A crash course in Cơm a.k.a rice

A crash course in Cơm a.k.a rice

I’m a bit trepidatious to start this post, and you’ll understand why in a moment, but I’ve spent so much time wandering in, around and through rice fields this year, I need to tell the story.

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Planting rice near Hanoi in early July

Prior to coming to Vietnam my relationship with rice was purely that of a consumer who would choose rice over potatoes any day. I love sushi rice, I love basmati rice and most of all I love day old rice of any kind that I can re-fry with a bit of olive and sesame oil, and then splash with Tamari sauce. The only time I’ve ever considered how it’s grown is when I’ve watched films like ‘The Painted Veil’, an adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham novel set in China, or my absolutely favourite Hiyao Miyazaki film ‘My Neighbour Totoro.’ Both have sweeping scenes of Asian rice fields where men and women are bent over working. Most of what I remember in these scenes are the conical hats called Non La in Vietnam, pants rolled up high and hands dipping in and out of the water. What they were doing under the water has always been unclear.

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Young rice field near Hanoi

So it’s understandable that I’ve always believed that rice is picked from under the water. (I’m nodding my head yes as I write this to convince myself that there’s nothing wrong with this assessment). I imagined separating the long green leaves to reveal tiny kernels inside. Not a lot of kernels, just enough to support the delusion of how it all worked. Sadly I was never humble or curious enough to find out the truth. (I say sadly because I’m from the Praires and have this romantic notion that Prairie life is imprinted on my DNA, but if it is, it’s lost or forgotten the farming chromosome). And I’ve been living this lie for quite some time.

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Young rice
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Fully ripe rice

Not immediately, but fairly soon into our time in Vietnam, I uncovered the truth on the birthing of rice. Actually it was never covered; it was blowing in the wind in front of my face.  I remember the exact moment when it all became clear. Rice, like many other grains, grows out of the stock above ground. It seemed so obvious. One stock can hold a lot of kernels, and there are a lot of stalks in a small area.

Since this revelation, I’ve become enchanted with rice fields and the growing process.  My understanding of how it works is still superficial but I’m coming along.

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Freshly cut stalks
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Step 1 in the drying process

In much of Vietnam, rice is planted and harvested manually. Each new crop begins as a handful…okay maybe a bag of kernels that’s been soaked in water and sprouted. Each of the green stalks is then placed in a field by hand. Depending on what part of the country you’re in there can be as few as 1 and as many as 3 crops per year.

When the rice has grown high, and turned from a vibrant green to a golden yellow and brown, harvesting begins.  Also done by hand with a sickle, crop owners chop what are best described as handfuls which are then tied together and splayed across the remaining stock to dry.  From that drying position they’re collected in baskets and then piled in heaps to dry further in the sun.
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I met the woman above as she was transporting what seemed like a massive amount of rice from one part of her village to another to get the optimal amount of sun.  Once it’s dry enough, the kernels are separated from the stocks.  This can be done by machine (I haven’t seen it), but is still done manually by many.  And from there it’s dried again.  I’ve been in several places where half the road has been turned into a drying rack.  The strange part is that there seems to be little bother if some-one drives over a patch.  (And the mother in me says this is the lesson on why you wash your rice…but let’s try and forget I even thought that).

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Tam Coc rice drying
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Raking the rice

And once this stage is complete the rice is separated out of its husk.  I’ve tried an old fashion grinding machine to do this task and surprisingly many people still do it manually and it’s called winnowing. A shallow basket of rice is held away from the body and flicked sharply so the husks fly off in the air, and the heavier kernels just circle back into the basket. I imagine it’s a similar skill to flipping eggs in a skillet.

We’ve walked in the same rice field 3 times this year.  The first time, in June, the rice was young, the second in October, it was partially harvested, and the last time, in November it was a wet muddy bog, waiting for the stalks to dry out enough to turn under into the soil.  It may have been the time of day, but in some ways I think this last time was the most beautiful.

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If ever I decide to commit myself to the study of one grain, there’s no doubt it will be rice. I’ve just touched the tip of the stalk.

 

Gorgeous children

Gorgeous children

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Exhibit A taken in Phong Nha

I love kids, always have, and Vietnam has been an incredible place to indulge in their presence. My assessment, that I will gladly defend with photos, is that Vietnamese children are gorgeous and often angelic looking.

I love that there’s little hesitation to talk to unknown adults. For the most part I haven’t received the ‘why are you talking to me?’ stare. I get long looks…but it’s often from the really little kids who are just checking me out. Generally no-one is uptight about strangers talking to their kids, particularly if it’s a foreigner.

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Exhibit B taken on the train to Hai Phong

The most fun has been in restaurants and at parks where you just wave to a child and they start to move in closer. Somara’s an added bonus (for a multitude of reasons of course), because the kids are drawn in by the colour of her skin and hair. On a number of occasions our table in a restaurant has become Grand Central Station with kids running back and forth to grab our attention. Because of the nation wide push to learn English, parents encourage their kids to take any opportunity to speak it, even if it’s just running up, yelling ‘hello’ and dashing off.

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Mai Chau

A lot of the times I’m out walking I see grandmothers and grandfathers pushing their grandkids on bikes around the neighbourhood.  Often they have a bowl of food they’re trying to spoon into their mouths. It’s fun to watch them eating on the run. No stress or tantrums that I can see about getting them to eat; they’re taking it moment by moment enjoying the sights along the way.

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Doan Trang feeding the pigs

Remember what I said about being angelic ‘looking’? I’ve noticed that as always those with the angelic looks also know how to work it…and work it good. They’re able to assuage a bad situation…such as my friend here who was not supposed to be plucking greens from the garden to do this.

Unfortunately there are severals things that challenge my desire to take photos with wild abandon. My work in the film business has ingrained in me the need for the waiver. I can’t help but believe people have the right to decide how and when their image is used and appreciate that being a photographer comes with obligations and responsibilities that are rarely fulfilled. And the last is my belief that sometimes you just need to be in the moment. Nothing between you and your surroundings. All of this leaves me a quagmire that’s easier to acknowledge and move on from, than it is to solve.

I have most easily left these impediments behinds in rural areas where kids are excited to have you hanging out with them.  Somara has stopped to pet A LOT  of dogs and cats in this country…and that’s been another great ice-breaker. What has stuck with me in these situations is the amount of fun that’s had in genuine play. Kids hiding behind structures and slowly creeping up on people…trying with everything they’ve got to catch a bug in a cup or a jar….riding bikes side by side holding on to each other’s handle bars…(and no helmuts)and just combing the beach for shells.

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Thuan An beach near Hue
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Self described BFF’s grasshopper catching in Mai Chau

Parks are few and far between, land is expensive, and most empty space is a construction site or has something edible growing on it. But going to the few parks we’ve found is guaranteed good kid watching. (Yikes it sounds so creepy). Near us is a particularly good park with astroturf, some fantastic climbing structures and a short zip line. The best part is watching the negotiation that goes on between the kids lining up for the always popular zip line. I haven’t seen a scuffle…only a few indignant young girls questioning the boy at the back who thought he was entitled to go to the front of the line. I also loved the man who was lifting his small child up onto the knot to sit, and took it upon himself to stand there for the next 20 minutes helping every other small kid who came along.

I guess it’s not just the kids I love, it’s watching others treasure these young creatures; it’s all quite magnetizing. As are these three beauties of the Canadian kind. And I’ll leave it here.

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Hoi An Pagoda dance