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Whole-Grain Rices Make a Comeback in Thailand

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, January 1st, 2012

In Thailand, the movement back to consuming whole-grain rice is picking up steam. Just a decade ago, it’s almost unthinkable that Thais would ever give up the white rice they have become so accustomed to eating and regard as a refinement of their taste for the rough-and-tumble brown rice relegated to a small subset of the rural population. I recall that in my childhood, my mother would buy whole-grain red rice mainly to feed our pet dogs since it was less expensive.

The Switch From Whole-Grain to White Rice

Whole Grain Rice

Red & pink jasmine rice

In generations past, before the days of mass cash-crop agriculture for export, farmers grew enough rice just for their own and for local consumption. The rice was de-husked by pounding with large wooden mortars and pestles, which retained the bran and germ. But as the country began to emerge on the world stage, government policy focused on increasing agricultural output for export to build up the country’s foreign currency reserves and wealth. Cash-crop agriculture was pushed and this large-scale mono-cropping necessitated the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase and maintain yields.

Click on photos to see a larger image.

9 Kinds of Rice

Mix of 9 rice varieties

Government-sponsored field trials selected rice strains with superior attributes to promote for farmers to grow (see previous blog: Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 2). The advent of modern-day mills came about to handle the large tonnage of rice and standard polishing techniques were implemented to produce grains that were uniform and looked white, long and beautiful as the world market demanded. Because the fragile oil in rice bran could turn rancid easily, removing the bran with polishing enabled exporters to store the large tonnage of rice for indefinite periods of time without concern about spoilage until it was ready to be shipped abroad.

This development led to a change in domestic consumption patterns with white rice rapidly replacing hand-milled brown rice as the norm. With modernization bringing more sedentary ways of living, Thai people found white rice more palatable as its lightness and easy digestibility better suited their life-style and its neutral, mild taste and softer texture better complimented Thai dishes. Its long shelf life was also seen as a plus compared to brown rice which turned rancid and buggy easily – usually in only a couple of months under normal home conditions in the tropics.

The Health Food Movement

Rice Vendor

Or Tor Kor rice vendor

Things have changed quite a bit since then and mostly in the past half a dozen years or so as the health food movement marched in earnest to the forefront, propelled by widespread concerns about the rising incidences of modern-day diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer in all segments of the Thai population.

Today, whether at open-air marketplaces with large rice vendors such as at Or Tor Kor (pronounced Aw Taw Kaw), mega warehouse stores such as Makro (similar to Costco), neighborhood fresh markets, or even upscale supermarkets and specialty health food stores in many of Bangkok’s glittery shopping complexes, it is exciting to see many varieties of whole-grain rices on offer in various natural colors, from light brown and pink to deep purple and black, alongside different kinds of polished white rices. They come in big sacks, bulk open baskets or specially packaged kilogram pouches slapped with labels touting the particular grain’s health attributes.

Bulk Rice Bin

Supermarket bulk rice bin

Also on offer are colorful mixes combining several different kinds of whole-grain rices. With research confirming a unique nutritional profile for each kind of whole-grain rice, these mixes are formulated to provide a broad range of nutrients as well as ensure a delicious texture and flavor combination.

What is astonishing is that the prices of many of these emerging whole-grain rices are relatively steep, especially those grown organically or are heirloom or improved native strains grown only in limited quantities in particular regions of the country. This is a far cry from a decade ago when there was little, if any, demand for them.

“Green” Markets

Rice for Health Sign

Sign says "Rice for Health"


Accompanying the health food movement, the past few years have seen the advent of “green” markets — sort of like farmer’s markets held once a week at several locations in major cities. Vendors offer not only fresh, organically grown produce, healthy snacks, ready-made take-home foods, and natural juices, but a wide range of natural products as well, such as herbal shampoos and natural cosmetics, herbal food supplements, and environmentally friendly household products. Of course, it is most interesting to me to see the increasing varieties of organically grown whole-grain rices being sold at these markets. Many of them are particular to micro-climates in different parts of the country and are OTOP (“One Tambol, One Product” – tambol refers to a district in a province) or village products, which earn villagers a good income. The word “OTOP” usually signifies a quality hand-made product — notice it on the sign of a rice vendor stall at Or Tor Kor (Aw Taw Kaw) market in the above left picture.

