“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it… And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.”
– The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
You’ve read a bit now about Khmer food, but we’ve yet to really look at the food. Just as it is said that Inuits have countless words for snow, Cambodians have a dozen terms for the many stages and iterations of preah krawyia: the God of Sustenance. Rice here is not just eaten, though, but done, worked, watched, offered, weighed, traded, medicated and medicating. Cambodia’s 80% agricultural workforce is 99% devoted to producing this one product. Centuries of deforestation and devotion to the cultivation of rice have so paved over the culinary and ecological landscapes here that there is no place in Cambodia where one can go that you do not see or sense rice in one form or another. Even indoors, alone, you carry the rice that built your bones. This time around we’ll look at the stages of rice production as described by farmers here in Takeo Province.
“This is considered almost holy work by farmers and ranchers. Kill off everything you cannot eat. Kill off anything that eats what you eat. Kill off anything that doesn’t feed what you eat… The more competitors you destroy, the more humans you can bring into the world, and that makes it just about the most holy work there is.”
– Ishmael by David Quinn
ស្រូវពូជ – srow puych
It is suspected that the majority of Cambodia’s countless varieties of rice were lost in the Khmer Rouge years. Many strains were fortunately preserved and restored, though, by way of the International Rice Genebank in the Phillippines. The current directive from the Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing is that farmers prioritize short-season, unmilled rice for seeding due to its higher yield and value in the export market. Most families, though, will grow a combination of long-term, mid-term, and short-term varieties to try and squeeze in multiple harvests per year, divisible into rice for sale and what the family will eat between harvests. Regardless of the variety grown, the farming cycle for every family begins with the germination of the seeds that they saved from the previous harvest. The immense bags of unhusked rice are wheeled out to a water source – usually a small pond or a concrete cistern for rain-water collection – and soaked until green little suggestions of the season’s coming labor emerge. Meanwhile, another family or community member tills up the land with either a water buffalo-drawn plow or a “mechanical cow” (small tractor).
ស្រូវបាច – srow baych
Rice for Scattering
From here there are two different approaches: direct-seeding or transplantation. Direct-seeders will hitch a plastic bowl of germinated rice to their hip from which they methodically fling the grains throughout the rice paddy as they pace the mud. If the moisture level of the soil is kept exactly right for the next few (crucial) days, a juvenile rice crop will surface.
សណាប – sannaap
Young Rice Slips
In transplantation, families will either cultivate their own slips in a small, densely seeded paddy like a rice “nursery” or purchase stalks from elsewhere. Once the rice is just robust enough – around three weeks old – the slips are bundled up for sale and/or transported to larger paddies. At this stage, direct-seeders will have to gradually distribute the young rice throughout the paddy which can be done over about a week or two with one or two people and some long, two-pronged hooks. Transplanting slips, though, is usually a collective enterprise traditionally performed by all capable family members of the household. Nowadays though, the day or two of stueng or “transplanting” usually involves hired neighbors and family friends due to the attrition of younger relatives to other sectors and (moderately) smaller families as a result of birth control and family planning. The humbling life of a rice farmer is most evident in these labor-intensive stages.
“Seedless husks stand tallest in weightless arrogance. To bend those stalks into humility, fill them with seeds.” – Khmer proverb
បូម – bohmm
The aforementioned stages are labor heavy and occur over about four to five weeks. Once the rice is growing, though, a period of relatively low-maintenance monitoring occurs, punctuated with anxieties regarding excess or lack of rain. The key element of upkeep during this period is maintaining a steady level of water in the rice paddy. Our commune does this by way of irrigation canals which originate in the flood lands and stem for miles throughout ours and all communities adjacent to the reservoir. Water flow in the canals is controlled by a pump house in the center of our village and then by a series of gates which dispense water flow from the main canal to the smaller veins which stretch throughout the rice fields. It’s not exactly clear to me who carries the gates’ keys or governs the pump house schedule, only that I won’t know the pumps have been churning for hours until they power off in the evening and what I thought was relative peace and quiet was actually a long, low rumble of the motors. From those smaller canals throughout the rice fields, families control the water level in their fields with homemade pumps. Rubber hosing is attached to a large metal nozzle which houses rotating blades for pumping water into or out of the fields, all powered by a small outboard motor. Pa’s secondary profession is the production of these pump-nozzles which he makes from recycled oil drums and have earned him great esteem for miles around. He tells me that the original canals were dug hundreds of years ago in the pre-Angkorian kingdom of Angkor Borei and that the recent bolstering of the canals with cement and additional length and depth were a central task in the regional enforced labor of the Pol Pot years.
