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Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 1

Kasma Loha-unchit, 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.

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