The Red and Black Whole-Grain Rices

Among the varieties of whole-grain rices that have become highly valued among the health conscious in Thailand are the red and black rices. They contain more nutrients than the lighter brown rices. (It’s interesting that researchers in America have recently found black rice to contain even more antioxidants than blueberries — see www.blackrice.com.)

Sanyot Red Rice

"Sanyot" red rice

Red rices have been popular among health-conscious consumers since the beginning of the health food movement. While there are many strains of them grown around the country, kao sangyot has emerged as one of the most highly regarded. A red rice native to (and only grown in) Phattalung province in southern Thailand, this heirloom variety saw a resurgence in its cultivation about seven years ago when local agricultural cooperatives designated it as a rice to be grown organically for the health food market. With a stellar nutritional profile, demand for it in recent years has surpassed the limited supply. In addition to all the vitamins and minerals found in all brown rices, sangyot red rice is much higher in iron and zinc than other whole-grain rices, owing to the mineral-rich soil and water where it is grown.

Red jasmine rice, on the other hand, is particularly high in vitamin E and is said to contain 30 times more antioxidants than common brown rice.

Among the black rices, the most popular is probably kao hom nin or fragrant purple rice. Developed by Kasetsart University (Thailand’s agricultural university), it looks black when raw but is actually deep purple when cooked. It is a delicious rice higher in iron, zinc, copper, calcium, potassium, vitamins A and B than brown jasmine rice. More importantly, it contains a substance called proanthocyanidin. which gives the rice its dark color, and is a more potent antioxidant than vitamins C, E or A. The iron in this rice has particularly small molecules, making it immediately available to the body.

Hom Nin Rice

"Hom Nin" Rice

Kam Doi Hill Rice

"Kam Doi" hill rice

Another highly nutritious dark purple rice is kao kam doi, cultivated in the hills of the north where it picks up

Rices Are Full of Flavor

Forget Husband Rice

"Forget Husband Rice"

The black rices are not only very nutritious but they are full of flavor. Perhaps the most flavorful is a glutinous variety given the common name of kao leum pua — literally “forget husband rice.” I was told by a friend that it got its name because any wife who cooked the rice would find it so delicious that she would eat it all up, forgetting to save any for her husband. It is an OTOP rice from Surin province and has become very popular.

I bought some to try out and found it indeed very delicious. Mixing just a quarter cup of this rice with two cups of brown jasmine rice turns the whole mixture a pretty purple color when cooked and adds so much flavor that it can easily convert white-rice eaters into brown rice lovers. My niece is one of them. She won’t touch brown rice, but when I mix it with the “forget husband rice” and cook it the way I usually cook brown rice (see How to Cook Jasmine Brown Rice for Maximum Nutrition) she just can’t seem to get enough of it!

Soaking Rice

Soaking rice (click picture)

Steamed Whole Grain Rice

Steamed whole grain rice

More to Come in the Near Future

Of course, there are numerous other varieties of very nutritious native whole-grain rices. Books (in the Thai language) have been written about them over the past couple of years. I am still looking for some of them in the rice markets, health food stores and “green” markets. Perhaps as more and more people are awakened to the health benefits of consuming whole-grain rices, many more varieties of these rices will become readily available. For me, consuming these native whole-grain rices not only contributes to my health but it, in turn, improves farmers’ earnings and helps return them to a more harmonious way of living on the land.

Surin Rices

Or Tor Kor rice stall

Whole Grain Rices

Several whole grain rices


Kasma’s Other Articles on Rice

Fool Proof Rice Recipes

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2011.

Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 2

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Jasmine rice is Thailand’s top export rice. In fact, most of the jasmine rice the country grows is exported to foreign markets far and wide.

Has Thailand always grown jasmine rice? When and how did it come about? To answer these questions, a little bit of history would be helpful.

(Note: This article is a continuation of the blog Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 1.)

