Rice

Rice

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701578
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

‘So, you prefer noodles to rice?’ my colleague asked suggestively after I returned from a lunch at the local pho stall. Since my arrival in the country, I had heard this joke many, many times, but my Vietnamese colleagues and friends did not appear to tire of it. The everyday staple, rice, refers to the wife, whereas the fancier noodles stand for a mistress. ‘I don’t mind noodle soup occasionally,’ I replied innocently, only to be immediately rewarded with an exaggerated show of mock disapproval.

The joke might be old and corny, but it does show that rice is much more than just a source of nourishment—it is a part of everyday speech, a part of life itself.

Rice is closely linked to the cycle of life, and special dishes, often made from the less common glutinous or sticky rice, feature prominently at births, weddings and New Year celebrations. And it even goes beyond life itself— bowls of rice porridge are left for the dead at funerals to ensure they do not have to suffer from hunger in the afterlife. In the countryside, the dead are also often buried in rice fields—like many Vietnamese traditions, a gesture both rich in symbolism and practicality. The grave prevents the children from selling the family plot because of their obligation to the dead.

Indeed, if there is one food Vietnam identifies with, and with which it is identified, it is rice. This is, of course, somewhat ironic, given that rice was introduced by their arch-enemy China, where it had been cultivated for thousands of years before reaching the Red River Delta. But the Vietnamese have made rice their own. So much so, in fact, that in the eighteenth century the scholar Ly Quy Don was able to identify more than seventy different rice strains under cultivation in Vietnam.

To say that Vietnam is densely populated is a gross understatement— eighty million people are crammed into a country about the size of Italy, but with a population roughly one-third larger. And all these people need to be fed! Periods of rice shortage are etched into the minds of the older generation. It is one of the great achievements of modern Vietnam to have turned itself around from a poor rice importer into one of the world’s top rice exporters.

Population density is one of the reasons why rice has become the most important food of the region, as it produces higher yields than any other staple, which is necessary to feed the hungry masses. There are other advantages also—consisting of about 80 per cent starch, it is a high-energy food, and it is easy to transport and store.

Vietnam’s distinct shape is often compared to the bamboo pole with two baskets laden with fresh produce at either end that is traditionally carried by market sellers. The baskets symbolise the fertile Mekong Delta in the south and the Red River Delta in the north—Vietnam’s main rice-producing areas. Subtropical, warm and wet, the Mekong Delta produces three harvests per year, while the Red River Delta, with its cool winters, produces only two. But rice is not only grown in the fertile lowlands; the hill tribes also cultivate the plant, albeit a different variety. Many montagnards produce sticky rice on dry, terraced fields, sometimes still using the traditional slash-and-burn method.

Today, 80 per cent of Vietnamese are still living and working outside the big towns and cities, and the overwhelming majority is involved in growing rice. The work is hard—rice farmers spend their days with pants rolled-up ankle-deep in the mud, trudging behind a plough pulled by water buffalos, or bending over for hours to plant and, three months later, harvest the rice. Rice gives the Vietnamese countryside its characteristic look: the patchwork of rice paddies separated by dams; the tender light green of the young rice shoots; the lush dark green of the mature plant; and finally the rich golden colour of the harvested rice laid out on village roads for husking.

Because rice can take on all kinds of flavours, it features in virtually every meal. The grain is a true culinary all-rounder. It can be steamed, boiled or fried, turned into flour, paste, paper or noodles, and it can even be made into a powerful wine, ruou.

The steamer

A steamer is an essential piece of kitchen equipment for cooking Asian food. Traditional bamboo steamers are available in most Asian supermarkets. However, stacked steamers, made from stainless steel or aluminium, are the more practical choice. Stacked steamers consist of a base that holds the water and two racks above the base with holes for the steam to pass through. A lid prevents the steam from evaporating.

The steamer is placed on a stove and the water in the base is brought to the boil. The steam from the boiling water rises and cooks the food placed on the racks. For steaming rice, a muslin cloth needs to be placed on the bottom of the rack to prevent the grains from falling through the holes into the boiling water.

Steaming is a very healthy way to prepare food as hardly any fat or oil needs to be added. Steaming works particularly well with vegetables and fish—because of the gentle cooking process, the delicate flesh of the fish does not get damaged and the food retains more nutrients.

Recipes in this Chapter

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