Rice – the Culinary Staple of S.E Asia

They say “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laotians listen to it grow.”

This may just be a reflection on the work ethics of the different cultures (the Laos’ are known to be relaxed) but the point is, rice is paramount in all cultures. The demand in SE Asia is so great that the Lao people simple can’t grow enough. And it is easy to see why.

Here is Laos, the villagers get up at 4.30 in the morning to start steaming their rice (which has been soaking over night.) Sticky / glutinous rice is king here and people roll it into balls with their hands and pick of bits to eat as if it was a bread roll. The rice takes about an hour to steam and it is then taken and offered to the monks ‘amin’ at 5.30 every morning – a ritual I am off to see tomorrow.

They then come home and tuck into steamed rice with grilled meat / fish, before the men head out to the paddy fields (a packed lunch – including rice) in hand. Rice is now taking over from teak as the primary source of income –  there are 2 harvests a year and it grows well in the hilly landscape. Huge leaved, slow growing trees are visibly being cleared to make way for more paddy fields.

The woman dry the rice in its husks on large mats in the sun. They then pound the grains for up to 3 hours in wooden basins carved out of logs. A quick rustle in flat bamboo baskets and the husks fly away leaving the white (or red) grains.

In Laos, nearly all dishes come with rice and are designed to be eaten with it – noodles definitely play second fiddle. The rice comes in little bamboo baskets and balls of the stuff are used to dip in sauce which is made thicker than the coconut driven Thai sauces to avoid mess. (NB the rice is designed to be eaten with a fingers, spoons and forks being given for the rest. No chopsticks in sight.)

Last night we treated ourselves to a ‘posh’ restaurant – at a cost of 10 pounds – and I had red glutinous rice with a delicious fish stew, grandly written up at ‘Bouillabaisse Lao style.’ It was delicate with so many delicious fragrant herbs it is hard to know what they were. Pudding was also rice – we had a rosella (hibiscus) and cinnamon creme brulee with rice glued to the bottom on the small bowl with cane sugar. (French colonial influence is still huge here and you can find the best patisserie around.)

The night was washed down with Laos whisky in Sprite – another rice product which is not nearly as refined as Sake – my god it is powerful. I think it would drive a tuk tuk to one of the many temples and back. However, faced with the dire option of yet another fizzy drink, we decided the home-brew was a great addition and would help to keep the mozzies at bay.

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