As an Eater wandering through various Asian locales, one of the obvious, yes interesting themes that ran through locals I encountered was their connection to rice. Rice is the staple food of the majority of people in the world and different peoples have differenet ways of expressing their love for this grain. A young Filipino I met told me his family associates rice with strength- if you want to grow up a strong man, rice for breakfast is a way to assure it. On the other hand a Laos chef pointed to rice as the hidden reason behind the general laziness of the Laotian population. After eating several bushels full of rice (and perhaps drinking some rice based liquor), there’s nothing for a Laos man to do but fall asleep. No wonder they don’t do any work!
If rice can provide both strength and slumber, then no wonder it’s become the staple food of the most populated region on Earth. Plus, of course, there are other agricultural benefits. Unlike staple foods like corn or potatoes, you can plant and harvest rice twice a year. Flooding isn’t an issue, since flooding the rice fields is a key part of the weeding process, as rice plants thrive in this environ while other plants do not. This comes in helpful in this region of the world where the hot-wet monsoon climate ensures flooding on a near annual basis.
More importantly, rice itself is a pretty amazing food in terms of feeding poor people. Massive amounts of grain can be produced while providing just enough caloric value to keep the human body alive. As part of a meal, rice can also act as a “calorie plus,” to any food. For example if you have just a little meat, or a few vegetables, you can mix with them with spices and add them to rice. Since rice inherently has no flavor, the spicy or salty flavors will naturally win out, but you gain the benefit of getting the calories from the rice. Even for travelers, rice is the best way to save money. Instead of ordering two main dishes, get one dish and a bowl of rice for an extra 30 cents.
Also, it’s a safe food. The main method of cooking is boiling rice in water for 20-40 minutes, which happens to be exactly how long you are supposed to boil water in order to kill all bacteria. In countries without refrigeration where the temperature rarely drops below 25 degrees C, that’s a pretty neat feature!
In my travels I found that India was unquestionably the rice capital of the world. With most Hindus being vegetarians, (again, think food safety,) rice becomes an even bigger part of your average meal. And of course since families are huge, you can end up eating up to six, seven, eight different rice dishes in one meal. Different grains of rice from different regions, such as Kerala red rice. Curd rice, or rice mixed in salty yougurt for a cooling taste. Mixed rice dishes such as chitrannamu, rice with lemon juice, nuts, and spices. And of course, no meal of rice dishes would be complete without plain rice, just to top it off, as an Indian auntie tests your rice eating ablities by piling a wholly unreasonable amount of rice onto your thali plate for dessert.
The best rice I had? Probably this rice dish I had as part of a Thali meal in Kuala Lumpur’s Little India. It was a traditional mixed Indian rice with all sorts of Malay and Chinese influences, including an increased presence of ginger, Thai basil, and chili. Just phenomenal.
Appreciate rice then, if you want to travel Asia. There’s a reason they made a song about it.