Early History of Rice Cultivation in Thailand

Inscription

Sukhothai inscription

Agricultural policies from as early as the ancient Sukhothai period of Thai history through the centuries of bustling international trade of the Ayuthaya period and into the modern era have actively encouraged the people to develop land into rice fields, for the nation’s food and income security and as a strategy to extend and maintain ruling power. If you travel to the Chiang Mai area, you’ll see impressive remains and hear lots of mention of the old and glorious kingdom of Lanna (“a million rice fields”); and in the Sukhothai area where the first Thai kingdom was established more than seven centuries ago, you’ll hear accounts of the first example of the written Thai language in its best-known passage alluding to a prosperous kingdom where “in the water there is fish, in the fields there is rice…” ruled by a benevolent king. There’s evidence that irrigation canals (klongs) were already in place at the birth of the country in the 13th century. Today, irrigation still remains a crucial service the state provides to its people to grow rice. In the early part of the Rattanakosin modern era (late 18th, early 19th centuries), as much as 95 percent of farmland was allocated for growing rice and Siam prospered from exporting rice to China. Rice farming continues to be the primary farming activity nationwide and the Thai word for farmer, chaona, lterally means “rice field person”.

Archeological Dig

Archeological dig at Ban Chiang

Rice farming in cultivated fields has been done on the land that is now Thailand for at least five thousand years, one thousand years earlier than in India and China. Archaeologists have found traces of rice husks and chaff in the pottery excavated from ancient burial sites in northeastern Thailand that date back at least 5,400 years. At another site in the northwest, a thin stone tool in the shape of a knife for harvesting rice and pottery containing rice husks, dating back at least 5,000 years, have also been found. From the archaeological evidence, some researchers believe that the Asian rice species might very well have originated in the inland valleys of the northern parts of Thailand, the Shan state of present-day Myanmar and adjacent areas of Laos where the annual monsoons, warm humid climate and fertile lowlands offered an ideal environment for its domestication. In ancient times, it is likely that nomadic tribes began settling down to cultivate rice by selectively gathering wild rice from the forests and from swamplands to grow and gradually improving the rice strains by selective breeding.

Jasmine Rice in Thailand, 20th Century and Today

Rice Paddy

Flooded rice paddies

Around the turn of the 20th century, Thai rice was exported to Europe through rice traders in India. It didn’t sell as well as Indian rice since the latter had beautiful, uniform long grains while Thai rice was irregular in quality with much of the grains broken. King Rama V, in his extensive travels to many parts of Europe around that time, made an important observation. His Majesty noted that the irregularities in Thai rice most likely came about because Thai farmers planted too many varieties and there was no attempt to standardize and select strains with superior qualities to grow for export. To encourage the identification of superior strains that the country could promote to improve the quality of Thai rice exports, His Majesty inaugurated the first indigenous rice contest in 1907. In the ensuing years, several indigenous varieties with fine attributes were discovered, tested in field trials, then promoted by the government to farmers to grow for foreign markets. One of the strains was Pin Kaew, submitted by a woman from Sriracha in Chonburi province, which went on to win the coveted first prize at the World Rice Contest in Canada in 1933. It became Thailand’s top rice for many years.

But it wasn’t until the early 1950’s when a truly earnest campaign was carried out to collect native rice strains nationwide in search of other high-quality varieties to promote and export. Some 6000 samples were collected between 1950 and 1952. Promising samples from the Panat Nikom district of Chonburi province were planted alongside other selected strains from the north, northeast and central regions in field trials to compare quality. Of the 199 samples planted at the rice research station, several superior strains were discovered, among them jasmine rice 105 (dok maii 105, later known as hom mali 105), the number corresponding to the row the rice was planted in the trials. In 1959, a selection committee conferred on jasmine rice 105 the highest recommendation because of its pure white, long slender grains and sweet pandanus leaf fragrance (not jasmine fragrance as misled by its name, see Part 1). First cultivated by a farmer in Chonburi province in the 1940’s, jasmine rice 105 has since become an important breeding strain for other rices throughout Thailand.

Rice Field

Rice stalks heavy with grain

Jasmine rice is most commonly grown as an in-season rice watered by the monsoon rains, since it is a light-sensitive variety of rice. While there are varieties that would flower and set seed any time of year, light-sensitive strains will flower and set seed only when the length of the day is shorter than the length of the night. Farmers, therefore, prefer to plant such rice during the main monsoon season (July to October). Jasmine rice stalks begin to flower by October when the days are shorter than the nights. To many discerning Thais, in-season rice tastes better than off-season rice grown with irrigation water.

