We Thais usually don’t say grace or “Bon appétit!” before we start a meal. Instead, these days we tend to Instagram pictures of our food and blog about it. But we don’t just turn curry and khao suay into works of photographic art — we clean our plates. Rice is considered a life-giving entity, and it is so revered among many of us that we won’t waste a single grain of it.
As bread or corn is to Western societies, so rice is the staple in most Asian cultures. Thai farmers are the “backbone of the nation,” with our economy largely relying on agriculture, particularly the white, red, brown, black, Jasmine, or sticky rice for which the country has become famous. In fact, Thailand’s GDP can rise and fall sharply each year depending on rice crop yields and exports, with floods, plagues, and rice pledging schemes causing disasters and even political scandals.
To combat earthly maladies, Thai farmers turn to Mae Phosop, a rice deity similar to the goddess Ceres. Originating in Hindu traditions, she represents fertility and fruitfulness. As a deeply rooted ritual, Thai farmers pay homage to her during different stages of rice cultivation to ensure good harvests, and that everyone has enough food to eat.
Each May, the royal Phra Ratcha Phithi Pheutcha Mongkol ceremony is held at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The procession then moves outside to Sanam Luang for Phra Ratcha Phithi Charot Phra Nangkan Raek Na Khwan, or the Royal Ploughing Ceremony. The two traditions mark an auspicious beginning to the rice growing season, bringing prosperity to the year’s plantation. The first ritual involves the blessing of rice seedlings from HM King Bhumibol’s Chitralada Palace. The second part sees two sacred Brahman oxen — or Phra Kho — ploughing a furrow in the royal field under the lead of the Phraya Raek Na, often represented by the permanent secretary from the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives.
The court Brahmins sow the seed, chant, and blow conch shells. After the ploughing, the oxen are offered food and drink, including rice, maize, green beans, sesame, fresh-cut grass, water, and rice whisky. Based on the food they consume, court astrologers and Brahmins predict crop yields and rainfalls. At the end of the ceremonies, by-standing farmers scramble into the field to collect the blessed seeds to increase their luck.
After the sacred grain is harvested and milled, it assumes many guises in the Thai culinary repertoire. Beyond its familiar steamed and stir-fried manifestations, rice is also milled into flour that is used to make desserts such as lord chong (strings) or bua loy (small dumplings). It is dyed with natural pigments from flowers and herbs, which also impart different flavours and aromas. Sticky rice simmers with coconut milk to make the rich and toothsome khao nheaw bpiak. When toasted, rice becomes khao khua, which is used in larb (a spicy salad) and khao dtuu (a dessert). Rice and flowers, together as khao dtok dok mai, are strewn in ceremonies. Fermented and brewed, rice takes liquid form as ou or satho (Thai rice wines). Khao dtom (boiled rice) and congee are widely enjoyed for breakfast.
Rice has also inspired art. Plaeng ghiew khao (harvest songs) and dances such as dten gum rum khaew (the dance of the harvest) are hardly heard or seen these days; however, rice has influenced several contemporary artists, such as Pratheung Aimcharoen, a self-taught painter and former rice farmer who has created several works inspired by his time in the fields. In 2005 he was honoured as a National Artist. A few years later, Sakarin Krue-on exhibited the “Ripe Project: the Village and Harvest Time.” The artist planted a rice paddy at a Bangkok gallery, as well as on a terrace at a castle in Germany, to show the value of hard work and simplicity within materialized society.
Rice has earned its place in Thai lore. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in our vernacular. Consider King Ramkhamhaeng’s adage, “nai nahm mee pla nai naa mee khao” (Fish is aplenty in the water and rice is abundant in the fields). Courting couples and newlyweds are often referred to as “khao mai pla mun” (new rice and lip-smacking fish). When we appreciate someone’s gratitude or give thanks to those that feed us, we say “kid thueng khao daeng ghaeng ron” (thinking of red rice and hot curries). Finally, although red or brown rice may be healthier and more fashionable, many Thais prefer the plain white stuff. This is highlighted in the connotations of an old idiom, “pai ghin khao daeng,” which translates as “going to eat unpolished rice,” a euphemism for “going to jail,” where they used to serve inmates the cheapest form of our beloved staple.