Rice is a staple food feeding almost half of the world’s population. It is well known that the present day rice descended from domesticated wild rice many millennials ago. Due to the good soil condition and climate in Asia, rice thrives first around the banks of rivers and foothills with proper drainage. However, the exact location of its origin is still being disputed until today. Some said it began in the foothills of Eastern Himalayas or southern India but other researchers said it may be also originated from riverbanks in China or even the Mekong river basin in Southeast Asia! However, regardless of its origin, this cereal grain has indeed fed our human race very well.
Closer to home, rice is the number one diet of Asians. Unlike in the West where food such as bread originated from wheat, rice is very filling and consists the largest portion in any Asian meal. In East Asia region, rice from Korea and Japan consists mainly of smaller pearl-like grain types and stickier than of ASEAN origin. On the other hand, South Asian variety such as in India and Pakistan, the slender grain Basmati rice is very popular but is sold with slightly higher price. While for Southeast Asia, the more popular one is the Jasmine rice which has a longer grain and very fragrant. They are cultivated mainly in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
In Malaysia, almost a third of our rice production is cultivated in the state of Kedah. Therefore, this State is known as the “Rice Bowl” state of Malaysia. Despite this, Malaysia still imports rice from neighbouring countries to meet our domestic rice demand. Here in Malaysia, there are many cuisines made using rice as the main ingredient and they are very popular among all walks of life.
Firstly, there is the Ketupat. Ketupat is made from glutinous rice stuffed inside a woven palm leaf. It resembles a diamond shaped palm wrapping and they are boiled. As the rice is being cooked, they will expand and fill the pouch. The Ketupat is then cut open and often served with delicious rendang (either beef or chicken curry dish) or sometimes, sweet peanut gravy. As this dish is commonly served during festive season such as Hari Raya (Eid festival), you can find Ketupat wrapping decorations weaved from ribbons (instead of palm leaves) during this occasion.
Another Malaysian rice dish that is also similar with Ketupat is called the Lemang. Lemang is not commonly found during ordinary days as they are only prepared during the Muslim fasting month in Malaysia. This dish is prepared from glutinous rice with coconut milk filled into a hollowed bamboo and cooked over open fire. Its cooking process must be carefully done – the bamboo needs to be turned around constantly to ensure the rice is fully cooked and not burnt! If not, the rice will turn to ashes and this full-day cooking job will be completely wasted.
In Malaysia, we have a Chinese but localized dish called Claypot Chicken Rice. In Korea, there is a signature dish called Dolsot Bibimbap where the rice is served over a sizzling hot pot that still allows the raw egg to be cooked when the other ingredients are mixed together. Here, cooking is done on the claypot itself. While the rice is being cooked, usually the chef will add decent amount of dark soy sauce, bits of dried salted fish, Chinese sausage and finally the marinated chicken meat into the pot. Before this dish is served to the customers, depending on request, you can ask for a raw egg to be added too. Instead of the vegetable version of the Korean Dolsot Bibimbap, you will have a mainly protein variety this time. As this dish requires long preparation time, from the rice being cooked to ingredients added, these days, gas stoves with strong flames had replaced traditional charcoal stove.
In my previous article, I had explained the Nasi Lemak, a Malaysian national cuisine made from rice cooked with coconut milk and served with a variety of side dishes. This time, there is another cuisine called Nasi Ulam (rice mixed with herbs). Although Nasi Ulam is better known among the Malay community here in Malaysia, it is also a staple dish among the Nyonya and Peranakan people here in Malaysia. Nyonya people is a subgroup within Chinese communities and referred to Chinese community who came to Malay archipelagos and assimilated the language and culture of local Malay. This healthy rice dish consists of mainly thinly sliced local herbs like bunga kantan (ginger flower), kaffir lime leaf, daun kadok (wild betel leaf), etc. commonly grown in Malaysian gardens during the olden days. These herbs are then mixed with rice, dried shrimp and other ingredients such as dry-fried shredded coconut (also known as kerisik in Malay language).
Rice provides us with a cheap and energy-rich meal to start our day. With a little creativity, we have combined various cooking style and ingredients to create a more palatable dish eaten by communities around the world. From the harvesting of paddy, milling, packing to distribution, this industry has supported many local communities and has also been a source of income for many small farmers in Malaysian agricultural sector. Although wheat is becoming more popular among the younger generations due to proliferation of bakeries and a more diet conscious trend picking up, it is very hard to tell that rice will be displaced anytime soon.
By KYLE TAN JIN SOON, ASEAN Correspondent from Malaysia