Today, with continued government support and stringent quality control standards, all rice destined for export must pass the government stamp of approval before it can be shipped. The active involvement of the government in the promotion of Thai rice abroad has placed jasmine rice in the spotlight on the world stage. Among discerning Asians in many countries, jasmine rice is considered the best-tasting rice in the world. As mentioned in Part 1, the Chinese, for instance, are so fond of the jasmine rice grown in northeastern Thailand, especially the provinces of Surin, Yasothon and Roi Et, that they would like to have a monopoly on all the rice grown here. The jasmine rice from these provinces is particularly fragrant and has a better texture than jasmine rice grown in other areas. I, too, prefer the jasmine rice grown in the northeast, and recommend it to my cooking students by advising them to buy the Golden Phoenix label, which consistently markets top-grade jasmine rice from this region and has won the Prime Minister’s Export Award.

Variations in Jasmine Rice

Threshed Rice

Offering to Mother Spirit of Rice

Besides where the rice is grown, the fragrance, texture and flavor can differ depending on the age of the rice. Jasmine rice is softest and most fragrant when newly harvested. As it ages, it gradually loses fragrance and becomes firmer and dryer, requiring more water to cook (see Steamed Jasmine Rice). If the bag of jasmine rice you buy in a supermarket here in the States seems to take a lot more water to cook than usual, has a hard texture and doesn’t seem to have any fragrance at all, then it’s likely that the rice is old and may have been sitting around in warehouses for a long while. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to make it a habit to check the date of harvest, if there’s any, shown on the bag (with many brands, it’s more likely to be the date of shipping, or date of expiration, which isn’t as good an indicator of the rice’s age). On larger bags of rice from ten pounds up, the label may include “New Crop” on the top, but make sure this is followed by the current year (i.e., “New Crop 2011”). The primary rice harvest season is between October and December in main rice-growing regions in Thailand and new rice is shipped out starting in November.

With Golden Phoenix being a reputable premium label and a favorite among Asians, there’s usually a high turnover in busy Asian markets, so you most likely will get new rice or rice not older than a year. For high quality rice, such as Golden Phoenix’s, even a year-old to two-year-old jasmine rice stored under proper conditions can still retain good fragrance and a texture that’s deliciously firm and chewy – perfect for making flavored rice dishes such as the Muslim yellow rice (kao moek gkai) and the popular chicken fat-flavored rice (kao man gkai). If texture is more important to you than fragrance and you like your rice al dente firm and chewy, then an aged rice of one to two years may suit you better than the new rice Asians prefer. For a good mix of firm texture and delectable fragrance, about a six- to ten-month old rice would be ideal – i.e., a bag labelled “New Crop 2011” would be at this stage from July on.

Importance of Rice for Thailand

Temple Mural

Temple mural, women grilling rice

While China by its sheer size is the world’s largest producer of rice, Thailand has led the world as the largest rice exporter since the 1960’s, owing much of this status to jasmine rice. Even with a population of 67 million, each consuming an average of nearly a pound of rice a day (in various forms besides steamed rice, including rice noodles, desserts, crackers, snack foods, rice liquors, vinegar, etc.), half of the rice Thailand grows is exported. Jasmine rice makes up half of the country’s rice exports with China being the biggest buyer of this deliciously fragrant rice, though Europe and the United States take a big share as well.

Rice is an intrinsic and inseparable part of Thai culture and there is no other food crop that receives blessings in every stage of its life cycle in rituals that parallel the life cycle of human beings. From annual royal rituals dating back seven hundred years (i.e., the Royal Ploughing ceremony, the Rain-Pleading ceremony, the merit-making ceremony to honor the Mother Spirit of Rice) to age-old folk rituals still performed before cultivation, at the time of planting, during the period of maturation and at the time of harvest, different spirits are asked to protect and nurture the rice crop. Rice is always present in one form or another as ceremonial foods in religious and important civil celebrations and at cultural festivals in all regions of the country. These foods often appear in the murals of local temples. Rice is so much a part of Thai identity that it is frequently used as metaphors in figures of speech. Not a day passes in the life of a Thai in which rice does not play a role.

A new movement in rice consumption is picking up steam in Thailand: the return to heirloom, location-specific whole-grain rices and GABA or germinated rice. I hope to write about this new trend sometime in the near future.

Note:

Did you know that rice feeds one in three people in the world and 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced and consumed in Asia?


