As we move into the dry season, the emerald green rice paddies around Gecko Villa will metamorphose to yellows & golds, and will soon be ready for harvest. Scarecrows in ragged old tee shirts will cede their place in the fields to villagers with straw hats and scythes. Rice is the mainstay of the local economy and - in good years - sustains villagers throughout the year. In Isaan, rice is generally limited to one crop a year, making bountiful provisions all the more susceptible to the climate.
I know its a rice field - but where's the rice?
All our guests have eaten rice in their home country, but many seem embarrassed to ask where the rice grains might be found, and "under the water?" is a common guess!
The Rice Cycle
Around May, farmers use either the traditional water buffalo or “Kubota” motorized ploughs to prepare the soil for sowing. Seedlings are grown in a waterlogged rice paddy until they have developed into sprouts of about 1ft in height. (You will see many of these seedling paddies near our local lake, as adequate water is more readily guaranteed here.)
The rice sprouts are transplanted into the ploughed & flooded rice paddy. They are replanted in rows by hand, in a process known as casting. This may look easy, but if you try your hand you will soon suffer from the constant bending, and will be surprised by the weight as you carry just one long stick of seedlings through the waterlogged mud to the paddy for planting.
The rice is left to grow for the next 3 to 4 months. Rains cease and the weather becomes hot and dry, and gradually the rice turns golden brown.
When fully dry & golden, the rice is harvested by hand. This is a time of much merriment as a supply of rice is being guaranteed for the approaching year. Much joking and drinking usually takes place during the harvest, in which all villagers participate. Even villagers who have migrated to Bangkok or elsewhere to work will return for the harvest, much to the despair of their employers.
Once harvested the rice is threshed (either by hand with sticks, or by machine) to separate the rice grains at the head of the plant from the stems, before loading the rice grains into sacks. So, the rice grains are much like wheat: they are found at the top of the golden blades, not under water!
Finally, the rice grains are milled, removing the husk (to be used as pig food or fertilizer) and preparing the rice for transfer to market for polishing and sale.
The rice grain is made up of 3 main layers. The hull or husk is the outer hard protective layer which people cannot eat. This is removed when it is milled. Underneath the hull or husk is the bran & germ layer. This gives brown rice its colour. White rice is when the bran and germ layer are removed. The bran is the outer layer and the germ is the inside layer. The endosperm or kernel is the inside of the rice grain. It is hard and white and contains lots of starch.