Rice is part of our shared culture, but few consumers know much about it

Rice is a common part of our shared culture, but few consumers know much about its origins and the roleit plays in reducing poverty, writes Ruth Williams

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 9:35am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 9:35am

In the January sunshine on the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre's roof garden, a handful of villagers from Choi Yuen Tsuen are cooking and sharing char guar (Hakka teacakes). They roll and shape glutinous rice, then fill them with either a savoury mix of white radish, dried shrimps and celery or crushed peanuts, with chopped Chinese fever vine and mallotus leaves.

Neighbours Wong Kwai-chun and Fung Yu-chuk explain how these traditional steamed glutinous rice cakes have acquired a new significance for them and their fellow villagers.

In 2009, Choi Yuen Tsuen residents learned their homes would be torn down to make way for the Hong Kong-Guangzhou high-speed railway. As they took a stand against the plans at the now famous demonstrations outside Legco in late 2009 and early 2010, the villagers made char guar to sustain them during the long hours protesting, and gave them away to their supporters.

"Food was used as a political method, in a peaceful way, to protest against the government decision, and to show in a very peaceful manner that all they wanted was to keep their homes and to keep their way of life," says Daisy Tam Dic-sze, research assistant professor, department of humanities and creative writing, Hong Kong Baptist University.

The snack has since then become symbolic of the villagers' desire to maintain a sense of community. Reluctant to relocate to urban areas, about 40 of the 150 households opted to pool their compensation money to buy land so they could still farm and live together. Two years ago they began rebuilding homes at Choi Yuen New Village, which is close to their former home. Fung explains that the villagers enjoy cooking together in outdoor open areas, something they are striving to recreate and continue in their new village.

"Coming together to cook is very important for family and the villagers are our family," says Wong, who gives guided tours of the village that include organic farming and cooking lessons.

The cooking demonstration and tasting was held last Sunday in a day of activities titled "In a Grain of Rice: Food & Culture for South & Southeast Asia", part of the Asia Society's "No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia" programmes.

Academics, restaurateurs, chefs, farmers, artists and food lovers discussed, cooked and tasted rice dishes as they explored the link between food and culture. The focus was what French culinary great Auguste Escoffier called "the best, the most nutritive and unquestionably the most widespread staple in the world".

Panelists and the audience discussed everything from the need to develop high yielding climate change-proof rice to the science of cooking it perfectly. This led to expert advice from restaurateurs such as Drawing Room Concepts' Tony Cheng and Chôm Chôm's Peter Cuong Franklin on to how to cook the perfect congee and Hainan chicken rice, and how to wrap rice paper rolls.

Panelists acknowledged that although restaurants in Hong Kong are increasingly stressing the provenance of their produce, and many foodies can name a dozen grape varieties, few could name a dozen types of rice.

In a city where a meal is not complete without some form of rice, there appears to be little interest in knowing more about the origins of that particular food on our tables.

The glutinous rice and the rice flour used in Hakka tea cakes, like most rice used in Hong Kong, is imported from Thailand. In fact, for most Hongkongers, Thai jasmine or fragrant rice is regarded as the standard. This has been true for decades. But that is changing.

In 2007, rice importers brought in 90 per cent of Hong Kong's rice from Thailand. But over the past seven years, white fragrant rice from Vietnam has grown from less than one per cent of imports to almost 42 per cent, with Thai rice exporters shipping 45 per cent of fragrant rice sold in Hong Kong.

Less than a tenth comes from China, with nominal amounts from Australia, the US, and other countries accounting for our wild rice, organic rice, brown rice, basmati, arborio, bomba, sushi rice and other varietals.

For researchers at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the Philippines, gaining a detailed understanding of preferences for rice taste and texture is part of their work to reduce poverty and hunger by ensuring rice production is stable and sustainable.

"IRRI scientists think 10 years in advance. Now we are seeing climate change happening, we have climate change-ready rice ready to go," says Dr Rosa Cuevas, who specialises in grain quality, specifically on the mouthfeel of cooked rice - what makes people prefer one grain over another.

Scientists may suggest new varieties of rice to farmers, but if consumers don't like the taste it would be pointless. By relating the starch structure of rice to its mouthfeel, Cuevas and her team seek to gauge local and cultural preferences.

The IRRI leads the conservation of rice's genetic diversity. It holds in trust some 110,000 rice types, including traditional or heirloom varieties, in two separate locations for security.

As the world needs another eight to 10 million tonnes rice each year, or an extra 1.5 per cent per year at a time when water and land supply is diminishing, the IRRI seeks to meet demand for staple and keep rice affordable.

Researchers look at ways to enhance the nutritional value of rice varietals, or use more nutritious varietals. But while brown rice contains more vitamins and minerals, and requires less processing, relatively little is eaten by big rice consumers such as India, China, and Indonesia. It is often marketed to the middle class as a gourmet or health food, and is more expensive.

While researchers can scientifically measure many aspects of rice grains and cooking, Cuevas says that people are always the best judge of rice quality. The IRRI assembles panels that blind taste rice for aroma, taste and describe how they judge rice's physical qualities such as colour, clarity, chalkiness, grain size and shape.

"I want chefs to come and visit the IRRI more often, as their influence in popularising different types of rice is crucial," says Cuevas. Consumers and chefs have a major role to play in influencing whether a greater variety of rice types become more widely available.