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Saturday, April 26, 2008

A World Without Rice

Living in the Philippines for three years, I know how vitally important rice is for a huge chunk of the world's population. To think of a world rice shortage, or the horrible potential for no rice, is clearly unthinkable. Such an event will be more catastrophic than melting ice in Antarctica.

Now, the ominous specter of rice shortages is showing up in supermarkets around the world, because the earth’s population is growing and the cost of growing rice is becoming more expensive, due to rising energy costs.

There's absolutely no substitute for rice. Rice is one of the few foods in the world which is entirely non-allergenic and gluten-free. Rice is consumed by nearly one-half the entire world population and many countries, like Asia, are completely dependent on rice as a staple food. Rice is naturally free of fat, cholesterol and sodium. It is a complex carbohydrate containing only 103 calories per one-half-cup serving.

Culturally speaking, rice is more important than protein in Asian cuisines, particularly in poor countries like the Philippines. Filipinos eat rice with their hands and mix it with almost everything. They fry, steam and boil it. They stuff it in their Lapu-lapu (feasting fish). Filipino fried rice is mixed with eggs.

Japanese are persnickety about their rice, preferring the short grain to the long grain. Japanese also like their rice cooked until “sticky”, so it’s easier to control on chop sticks.

I learned to cook rice from Norma and Ester, my lovely Filipina maids. They taught me the one knuckle technique. It works, regardless of how little or much rice is being cooked.

First, rinse the rice until the water runs clear, usually about three times.

Put the amount of rice you want to cook, anywhere from one-half cup to one gallon or more, into a pot, adding clear water until the rice is covered.

You measure the water to rice ratio by putting your index finger into the water, inserting it to touch the top layer of the rice. When the water is as deep as the first knuckle of your index finger, then you have the correct ratio for perfectly cooked rice.

Bring the rice pot to a boil and then immediately turn off the heat. The rice is left to steam until all the water is absorbed. It's the one knuckle approach to perfect rice every time.

Rice is sold by the kilo in Asian markets and displayed in outdoor grocery stalls as raw mountains of white. Unlike the sterile bags of rice we’re accustomed to seeing, Asian rice is displayed like it’s sitting in a silo. It's not sold in bags because, frankly, many Filipinos cannot afford to buy rice in great quantities. They sometimes buy it by the cup.

Rice is a staple of Philippine entertaining. You begin cooking rice and everything else is secondary.

I recall one time, when rice was all we were offered to eat.

As a church group, we were invited into the jungle to visit a Christian missionary village on Luzon Island. Treating us like we were dignitaries, the native people cooked about 50 pounds of rice for our feast. Thankfully, we were foresighted enough to bring boxed lunches, because , we quickly realized that the mountain of cooked rice attracted every black fly in the jungle. A child was assigned to brush the flies away with a banana leaf strung on a pole, which was swished back and forth, like a primitive ceiling fan. The child's efforts were for naught, because as soon as the banana leaf swept the flies away from one side of the rice, the swarms quickly resettled themselves on the other side. The banana leaf was merely for show, because the Filipino natives didn't want to offend us by serving fly infested rice. Nevertheless, we didn't eat the rice, regardless of the banana leaf guardian's futile attempts to dispel the flies. On the other hand, the natives couldn't wait to feast on such a huge quantity of rice. Frankly, they were thankful we turned it down leaving plenty of leftovers for them and their children to eat, after we left.

When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1977, I witnessed thousands of the refugees with their bags of rice, all they owned, tied in satchels to their bodies, as they arrived, traumatized, in Subic Bay, in the Philippines.

I’m positively distraught when I think about a world rice shortage. There’s no need for this to happen. People were growing rice for thousands of years before this civilization somehow created a shortage. Virtually every continent, except Antarctica, grows rice. There should be more than enough rice available to give some away to every man, woman and child in the world. But, instead, we’re told there is likely a rice shortage looming. What kind of mismanagement of resources brought this on?

This potential rice shortage is not the result of an incurable virus or world drought.

Unlike diseases and natural disasters, we can actually control rice production. It’s essential for us to do so, because rice is oftentimes the only source of nutrition for millions of desperately poor people.

A world without rice will mean a future too bleak to foretell.

Therefore, I chose to focus on the joy rice brings to the tables of millions of people in the world. I think about delicious Filipine fried rice. Likewise, I contemplate those beautifully delicate Japanese rice bowls, presenting cooked rice like it’s a crowned jewel on the dinner table.

I think about how little rice it takes to make millions of people feel valued and fed.

Thinking about a world rice shortage brings negative thoughts and questions about the rest of the story. The possibility of intentionality, of creating famine for millions of innocent people because of common industrial greed, is too horrible to comprehend.

If I could only do it, I truly wish there was a way for me to bring 50 pounds of rice to Norma and Ester, right now.

Blog Post Responses: from Don Levesque in Madawaska Maine:

Bonsoir, Juliana,

I think it is shameful and sinful that we are beginning to burn food for
fuel in the "civilized" countries.

Oh, I understand the need to stop relying on fossil fuels but burning food
for what, in the grand scheme of things, can seem fairly trivial, is almost
beyond comprehension. Poor people around the world are rioting because they
are starving. In 2008.

And here we sit, well fed, contemplating burning food so we can go to the
mall in our SUV.

Thanks for the touching and warm reminder, Juliana.

don

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