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
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 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
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 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
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, 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.
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.
Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2011.