Much of the information contained in my two blogs on jasmine rice was gleaned from two books published in the Thai language — Kae Roi Samrap Thai and Kao – Wattanatham Haeng Chiwit — and a few articles from Thai newspapers.


See also:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2011.

Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 1

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Thai Jasmine Rice – Hom Mali – Thailand’s best-known rice, is something increasing numbers of people are becoming familiar with and have come to love eating, as the popularity of Thai food continues to soar worldwide. In fact, it has become so widely distributed and so synonymous with Thai cuisine abroad that some people have developed a misconception that jasmine rice is the only rice most Thais eat on a daily basis. This is not so as Thailand grows and consumes many other good-eating varieties and some regions of the country actually prefer other kinds of rice to jasmine rice.

Threshing Rice

Farmers threshing rice

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

I read in a book on Thai food history that Thailand has some 3,500 varieties of rice within her borders, both wild and cultivated. Wow! that’s astounding! But wait till you hear this: The same passage reveals that there are as many as 120,000 varieties, both wild and cultivated, worldwide! Now, that’s unfathomable to the average citizen of Middle America who may know rice only in the form of Uncle Ben’s converted or that highly processed stuff called “Minute Rice”.

Different Varieties of Jasmine Rice

Winnowing Rice

Farmers winnowing rice

Vastly different topography, weather patterns, soil conditions, and consumption preferences combine to determine the varieties grown in each of Thailand’s many regions. For instance, in the mountainous north, the monsoon rains come early and end quickly, so varieties that grow and ripen fast are cultivated. Northerners prefer to eat sticky rice, so little jasmine rice is grown for local consumption. On the other hand, growing conditions in the northeastern region are ideal for jasmine rice and lots of it is grown there, but like northerners, people in the northeast prefer sticky rice, so little of the jasmine rice they grow is consumed there. Most of it is trucked off to Bangkok for shipping to foreign markets, where it fetches a good price to earn the country a good chunk of foreign exchange each year. In each of the regions, there are varieties indigenous only to small pockets and these are strains that native peoples of the area are likely to grow for their own consumption. Indigenous rices are easier to grow and are pest-free as they have selectively adapted to the conditions in particular areas – perhaps over centuries or, possibly, even millennia. They are also usually higher in nutrients than introduced hybrids.

Harvesting Rice

Farmers harvesting rice

Even with jasmine rice, there are varying strains developed for cultivating in different areas to match local growing conditions, ensuring a bountiful harvest of the best rice each locale can grow. This may explain why the jasmine rice you buy in your local market in America can differ considerably from label to label – in fragrance, texture and flavor. The Chinese, who are very fond of jasmine rice, know this and can be very selective when buying rice from Thailand. For instance, Hong Kong would only buy the jasmine rice grown in northeastern Thailand, particularly in the provinces of Roi Et, Yasothon and Surin. The jasmine rice from this area is much more fragrant and softer in texture than jasmine rice from other parts of of the country. As for the jasmine rice grown in the much more temperate climates of Florida and Texas, you might as well forget it – it simply is no longer jasmine rice. (See Kasma’s article Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali for her experience with Texas Jasmine Rice). Thailand holds the patent for jasmine rice, so it’s unlikely anyway that the rice grown in these two states can claim to be true hom mali jasmine rice.

Last year a food agent wanted me to try out a “super-premium jasmine” rice imported from Vietnam in hopes that I would recommend it on my website. He sent me a 25-pound sack. I cooked it once and that was quite enough! The rest went out the door with my Vietnamese kitchen helper who was very happy since this was the rice she’s used to eating. By no stretch of the imagination is it jasmine rice and I find it very misleading for an inferior rice with absolutely no fragrance, a hard texture and a greyish tint to be called jasmine rice, or super-premium for that matter.

Street Vendor of Rice

Street vendor at Thong Lo Market

People who are into food know that the same variety of red delicious apple grown in the Sierra foothills will taste different from the fruit grown in their own backyard in the Bay Area. The soil here is different and the climate is different, so it should not be surprising that the fruits don’t taste quite the same. Those of us who love good food know from experience that such and such a place grows the best this and that and, if we have a choice, we would buy a particular food from the place where it grows best. Take farmer’s markets, for instance. Why does the produce from some farms taste much better than the same produce from other farms? Is it the soil? micro-climates? cultural practices? Bing cherries are not just bing cherries, concord grapes are not just concord grapes, Santa Rosa plums are not just Santa Rosa plums, and so on. The same is true with rice, which being pretty much like grasses might have even the greater ability to morph into something completely different when conditions are far from ideal. Jasmine rice is, therefore, not just jasmine rice: where it is grown is very important. The Chinese know this and Thais know this, but many Americans have yet to understand the difference.

