Rice is life here in Asia. It’s often the main staple and comprises nearly 70% of the calories consumed in some countries. In the west, we just see rice in a bag, but have you ever thought of how it grows or where it comes from? Oddly enough, I always think about it and today, on an unexpectedly long walk, I figured out how it was all done. Take a walk with me through the countryside outside of Sa Pa in northern Vietnam to see the cycle of rice!
Even though rice is one of my least favorite foods, rice paddies are beautiful. I always say rice grass green is greener than any green you’ve ever seen! And here in Sa Pa, the rice terraces that curve along the mountainside are spectacular. They look like green carpets descending down from the misty mountains high above, their culms and blades swaying in the gentle breeze between the valley. But rice production isn’t about pretty pictures and scenic views, it’s a lot of hard work! In Vietnam, it is mostly manual labor and that means a lot of work for those involved. The country is the 2nd largest exporter of rice, just behind Thailand, and 7th in consumption. In 2017, forecasts say crops will yield over 44 million tons of paddy rice and there are over 1,600 varieties in the country.
So how does it grow? It needs a lot of water, so rice grows in a “flooded field,” and Vietnam has many areas suited for such a staple. Seeds must be planted, just like with any other crop and as it grows, roots will reach down into the earth and root below the water. Nutrients from the soil are delivered to the plant and eventually leaves emerge and grow. These young seedlings are harvested and separated and then transferred to the flooded fields. They are evenly spaced with enough room to grow to full size. These are the plants I often see growing throughout Asia, the bright green rice grass.
When the plant has matured, it will reach a height of about 3-4 feet. It produces a tiller, which is a reproductive stem. It keeps growing and will produce a flower head. At this point, the plant is in the reproductive stage. The flower head will produce up to 150 tiny flowers that will form seeds once pollinated. In the next 30 days, the rice seeds change color, some turning golden, the consistency of the grain itself changes (it hardens) and becomes ripe. The seeds can then be harvested for food and this process is what I witnessed today.
As we walked along the windy mountainous roads, we saw what ended up being the rice harvesting process. The bright green fields are all around, but some are turning golden. At one point, we saw some people further down the terraces, harvesting the rice from the flooded fields. They were working hard, bending, cutting, and carrying the loot up to the roadside.
The golden crops were laying in neat piles along the dusty road, but we wondered how the flower, or the seed, is actually separated from the stem. Luckily, just around the bend, we saw a group of men and the mystery was solved. They had a portable machine that reminded me of a wood chipper. They put the stems in one end, the seeds came out one side, and the rest of the organic material shot out of the machine into a pile below. It actually more reminded me of a snow blower, but you won’t find snow in these parts!
Once the rice is separated, it is set to dry. This process takes time and depends on the weather and conditions.
Once the rice is dry, it’s placed into a manually run machine that separates the husk from the grain. These husks are inedible coverings that protect the rice during growth. Often times, you see the husks being used for fuel (burning), but they also can be used as fertilizer or insulation material. I spoke to these two women for a bit and they said they will fill 8-10 bags of husked rice per day.
From a nutrition standpoint, this is where processing should end (aside from cleaning). Unfortunately, in Asia, rice goes off to the mill to be stripped of its nutrients to yield white rice. When I say “in Asia,” that’s very broad because Asia is huge, but everywhere I have been, this is the case. White rice rules, except in one little place, but more on that in a bit. The anatomy of a grain of rice is much more than the “white” part, or the endosperm. This is the carbohydrate and calorie provider of the food. The bran protects the seed, it serves as the outer shell, but it’s not the husk (that’s already been removed). The bran also contains fiber, B vitamins, and some minerals. The germ contains nutrients such as antioxidants, vitamin E, a bit of healthy fats, and B vitamins (just like the bran). And wow! If you want a seriously detailed breakdown, check out the FAO’s website.
The thing is, when rice is milled, so many nutrients are removed. When looking at main staples of the diet, they are a huge source of calories and nutrients, but with milled rice, so much is lost. We (dietitians) often tell clients to incorporate more whole grains in the diet, but when these simple carbohydrates have been king for so long, it’s hard for people to accept the healthier version and make that shift. When malnourishment and nutrient deficiencies are rampant, it’s sad to know so much is wasted.
The rice terraces of Sa Pa are beautiful. It was so interesting to simply walk along the road and actually see all the stages of processing once the rice has been harvested. All in all, my fellow travel buddies and I ended up walking nearly 12 miles. We saw lots of green, lots of grass, lots of rice. And at the end of the day, what do you think was served with dinner? You guessed it, a bowl of shiny white rice, straight from the local fields. Did I have some? Well, it was “rice day,” so I had a bit (maybe 1/4 of a cup). Is it my favorite? No.
The best rice I’ve had in Asia was in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Coincidentally, they don’t mill their rice as often there. It was hearty, healthy, and tasty. In Asia, I’m “riced out.” I’m not Asian, if I don’t eat rice at mealtime, I’m ok, but for locals, a meal without rice is not a meal at all. Hopefully one day, more people will incorporate whole grain rice into their lives. It’s a way to incorporate more nutrients into the diet and what do I always say? Eat a nutrient dense, varied diet!