Thailand’s Other Rice Crop
Green rice is a considered a delicacy in rural Thailand. Green rice production is also a cushion against fluctuating prices in the mainstream rice market.
Small production Green Rice is usually hand planted and then hand harvested as the young rice plants mature at different rates, a few days or weeks apart. Workers walk through the fields and select plants that are mature enough for processing. The rice is then hand processed using small home mills near the fields, or in the homes of neighbors. Green rice is popular enough with locals, that there are more orders than product. While the income from producing small batches of green rice is not substantial, it provides much needed cash flow before the main rice harvest.
From Seed to Table, a Labor of Love
Green Rice starts by hand selecting seeds suited to fast growth and hardy plants. The seeds are planted in a small starter field where there is irrigation or other water supply to insure strong healthy plants. After a few weeks the young rice plants are then transplanted into larger fields where they will mature. Each day these small (1 rai each) fields are tended to by workers that keep the birds away and monitor the progress of the young rice plants. As the plants become close reaching enough maturity for early rice, the “bird patrol” becomes an increasingly important aspect of caring for the rice. The rice plants mature at different rates, which is normal with all rice, but because of the special care given to the small green rice fields, and because the mature plants are able to be harvested as the individual plants are ready, the product has a consistency not found in machine processed rice.
The start of the rainy season signals the beginning of the planting season in rural Thailand. The heavy rains soften up the land and fill the paddies with water, making it possible to plow the fields. Small hand tractors have replaced water buffalo to till the fields of the smaller farms, but the job is still labor intensive and difficult, as the gas powered hand tillers are heavy and difficult to maneuver. After the fields have been plowed seeds are planted by hand. Seed is chosen that is hardy and will mature rapidly. After the seeds are planted the fields are tended daily to ensure plants have enough water and to keep hungry birds from eating the seed.
Tending the Fields
At first light, an hour before sunrise, I wake to the sounds of a stick beating on a plastic container and shouting coming from the fields. The words are not Thai, or any language, just vocal noise to scare birds away. Siri slowly circles the field. The hungry birds do not fly far when interrupted from eating their meal, they fly from one end of the field to the other followed by Siri beating her plastic drum. This ritual continues all day long after the new eed has been planted and will continue until the plants take root and begin to grow. As the threat from birds diminishes with the rice plants growing larger, it is time for weeding, fertilizing, and watering the fields. All done by hand. When close to harvest time the bird onslaught will begin again as birds try to eat the rice grain. Growing rice by hand is a war fought against drought, birds and weeds. The spoils of victory are food and a little cash. Profits from selling green rice to neighbors are small, but every little bit helps in a land where ten dollars a day is considered a good daily wage. That ten dollars must stretch a long way for these rice farmers, and because of that green or early rice is an important crop.
Like all plants rice matures at slightly different rates. By hand harvesting green rice plants when they are ready, it ensures the best quality product. Usually just enough rice is harvested each day so the rice can go through the production cycle in a single day, harvesting in the morning and processing in the afternoon. Workers walk through the chest high rice fields from before sunrise to shortly before lunch selecting mature plants and harvesting with a sickle and bundled using small bamboo strips. On the farm I visited A hand cart is used to take the bundled rice plants to the nearby processing mill. Other farmers use a motorbike with a sidecar attached to transport the rice.
After the Green Rice has been hand harvested it is hand processed in small batches. The rice kernels are removed from the stalk by using a bicycle wheel attached to a small motor. The hulls are then removed by a process aptly called pounding, using a thick plank attached to a motor, pounding the rice until the hulls are broken. Then the rice is sifted using a weaved basket-like tray as has been done for hundreds of years. The result is lightly green colored rice that is dried in a huge wok over an open fire. Finished, the rice is wrapped in small banana leaf packages to be sold to waiting neighbors, or friends of friends as far away as Bangkok.
There are many ways to cook and serve the Green Rice. The rice has a distinct flavor, different from the usual rice found in modern markets. There are recipes for everything from a sweet candy-like sticky rice, to soups, curries, and noodle dishes.
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