Another example: the Napa Valley is known for its perfect climate for growing wine grapes, so the wines produced here can naturally be expected to be much, much better than any Thailand can produce with the grapes she can grow in her humid tropical climate. I don’t recommend wine connoisseurs drink Thai wine just as I don’t recommend foodies to eat American-grown jasmine rice. And with rice just as with wine, not only does where it come from matter but its age and how it is stored before it makes it into your kitchen. (For more information see Jasmine Rice – Part 2.)

Buying Rice in Thailand

Rice at Or Tor Kor

Rice for sale, at Or Tor Kor

Buying rice in fresh, open-air marketplaces in Thailand is a much different experience than buying rice in American supermarkets. Vendor stalls usually carry a large assortment of Thai-grown rice and sell them bulk from big opened sacks, baskets, buckets or tubs. You can touch, feel, see and smell the grains without a plastic covering or paper box being in the way before you make your decision which to buy. Signs identify each rice by the variety name, but usually also tell you where it is grown, whether it is new or old rice and, sometimes, how the rice cooks up (i.e., soft, not hard when cold, etc.). For whole grain rices sold in more health-conscious markets, the health attributes of the particular grain may also appear on the sign. Big rice vendors often carry several kinds of jasmine rice and, if you examine closely, you can compare the quality by their appearance and aroma. Depending on the strain, age, place of cultivation, time of maturation (i.e., rice maturing early is “light”, maturing late is “heavy”) and time of harvest (i.e., whether it is an in-season rice watered by the monsoon rains, or off-season rice grown during the dry season with irrigation water), as well as how the grains are milled for white rice, quality and price can vary. Discerning Thais claim to be able to taste the difference between rice harvested at different times of year, much like a gifted wine connoisseur can distinguish between wine vintages.

Rice for Sale

Another Or Tor Kor vendor

The photo to the right shows a rice stall at Or Tor Kor (pronounced Aw Taw Kaw) market in Bangkok carrying five different kinds of white and whole-grain jasmine rices – the four sacks in front, with the leftmost bag being new-crop jasmine rice from Chiang Rai, and the leftmost bag on the top row, which is new-crop jasmine rice from Yasothon. Signs for the three whole-grain jasmine rices in the front row identify the varieties and describe what they are good for (i.e., the sack with the red sign is new-crop pink whole-grain jasmine rice that can treat numbness and is a tonic for the bones). (See our blog on Aw Taw Kaw (Or Tor Kor) Market in Bangkok.)

Why is it Called Jasmine Rice?

What is jasmine rice anyway? Its name may be misleading to unknowing westerners thinking that the rice is infused artificially with the essence of jasmine blossoms. In actuality, the rice is naturally fragrant but the aroma is not that of jasmine flowers but closer to that of “pandan” leaves (or bai toey in Thai). When the native rice was first discovered around 1950 (more in part 2, coming soon) and brought into cultivation by a farmer in Chonburi province, it was cherished because the grains, when milled, had a beautiful long shape, a shiny translucence and were white like jasmine blossoms, accompanied by a distinct sweet aroma (the rice does contain a substance also found in sweetly fragrant pandan leaves). Initially, it was given the name “white jasmine blossom rice” (kao kao malin or kao kao dok mali), but sometime later people mistakenly began calling it “fragrant jasmine” (hom mali) rice and the name somehow stuck.

How did jasmine rice come about to become Thailand’s most famous rice? First, some history would be helpful. So check out my next blog post – Jasmine Rice – Part 2.)


See also:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2011.

How to Cook Jasmine Brown Rice for Maximum Nutrition

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, November 25th, 2010

Brown rice can be easy to cook and very nutritious. Today a growing number of people concerned about healthful eating are turning from consuming white rice to whole-grain brown rice, even in Thailand. But many of them complain that it takes a lot more time and water to cook brown rice and sometimes the result can be a little mushy. More worrisome is the fact that few of them are aware that when they cook brown rice without proper treatment ahead of time, they may end up getting only a small fraction of the nutrition stored in the grain, There also are a number of anti-nutrients contained in whole grains that can potentially cause harm if not neutralized.

