Almost three months ago, before I had ever been to Thailand and the idea of living here was but a robotic answer to the question, “So, what are you doing after graduation,” my host teacher, P’Moo, asked me over Facebook chat whether or not I had ever eaten sticky rice.
Sticky rice? Um, maybe I have? Not sure…so probably, no?
Today (yes, it’s late again) I would like to take the time to discuss my evolving relationship with rice.
Before you quit reading and write me off as a crazy person that is wasting precious, infinite internet space blogging about a simple carbohydrate, you need to understand how integral rice is to Thai culture. Hardly a meal goes by where rice of some kind isn’t consumed. Khao laam, sticky rice with coconut milk roasted in bamboo? An excellent breakfast. Sticky rice and tamarind? A standard Northeastern snack. Ready for lunch? How does basil pork, moo ga-prow, with rice sound? Rice, rice, rice.
To regard rice as merely a staple of any meal, however, would do it little justice. Rice transcends the plate and permeates the Thai way of life more than I would have ever imagined.
If you look at the language, because you know I like to do that, you can see how rice has carved a place for itself into Thai semantics. For example, the verb “to eat” in Thai is “gin khoa,” which is best translated to “to eat rice.” In this context, khoa, the word for rice, represents any food. ANY kind of food. Can you imagine?
Moving to Isaan in the middle of the rice-harvesting season was also the perfect opportunity to see the importance of rice in the country first hand. One teacher told me that, on the weekends, many of my students spent time with their families harvesting rice. I should expect that during this time, class attendance might be low as students would be on the farm helping out. Jane, another ETA, said that one of the teachers at her school remarked that restaurant service was slow during the rice season, because all of the workers were out of the kitchens and in the patties. Such a small grain makes such a large impact in education, on the family unit, and, as the country with the fifth largest amount of land under rice cultivation (thanks, Wikipedia!) most obviously, the economy.
Before coming to Thailand, my attitude towards rice was ambivalent. Rice was a food that I ate at mediocre Chinese restaurants to sop up the grease that pools at the bottom of your plate of General Tso’s chicken . It was the half-hearted center of your average, from the box Hamburger Helper meal. Sometimes in my mind rice even took on negative health connotations. The American diet-obsessed media worships dietary experts, such as Dr. Atkins, who tell you to avoid rice at all costs, or, for God’s sake, choose the brown or wild varieties. As it went, when it came to rice, I could leave it or take it. Frankly, I mostly left it.
Living in Thailand has changed how I now view rice. After learning about the many different kinds of rice, I began to see it as a more diverse, complex food. Then, after a couple of failed attempts to make my own rice resulting in rice cooker disasters, I began to appreciate how much time and attention goes into making a dish that I had deemed common. (The process of making sticky rice is even more complicated than the looser rice we’re used to!) My friend, Eugene, summed it up best in a recent Facebook status. He commented that you know you’re living in Thailand, when, at the end of the day, if you realize you haven’t eaten any rice yet, you decide to make your own.
I’ve found that rice is not part of a meal to be filler or simply a vehicle to get the more important foods into your mouth. Sure, you could treat it that way, but it wouldn’t be fair. Rice is like a best friend that you can count on being there, and if it isn’t, you miss it sorely. Rice is a constant. Rice is your rock. In a word, rice is inevitable. (And, yes, it’s probably also the reason why it’s harder to button your favorite pair of jeans. Not that that happened to me this week or anything…)
After I had told P’Moo that I had never tried sticky rice before, he simply responded, “It’s okay, don't worry.” To me, the answer seemed strange. Should I have tried it already? Have I done something wrong? Where did that question come from, anyway? I couldn’t figure it out.
Recently, P’Moo mentioned this conversation after having enjoyed what is now, hands down, one of my favorite Isaan meals. Finishing a fantastic lunch of grilled chicken and fish, phad thai, somtom, and sticky rice, P’Moo admitted that he had been worried when three months ago I had said that I had never tried sticky rice. He thought that maybe I would not be able to handle eating rice all of the time while living in Thailand and that I would always be hungry and, therefore, unhappy. Luckily for both of us, this has been far from the case.
Eventually, I’m going to go home, and I know there’s going to be one question in particular that’s waiting for me. People will ask me, and I, no doubt, will ask myself, “How have you changed since spending a year in Thailand?” Sometimes change is obvious and fast, like dying your hair bright pink or adjusting your Swenson’s ice cream order at the last minute. But other times change is gradual, slow, yet virtually unnoticed, though it maybe should be. Change like this comes from understanding repetition, appreciating what may seem mundane, and seeing the beautiful complexity of even the most simplistic of structures.
I’m far from done with my year of teaching in Thailand, thank God, but I already have an idea about how I’m going to answer that incredibly self-reflective question.
How have I changed? You know, I really like rice now.
(Tune in next time and I’ll talk about my ridiculous amount of split ends and comment on watching grass grow and paint dry. Thanks for reading!)