supposition that there is excellent rice to be found almost everywhere that grows it.

    Whenever our Thai maid returns from a visit home she brings a few bags of rice with her. Rice grown in her village an hour from Buriram, rice grown by her family, not for sale or export but for consumption. It’s mind-blowingly good, better than any other Thai rice I have ever tasted. When we were living in Saigon a colleague of Dave gifted us a bag of rice that had been gifted to her by a friend whose family lives far beyond the reaches of any of the country’s metropolises. Again – amazingly good. I didn’t care much for Vietnamese rice before we steamed that variety. And the red rice served in Bhutan? Don’t get me started….

    The point being that in Thailand, in Vietnam, probably in the Philippines, and elsewhere, it’s probably much as Karen described it being in Cambodia – the good stuff never makes it to the market. Or if it does, it’s to a small market in an out-of-the-way town that you and I will never happen across.

    I’ll wait till I gain access to all the rice grown by millions of villagers across Asia that never makes it beyond their own kitchens, before I declare this, that or the other rice to be Asia’s best.

    As for the bit about the glamorization of subsistence rice growing in Asia – well, I think Karen’s blog and other writings speak for themselves. (And so does she, quite forcefully apparently!).

    At the same time – as the well-meaning folks at IRRI (Dave spent some time there with his folks in the early eighties) found out many years ago – high-yield rice is all well and good from an economic standpoint, but the people who grow it don’t care to eat it. Because, in their estimation, it can’t hold a candle, tastewise, to slower-growing, lower-yielding varieties.

  5. So let me get this straight, the point of Coates’ original article and lengthy clarifications here is that different types of rice grown using different methods in different places tastes different and is enjoyed by different people? Wow, insightful! And this was originally proffered up to dispute Phil’s suggestion that serious journalists don’t look at the Cambodian food scene. You certainly nailed him on that one.

  6. Man.. all this rice talk is making me hungry. Btw, I heard that best rice from Cambodia can be found in Battambang – anyone care to comment on this?

    Also I gotta agree with Karen; Cambodia do in fact have the best rice in the whole wide world!


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