Rice for Sale

Rice at Aw Taw Kaw Market

(Click images to see larger version.)

Whole-grain brown rice is a seed and like most seeds, it contains phytates– nature’s own preservative and insecticide which lock in nutrients to keep the seed viable until conditions are ideal for it to sprout. When the grain is still new (less than a year after harvest), the phytates (and other anti-nutrients) in the bran are especially intact, keeping the grain bug-free as insects know not to eat it at this stage since they can be harmed by doing so. (In humans, the phytic acid contained in these compounds binds with key minerals , especially calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc and can inhibit their absorption in the intestinal tract, leading to mineral deficiencies.) Over time, if the conditions for storage are less than ideal, the phytates eventually break down and the fragile rice bran oil turn rancid, and when they do, bugs begin to infiltrate and feast on the grain that has lost nature’s protection.

Different Rices

Whole grain rices

For those of us who are gardeners, we know that hard-to-sprout seeds benefit from soaking in warm water overnight. The moisture and warmth send a signal to the germ of the seed that life-supporting conditions are now present. The seed unlocks its nutrients by breaking down the phytates that until then protected the seed from spoiling, and begins to germinate or sprout.

The same is true of whole-grain rice (as well as wheat and other whole-grain cereals, nuts and dry legumes). When we soak it overnight, or for several hours, especially in warm water since it is the seed of a tropical grass, the potentially harmful phytates break down, making the full range of nutrients available to the rice germ to push forth new life. At this stage, the unlocked nutrients also become available to us when we consume the rice.

Soaking Brown Rice

Soaking brown rice

I’ve always soaked whole-grain rice before cooking, mainly because this treatment makes the rice not only easier to cook, but taste a whole lot better. Several years ago I came across an article in a health and nutrition journal that gave me another reason to tell my cooking students why they should soak their brown rice before cooking. Notably, intensive rice research conducted in Japan over the past two decades revealed how the nature of the nutrients in whole-grain rice changed when given a water bath to awaken the grain. Curious scientists were eager to discover how long the grain needed to be soaked for the the full range of nutrients locked inside of it to be fully released. If I recall correctly, the research found that the ideal number of hours is twenty-two (22).

This interesting piece of information got me soaking my brown rice one evening to be cooked the following evening, or close to the recommended twenty-two hours. In the past, I’ve soaked whole-grain rice only about three to four hours, or overnight, before cooking – particularly black sticky rice which swells when soaked, requiring little water and time to cook. I experimented with soaking for a full day brown jasmine rice mixed with a small amount of a red rice called “kao man bpoo” (literally “crab fat rice” but unfortunately sold in the USA by a less than appealing name of “red cargo rice”). This red rice was one of the first whole-grain rice to be embraced by the health food movement in Thailand as especially nourishing. I used warm tap water to start but didn’t bother with maintaining the warmth for the entire time of soaking. The result was indeed amazing!

Steamed Soaked Rice

The steamed soaked rice.

The grains absorbed a lot of water and grew fat, with the germ – or the “nose” of the rice as Thais call it – enlarged as if they were getting ready to sprout. Being an avid gardener, that was quite exciting to see. The soaked grains exuded a sweet fresh aroma as if they had come to life – as if they had just been harvested from the rice paddy! The grains took a little less water to cook than white rice (if you like your rice al dente) and about the same length of time as white rice using my usual method of steaming rice taught to my cooking students (read on). The cooked grains stayed whole, looked beautiful and, best of all, tasted wonderful – with a delicious nuttiness and invitingly fresh fragrance – much more so than when soaked for the three to four hours I used to do in the past. I am now convinced that the fully released nutrients are what add to the tastiness of the rice.

So, next time you cook brown rice, soak it this evening to cook tomorrow evening. I usually rinse the rice a couple of times, then cover with plenty of water as much of it will be absorbed by the grains. If it’s too much trouble to maintain warmth for the duration of the soaking time, room temperature works just fine. In fact, if you soak the rice in warm water for that long, fermentation can take place and produce a slightly off smell. It is, therefore, recommended that you change the water a few times during those 22 hours if warmth is maintained the whole time. For me, in my northern California kitchen, I find soaking the rice at room temperature for all those hours woks well enough in awakening the grain.

