from one generation to the next
Rice is the cornerstone of the Khmer diet and widespread production puts Cambodia among the top rice growing countries in the world.
It was the end of the rainy season when I recently visited. In the countryside, knee high rice crops in flooded paddies formed a lush and verdant landscape. The grain heads drooped on their stalks as they fattened and turned to golden ripeness. In some areas where the paddy water had receded, farmers were bent low over their crop cutting the precious stems with a sickle. Each armful was added to a stook waiting to be loaded onto a bullock cart and taken to be threshed and dried. We saw roadside verges carpeted with rice grains still in their husks, thinly spread on plastic sheets, drying in the sun. Once dried the rice would be winnowed, then stored.
The Cambodian rice that I ate was plump and medium grained with a pleasant firm texture. Khmer women, even in the most rudimentary of kitchens I observed, cooked their rice by the absorption method.
Rice is a valuable crop for many reasons. Even the poorest subsistence farmer will grow rice. The grains will feed his family, the stems are fodder for his cattle and the husks are a hot burning fuel. A valuable byproduct of the rice paddy is the rats, snakes and insects that are harvested as protein sources and the morning glory greens that grow wild on the perimeter that are cooked and eaten as a vegetable.
Every menu I perused, every meal I ate while in Cambodia included rice in some form.
Breakfast every day was rice noodle soup, rice porridge or fried rice. Fresh rice paper rolls stuffed with rice vermicelli noodles, herbs and pork or fried rice paper rolls with vegetables were common snacks and starters. Only salad dishes were served without rice as an accompaniment, but every hot meal was served with a bowl of simple steamed rice.
Dessert was delicious sweet tropical fruit usually accompanied by rice, this time sweet glutinous rice with palm sugar and coconut.
But rice is also a tradeable commodity.
Around the town of Battambang, we visited cottage industries value adding to their rice crop. Rice noodles, rice paper wrappers and “medicinal” rice wine are produced in small quantities by labour intensive traditional methods and sold at the local market.
There was no gleaming stainless steel vats manned by workers in protective clothing and hair nets. These products were manufactured in open sided wooden structures with palm leaf roofs and dirt floors using basic equipment over fire.
The noodles were made from a stiff paste of well soaked rice, ground by stone, then extruded into a vat of simmering water to cook. The wrapper formula was similar but the paste was mixed into a slurry by adding water. A circle of rice paste was spread by hand onto a hot, cloth covered plate. It was briefly steamed then adeptly lifted into a rattan rack and set aside to dry.
Rice wine infused with herbs, flowers and barks is said to have medicinal properties. It is given to new mothers post partum to help restore their strength. The Khmer men drink rice wine infused with spiders and snakes believing it will enhance virility.
Rice plays an integral part of daily life in Cambodia. Which ever way you look at it, rice is the sustainer of Khmer life.