Seeking to boost her rice literacy, Rebecca Luria-Phillips – an American reared on meat and potatoes – decodes the nuances of Cambodian rice.
Hundred kilo sacks containing chalky, white kernels buffer the aisles of the market. Rice spills out of their rough rims, covering the dusty floor. This is a common sight across Cambodia, where rice is a staple in the local diet.
While to the untrained eye, the sacks of rice may look relatively uniform, there is, in fact, much more to them than just white on rice. Demystifying these pots of “white gold” can make shopping choices much more straightforward.
And with Cambodian jasmine rice recently scooping the title of the World’s Best Rice for the third consecutive year running at November’s World Rice Conference held in Phnom Penh, the time is ripe to explore the Kingdom’s bountiful rice offering. The abundance of rain-fed farmland throughout the country makes Cambodia an optimal place for growing premium fragrant and white rice varieties. Grown during the rainy season, the plants are less desirable to pests, diminishing farmers’ reliance on chemical inputs and allowing traditional methods and seeds to flourish into aromatic rice, commanding worldwide notoriety.
Transplant method, soil quality and drought conditions influence fragrancy markers in jasmine rice varieties. Paradoxically, water “stress” improves perfumed notes. The sweet-scented rice is best enjoyed when it is freshly milled and harvested at the end of the wet season where the dry air helps to lock-in aroma.
After milling, rice appears in a few distinguishable colours, such as red, brown and black. The other 80 per cent overflowing from the rice sacks, however, are difficult to differentiate to a rice newcomer.
There are two main types of rice: fragrant and white. Fragrant varieties are long-grain with semi-translucent kernels, whereas white varieties are medium-long grain and more opaque. Long and medium grain rice are visually distinguishable but chemically different as well.
Long-grain rice releases starch at a much slower rate than medium-grain versions, retaining its shape during cooking. The medium varieties break down easier yielding stickier rice. Grain breakage percentages influence the grading of rice, with intact grains commanding the highest premiums.
Cambodian restaurateur, Minh Kong, always chooses 100 percent Battambang-grown rice. He says, “It’s the most famous rice growing land in Cambodia and the land in Battamabang is very healthy, which means the rice is very healthy and good for you.”
Extra-long, slender grains of jasmine rice are the most prized and preferred rice for bowls across Cambodia. The translucent kernels cook up fluffy, sweet and tender. It’s best cooked at a one cup rice to three-quarter cup water ratio for optimal tenderness.
Harvested after up to five months in the paddy, Malis, Romduol and Kra Ob are some of the top fragrant varieties grown in Cambodia. Malis is closely linked to the jasmine rice grown in Thailand, but Romduol is most commonly grown in the Kingdom and considered more authentically Cambodian.
Given their druthers, Cambodians always choose jasmine rice but, as a quotidian nutrition source, most Khmers, especially in the provinces, reach for white rice. According to Soun Sakmay, Community Agriculture Marketing Coordinator to NGO Ibis Rice, white rice varieties, including ginger flower, Neang Minh and Neang Khon, are “heartier and less sweet than jasmine and keep you full for a long time”.
These varieties are harvested after more than 150 days in the paddy. They have a neutral, versatile taste that is soft when cooked at a ratio of one cup of rice to one-and-a-half water.
When rice comes out of the paddy and heads to the mill, it is de-husked and polished white leaving only the starchy endosperm of a rice kernel. When only the husk is removed, but the bran and germ remain intact, you get wholesome brown or red varieties of jasmine rice.
The germ, which contains oil and makes the rice less shelf stable, is also loaded with fibre and minerals that can sustain satiety. These nutty-tasting rice varieties are best enjoyed after soaking the grains prior to cooking which also unlocks the nutrients and makes them better absorbed by the body. Fry in a little oil and garlic, then cook with water or soup stock with a one cup rice to two cups liquid ratio.
While Cambodian rice production still trails behind regional giants such as Vietnam and Thailand on volume, it most definitely has all the quality markers that the world’s eaters desire. Sustained notoriety and rising demand can also boost production efficiencies so make informed choices on your next visit to the rice vendors and support Cambodian farmers.
Certified Wildlife-friendly Ibis Rice produces white and brown premium jasmine rice variety. The rice is grown on “frontier farms” that serve as buffers zones around the rainforests of Cambodia. The country is home to many endangered species, including the Giant Ibis, and these farms provide livelihoods to families through conservation. USAID-supported Ibis Rice pays farmers growing rice under this scheme 10 to 25 percent more than conventional rice which has raised premiums in those areas.