Rice is life.
Rice is deeply ingrained in the Filipino culture.
Most Filipinos cannot imagine sitting down to a meal that doesn’t include at least a little rice.
Even when eating Western meals, like a cheeseburger, most Filipinos want at least a taste.
The importance of rice in the culture is illustrated by the following Filipino proverbs, all dating back many generations in origin:
- Rice bran is dearer than rice when it is in demand.
- Cold rice given wholeheartedly is better than newly cooked rice.
- No matter how good the rice, it still needs to be cooked before being eaten.
- Cook only as much rice as you have.
- Without rice, you haven’t eaten.
Now most Filipino proverbs are rather abstract… The hint at the real meaning, rather than saying it outright. However, the sheer number of proverbs is indicative of the importance rice plays in the culture. Indeed, in some places in the Philippines, even the tradition of throwing rice at newly married couples is taboo. It is disrespectful.
Now, a more Western view of rice is perfectly exemplified by the following video from “Little Britain”:
Most Westerners tend too feel similarly about rice… It is merely a side dish. Something that is rather tasteless, but fills you up, nonetheless.
There are hundreds of different varieties of rice in the world. Indeed, many were pioneered or bred by the Rice Institute of the Philippines, up in Isabela. A walk into any supermarket or palengke will show you dozens of different types of rice for sale, at vastly different prices: Different species, grades, or even how many of the grains are broken. Most Filipinos use two types of rice on a daily basis, though: Medium grain, and glutinous rice for desserts, like suman.
Filipinos generally like medium grained rice that tends to cook up fluffy and light, with a medium amount of gluten. This rice is easy to shape (like in a bowl), and cooks quickly. It tends to have a rather bland flavour. This is in glaring contrast to the short-grained glutinous rice that tends to be favoured in Japan and Korea, or the long-grained rice that is common in the United States. Nearly every Filipino I’ve ever met who has lived or visited the United States dislikes the long-grained rice found there… The complaint I hear is that it is “tasteless”.
However, there are many different types of rice in the Philippines. Jasmine rice, imported from Thailand, is relatively cheap and quite fragrant, and fairly popular with Filipinos (It is medium grained and of similar texture to Filipino rice, but more fragrant). There are red and black rices with relatively low gluten levels available. There is glutinous purple rice. There is also much Japanese rice in the market. One type that is rare / expensive here: Basmati rice. Though available if you search, it tends to be expensive and of poor quality when found here (It was recently priced at P250 / 500g at Landmark in Manila.) When Rebecca worked in Abu Dhabi, she developed a taste for basmati rice, especially when making things like pilau or biryani, where it is essential. Most Filipinos dislike the extra long grains, and the strong fragrance of basmati rice. Interestingly, things like risotto, made with arborio rice, do not seem very popular here, though one would think they would be popular. Perhaps it is a texture thing?
From a cooking standpoint, rice is versatile. It can be boiled, cooked into gruel (congee), fried, ground into flour, stewed, boiled, steamed, made into sushi, made into rice cakes. Just about every cooking method. Interesting is in Abulug, cooked in a clay pot over a wood fire. A little bit smoky in taste, but Rebecca and her brothers argue over who gets the crunchy bits stuck to the inside of the pot.
Rice is one of the most labour intensive crops you can grow. First, the seeds must be sprouted, then planted by hand. Then periodically weeded before harvesting. The rice is harvested, and the chaff shaken away. It is then dried, hulled, and polished, before being ready to eat. Every year, before planting, Rebecca’s brothers head to the seed farm and talk about the different varieties available. Occasionally they will experiment with a corner of a paddy, such as last year, when they planted a jasmine rice hybrid with tiny grains (It didn’t sell, though it tasted fantastic. Filipinos tend to be very picky about the rice they eat or feed their families.) Usually, though, they stick to one of the same varieties they normally plant. Many of the Ybanag songs Rebecca remembers were associated with growing rice. Indeed, much like the Dutch and English sea shanties of old, people would sing the tunes while working in the paddies. Rebecca is old enough to remember this ritual. She vividly recollects how hard a full day of weeding the paddies was, and how they used to “keep time” by singing the songs. As time has marched on, and more people abandon the rural life, these traditions are disappearing quickly into the past. Though she says that she hated weeding work, she remembers those days fondly. Every year after her brothers’ harvest, Rebecca takes 100kg of rice back to Manila (Her fee, since she owns 1/3 of the land… They usually harvest around one hundred 100 kg sacks). This lasts us around 9 months of rice for the year, three meals per day (I beat a little, but not so much).
Rice harvests are nearly always dependent on water: Whether irrigated or through the weather. In Abulug, Rebecca’s paddies are not irrigated, so they only get one harvest per year, though the soil is good (They are too close to the shore for effective irrigation… The water table can be brackish). Nearby, some irrigated paddies yield three annual harvests. Like any other business, it all comes down to location, location, location. Complicating matters is that planting coincides with the start of typhoon season. Nothing can ruin a crop like a typhoon. Despite the non-farmer logic that with rice, water is good, the large raindrops with the monsoon can easily crush newly sprouted rice shoots. Additionally, rice needs to be drained after the roots take hold. Flooding rots the roots of the plants.
So, like farmers everywhere, rice farmers are at the mercy of the weather. In some years, when it cooperates, things are very good. Other years, the family may go hungry. That is the reality.
So, next time you see the ubiquitous rice on the Filipino table, take a moment to sit back and ponder what a versatile, and life-giving grain it truly is.