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Whole-Grain Rices Make a Comeback in Thailand

Kasma Loha-unchit, 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.

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4 Responses to “Whole-Grain Rices Make a Comeback in Thailand”

  1. alan says:

    I would love to know if there are any inexpensive restaurants in Bangkok serving whole grain rice.

  2. Michael Babcock says:

    As I understand it from Kasma, Thais traditionally ate white rice; it’s really only in the last few years that they’ve begun to get interested in the whole grain rices. Growing up, Kasma’s family always ate white rice, not whole grain.

  3. Radha says:

    Outstanding articles. Please ask your elders, as old of a generation possible, which unpolished rice varieties were the daily meal rice, what can and cannot be eaten with them and how they were soaked and cooked.

    I am familiar with the colored rices you mentioned which are sold in India too. However there are strict cooking rules for each variety. Some rices are used to prepare specific dishes, other rices were suited for daily meals, some suited for specific curries. This is the problem I am having with these rices. White rice is neutral it goes with anything, but I feel colored rices don’t. Each variety has its own set of rules it seems.

    I have heard the Burmese ate black rice for their daily meals, but in India the black rice was used to make dessert only. So that is one confusing point for example.

Leave a Reply to Michael Babcock