Steamed Rice Close-up

Steamed rice close-up

I like to steam the rice using the same method I use to cook white jasmine rice as described on my website. (See Steamed Jasmine Rice Recipe.) This technique is a true steam method unlike one-compartment electric rice cookers which actually boil rather than steam the rice and, therefore, produce a less tasty result. All you need is a deep heat-proof bowl and a pot large enough to accommodate it. Place a trivet of some kind in the pot on which the bowl containing the rice can rest. Look in the cookware section of large Asian supermarkets for such a utensil, or you can improvise by using a small overturned dish, such as a ramekin, or even an empty tin can cut away on both ends, Fill the pot with a couple of inches of water and bring to a boil. In a separate kettle, boil some water.

Golden Phoenix Brown Rice

Golden Phoenix brown rice

Drain the soaked rice, lightly rinse once and drain again. Place in the heatproof bowl and level out the rice. The bowl should be about half full with rice. Place the bowl on the stand in the pot and add hot boiling water to the rice – to about half an inch above the grains (for al dente) to three-quarters of an inch (for softer rice). When the water in the pot below the lifted bowl comes to a rolling boil, cover the pot and turn the heat down to medium, or to a level where you can still hear water boiling in the pot and see steam escaping from the edge of the lid. Let steam for about 25 to 30 minutes. After the rice is cooked, you can keep it warm for a long time by simply turning down the heat to the lowest setting. With this method of steaming, you need not worry about burning your rice and the bowl is very easy to clean once you’ve dished out the cooked rice.

For a delicious brown rice meal, try the Golden Phoenix label’s blend of jasmine brown rice which contains a small amount of red cargo rice for added color, flavor and nutrition. Buy a bag that shows a date of harvest or shipment of less than one year. It’s available in five- and ten-pound bags in many large Asian markets. The bulk of Golden Phoenix’s rice come from Northeastern Thailand where among the most fragrant jasmine rices are grown.


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, November 2010

Loei Market Vendor (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

NE-Style Crispy Grilled Sticky Rice

Loei Market Vendor

Yummy grilled sticky rice in Loei

This picture of a smiling vendor selling grilled sticky rice was taken in the morning market at Loei. I’ve seen it sold at a street stall on Sukhumvit Road at Soi 55 (Thong Lo); presumably the vendor is from Isaan.

In Northeastern Thailand (Isaan or Isahn) the preferred rice is Sticky rice. For most meals it’s served in small baskets and one dips the hand directly in the basket and rolls the rice into a ball for eating.

This picture shows another alternative, seen is most Isaan markets is a crispy grilled sticky rice, on a stick. It’s really quite delicious, typically dipped in a mixture of beaten eggs, salt and pepper and then grilled until golden brown and lightly charred and crispy. In Thai it is called kao jee; Kasma calls it Northeastern-Style Crispy Grilled Sticky Rice.


The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Black Olive Rice (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Black Olive Rice at My Choice Restaurant

Black olive rice at My Choice

Black olive rice at My Choice Restaurant in Bangkok

Perhaps our favorite restaurant in Bangkok is My Choice on Sukhumvit Soi 36 in Bangkok. The menu is loaded with delicious dishes brilliantly prepared with ultra-fresh ingredients. There are so many great dishes that usually when we go we order several to be eaten with rice. See Michael’s Blog on My Choice for pictures of many of our other favorite dishes.

This picture shows a “one-dish meal” rice dish at My Choice, Salted Black Olive Fried Rice; on their menu it is called Kao Ohb Nahm Liap. The main ingredient is a Chinese salted black olive, which is mixed with shrimp, dried shrimp, green mango, Thai chillies and ground pork. It’s a marvelous dish, full of several different types of flavors and anchored by the black olive.

It’s a marvelous dish and I usually order it when I eat at My Choice by myself. They serve it already mixed, as in the picture; in Kasma’s classes she teaches it as a composed salad that is mixed by each person prior to eating.

Here’s my attempt at rendering the name of the dish Thai script.

kaoohbnahmliab

I’ve also circled the menu item on the My Choice Menu.


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The Wednesday Photo is a new picture  each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.