ពិនិត្យមើលចៅៗ – pinut muhl chow chow
“Checking on the Grandkids”
Vuth and a few others of an age with him will refer to the young rice as their “grandchildren,” a joke partially derived from the near-rhyme between the Khmer words for “grandchild” (chow) and “rice” (srow) and partially derived from similarities between their conversations about the two types of progeny. They chat about the rice’s behaviors and obedience, how much or little they are feeding and watering it, inquiring about how others have resolved common issues, and, of course, how much money they hope to reap from its fruition. Families will frequent their fields two or three times per day by moto, bike, or foot to ensure water levels are holding steady. Sudden torrents of rain mandate midnight visits to the fields for damage control – too much rain will bend and the grain-head of the young rice down into the water where is can either rot or eventually snap. Aside from water, many now douse their young crops with various fertilizers and pesticides, most of which are lamentably, definitively, derived from harmful chemicals. With enough love and synthetic compounds, the srov becomes srai, a “field of rice.”
ការប្រមូលផល – kaa pramoll phall
The Yields, the Harvest
According to So Sieb, rice takes exactly three months and ten days to mature from seed to golden, harvestable grain. Given that we live in this, the Future, many families now rent a combine from one of the few families in the region who have elected to a lifetime of debt by purchasing one of the Korean or Japanese monstrosities. Some families and communities still go out, sickle-in-hand, and collect the mature stalks themselves, but it is less common. The flood lands afford our commune two harvests per year but I am told most communities without a reliable water source manage just a single harvest per year. Aged manuscripts have revealed that ancient residents of Battambang province cultivated rice only once annually but harvested from it three times.
“According to Chinese traders who travelled by boat to Cambodia… the first harvest was done by cutting transplanted or thrown rice, the second was harvested from shoots that emerged from the lower, cut part of the stalk. The third was harvested from the succession crop of rice that went to seed, fell, and sprouted after the first rain (called moure srov).” – Phnom Penh Post, Special Reports
ហាលស្រូវ – haal srow
Traffic in the village bottlenecks during the rice-drying period as the streets become occupied with expanses of rice drying in the direct sunlight. If cut from the field by hand, the grains have to be shaken and beaten from the stalks first, before drying. The grains are wheeled from the house, poured over fine netting, raked, spread, dried, turned, dried, then scooped up into sacks for storage until the entire process will unfold again the next day. It’s around this time when the commune and roads are populated with attractive rice sacks on which children and men climb for equal parts work and play. Drying on the roads is not ideal as the rice cannot be policed or protected from hungry chickens or goats, but most households don’t have swaths of land sufficient for the task. What land they do have is reserved specifically for this biannual chore, though. In our home-gardening project, this was a chief reason cited for reluctance or inability to start a garden at home. It is a common joke, however, to claim that the roads are a superior rice-drying venue as the inevitable pulverization from village traffic helps loosen the husk for milling.
កិន – kuhnn
The well-dried rice is hauled to a local mill. There are two families in our commune who have constructed Rube Goldberg-like machines for hulling rice. The mill separates the unhulled srow into angkam, empty husks, and arngkarr, the lustrous white grains most of us think of as rice.
គិតផល – gkit phall
Storage & Sale
Much to the chagrin of my community, most of our rice is exported next door and often sold under the auspices of Vietnamese rice producers. Behemoth trucks blast into town from Vietnam and sluggish barges choke the port as teams of hale young guys heave bag after bag of rice onboard. Women of the household are often the ones charged with weighing and ensuring they receive a fair price. The only family’s sum to which I’ve made privy was when I overheard Mak settling up with a sales rep for a total of $600 USD for one of our two yearly harvests.
ជ្រត្ធស្មៅ – chroat smauw
Cut the Grass
As there is no rest for the wicked, no sooner has the rice been shipped off than preparations for the next growing cycle begins. The remains of the rice plant (henceforth known as smaw, or “grass”) must be removed as best as possible before the land can be tilled up once more. The first wave of grass-removal is usually done as a team with sickles. The roughage is collected and used much like hay or straw for both feeding livestock and insulation at home or in gardens. For the remaining stumps and twigs, the cattle are called in. Countryside dwellers will lead their angelic Brahmin cattle, usually just one or two per household, from the family property out to graze in the stubby rice fields for hours. When enough cattle are turned out, you can see them for miles, sprinkled over the fields, tethered to their little stakes without complaint.
Grampa, the lifecycle of rice here is indivisible from the lifecycle of the people who tend it. Coming to and from the srai, fields, makes one hungry for bai, rice, in its final cooked, steamy, intoxicating form. Another post on another day will shed light on the gustatory half of the rice-coin, the virtue of rice about which I know a great deal more. A number of people were consulted for this post, given that my usual interaction with the ubiquitous rice fields is the general contentment of an observer and inadequate photographer.
Love you all the time,
5 thoughts on “Rice is Life – Pt. 1: The Doing”
Perfect morning reading with my coffee, giving evidence of the many wonders of the world.
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If you are trying to inflate my confidence as a writer and potential journalist then by God, you’re doing it.
Another beautifully written piece. Thank you!