The Rice in the Paddies - Thailand's Rice Season
Rice Paddy Villa looks directly out onto a horizon of rice paddies - the ever-beating heart of Isan. Whilst on holiday at this Thai villa, it will be clear that the rhythm of local village life here is largely dictated by the rice growing cycle and by the traditions of rice growing in the area. Thai food in the region is centred around the produce from these fields, and many local beliefs are rooted in the paddies themselves.
The Thai Rice Planting year in Isan
Whilst rice (Oryza Sativa) is cultivated throughout Thailand - in over 10 million hectares of paddies - and whilst the country's central plains are often considered Thailand's rice bowl (as two crops are often achieved here annually), the Northeast (or Isan) in fact accounts for over half of the nation's rice paddies.
Across Isan, at mid year , farmers will wait for the first rains before ploughing their paddies, either in the traditional manner with a plough drawn by a water buffalo, or with a more modern "Kubota" - or mechanical plough.
Rice seedlings are grown in well irrigated nursery paddies, often situated close to lakes, wetlands or rivers and streams. Once the paddies have been ploughed and adequate rain has fallen, the farmers will then transplant the seedlings and "Dam Naa" - or push the young emerald seedlings gently into the prepared paddies one by one, separating them to allow for their growth. This usually occurs from June to July, when the rice paddies will be alive with farmers and villagers busy planting their treasured crops. Whilst the scene looks bucolic, this is backbreaking work for the uninitiated - but you are welcome to join in and play your part in the crop production!
The rice then grows as more rain falls, the sparse seedlings slowly growing until the paddies are a dense quilt of bright greens. As the rains clear and the intense summer heat asserts its dominion, the paddies dry and the rice plants turn to deep gold. A careful watch is kept on the paddies until the end of the year, when the crop is ready for harvest.
The rice is almost always harvested by hand, with sharp scythes, from November through to January. It is then threshed to remove the rice grains from the stalks. This is performed either manually, using two sticks tied together with a rope to grasp a bunch of golden stalks and to hit them on the ground to release the grains, or with a thresher truck for a speedier operation.
The grains may now be taken off to the local village mill, where the husk is removed from the grains and for eventual polishing and sacking. These sacks are then stored by each household in a purpose built granary in the house grounds: look out for a small hut on stilts with a solid door - this is the villager's rice supply for the coming year.
Rice Growing: a Thai-Isan Imperative
A Thai family's rice paddies are considered the heart of the family's wealth and well-being, assuring a food supply for the coming year for most of the villagers who are subsistence farmers. Given the vagaries of the seasons and the requirements for the right amount of rain and sun - at the right times - to produce a bountiful crop, the villagers' attachment to the land and to the seasons is at the root of their future.
It is for this reason that even those villagers who have migrated to seek work in Bangkok or elsewhere will always respect the time-honoured ritual of returning home to plant and to harvest their rice paddies, even if this means leaving a job in the capital and seeking a new one upon their return. The festivity of rice planting and harvesting is a family affair, but also an opportunity for the villagers to once more meet up in their homelands after months away. The intense labour requirements in growing rice were probably also essential in the development of close-knit farming communities in the region, where villagers band together to ensure the success of everybody's crop.
Where's the Rice?
Rice grains nestle on the head of the rice stalks, much as wheat grains in the West. Contrary to the belief of many, the grains are not attached to the waterlogged roots of the plant!
Rice - a Multi-faceted Food
Rice is eaten as the main component of many Thai meals, in either its plain, un-milled or glutinous forms. Yet it is also used as a major ingredient in snacks, desserts and drinks. Rice may be steamed, grilled in bamboo, or formed into balls and grilled. It may be sun dried and made into rice crackers, or the crust of prepared rice may be fried into a crunchy snack. In isan, it is also used to make two varieties of alcohol - a strong and pungent rice whisky ("Lao Khao")and a sweet liqueur like drink ("Lao Tho".)
Thai Rice: Quality over Quantity
Whilst the kingdom of Thailand retains its position as one of the world's major producers and exporters of rice, a comparison of the nation's output with that of other major rice growing countries reveals a relatively low production. This is primarily because rice in Thailand is still grown in the traditional way, with a strong focus on its own high quality, long-grain white rice, such as the famous, perfumed jasmine rice. Strains such as this are deemed to be far superior in taste to those of more high yield varieties, and most Thai rice farmers prefer to maintain this reputation for quality, especially as higher prices may be achieved for s a superior final product.
The History of Thai Rice
The cultivation of rice has, over the centuries, shaped the landscapes, cultures, languages and characters of Asian peoples. Many believe that the Thais were the first to cultivate rice, and the first to focus on the suitability of land for such cultivation when selecting land on which to settle.
From pre-historic times, evidence has been found that the Thais have cultivated rice for thousands of years. Rice husk marks were found on pottery remnants at the village of Nonnokta in Khon Kaen province, and, close to Rice Paddy Villa, the rice grain and husk imprints in pottery utensils at Ban Chiang have been dated to around 5,500 years ago.
It is presumed that originally wild rice was consumed, and that cultivation started with glutinous rice (still the rice of choice in the Isan region), with slender, non-glutinous rice only being substituted in other regions of the kingdom at a later stage.
Thailand - Rice and Royalty
The importance of rice in Thailand is reflected in the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony that dates back over 700 years. in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, around May, this ancient Brahman rite is held and is seen as a strong indicator of the coming year's rainfall and rice crop.
Rice seeds from the Palace's crops are strewn and at the end of the official ceremony there is a great rush by onlookers to gather some of these sacred grains to take home for planting, or for keeping as treasured items.
The rice has been harvested and we are looking forward to the New Year.