The Price Is Rice

Half the world depends on rice to survive, but to Asian Americans it's a cheap and always available.

December 1, 2008

ALTHOUGH RICE is a fundamental part of the Asian American diet, we have a tendency to take it for granted. As we wander down supermarkets aisles and see sacks of rice neatly piled on a pallet or lined up in pristine containers in the bulk section, we really don't give it a second thought because it has always been available and abundant.

Yet there's more to rice than meets the eye and our taste buds. It has evolved in cultural and political significance over the centuries by entrenching itself onto the lives of many, so much so that most Asian people cannot live without it.

Although more than 90 percent of the world's rice is grown and consumed in Asia, it is a staple food for about half of the world's population. When the price of some types of rice rose by as much as 50 percent last spring, hungry masses rioted in Cameroon, Haiti, the Philippines and other countries. But in the United States, even in light of last spring's global rice supply crisis, the grain continues to be an afterthought to Asian Americans, a cheap, easy-to-comeby commodity that always accompanies Asian meals.

In the land of plenty, Americans only felt the faint tremor of the world's hunger for such a complicated grain last spring. Bulk retailers like Costco and Sam's Club limited sales of rice varieties disproportionately consumed by Asian Americans due to worries about supply shortages, but we continued to enjoy our California rolls, our sumptuous paella and our plate rice dishes. Americans had this luxury because 83 percent of rice consumed in the United States is grown there.

"Since we have abundant and available domestic rice here, Asian Pacific Americans don't really think about food security in terms of rice supply shortages," says Andrea Nguyen, food expert, cooking teacher and co-founder of the Asian Culinary Forum. "We've gotten so used to seeing rice available everywhere-big warehouse stores, supermarkets, grocery stores, Asian markets and households - that we've developed a nonchalant attitude toward it."

Rumors circulated of Asian Americans hoarding sacks of rice to gird against the skyrocketing rice prices last spring, but that behavior turned out to be isolated and largely generational.

"The older generation of Asian Pacific Americans who survived wars or famine did instinctively respond by hoarding rice when it affected the US a few months ago," says Thy Tran, chef, culinary writer and author of numerous books on Asian cooking and traveling as well as the founder and director of the Asian Culinary Forum. "But the way the headlines ran, it didn't seem a serious thing for your average American."

Dining on a Dime

A slew of preconceptions and expectations about rice need to be given the proper perspective before Asian Americans can gain a greater appreciation of the humble grain, say Tran and Nguyen.

For one thing, the popular notion persists that "authentic" Asian food, including rice, can - and should - be had for cheap.

"Part of the challenge of expanding both the ideas and the habits of rice here in the West is that Asian food has the historical legacy of being cheap food, and rice is a huge part of that [notion]." Tran says.

Asian Americans are perhaps especially guilty of this mindset wanting everything cheap.

"Most APAs appreciate good quality food, but they are not willing to pay for that quality," Nguyen says.

The USA Rice Federation calls rice "one of the best bargains on a plate," at 10 cents per serving. In parts of Asia, however, where rice is essential to survival, poor people in both cities and rural areas may spend half to three-fourths of their incomes on rice.

Tran thinks rice deserves more respect in the United States, especially among Asian Americans who consume it regularly but who, unlike their counterparts in Asia, are largely insulated from the toil that goes into its production and the turmoil that results in price fluctuations.

"Depending on the generation, most APAs don't really know what goes into the production of rice - how much time and effort it needs to successfully grow it," she says. "We are only exposed to the already packaged rice, which has desensitized us to the real value of quality rice."

For example, about 650 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of rice. As demand rises, more rice must be grown on less land, and chemical pesticides are ravaging surrounding lakes and rivers in Asia, where pollution is already often a problem.

Rice farming in Asia is also typically a backbreaking chore. Seedlings are poked into the mud by hand - work that is usually done by women. Compare this to rice production in the United States, where fields are leveled with laser-controlled earthmovers and fields are seeded from airplanes.

"The more we insist that the center of our meal is a cheap, meaningless resource - not even worth a dollar or two - the harder it is for us to make growing rice a sustainable crop environmentally, economically and culturally," Tran says.

As In all mindset changes, it starts from within. Tran suggests something Asian Americans can do as individual consumers: "Don't complain on Yelp when a restaurant charges you for a bowl of rice."

As for the global food crisis, Tran thinks that Asian Pacific Americans are aware of the situation in Asia and other parts of the world, but connecting it to our own lives is the challenge.

"Younger people who travel or who visit relatives in Asia might face the reality and feel it in a much deeper way than other Americans, but in the end, if you're back here in the US and if you're reading this magazine, I'd say it's really difficult for us to relate," she says. "It can be overwhelming, and I think it's only natural for people to compartmentalize and move on to the next article, their own next meal, their own happiness."

Going Against the Grain

Both Nguyen and Tran say that developing a renewed appreciation for rice - beyond a cheap crop that is always available - can help Asian Americans realize its interconnectedness to issues both national and international in scope.

"Explore different types of rice and support farmers, companies and countries with responsible practices," Tran says. "Don't just buy the cheapest bag; don't buy only from the usual big companies ... but also look at the many other sources of rice that don't kill, quite literally, the communities that grow it."

On a personal level, such appreciation will make it easier for us to accept rice beyond being just a symbol of our Asian heritage, but as something more tangible and meaningful in our lives.

"If we understand the true value of rice, then we will become more aware of the food choices we make and think of ways to sustainably consume food," Nguyen says, adding that these steps, even if small, can help solve global food issues.

While Tran says that education and awareness can be a long, hard road, she's optimistic.

"My mother was nearly 60 before she cooked her first pot of brown rice," she says, referring to the less processed and therefore more sustainable cousin of white rice, "and I'm still working on explaining the real cost of food in a way that is relevant to her. But I can see the changes. She's opening up to the idea [that] paying more for rice is better for the world in general, not just for her bowl or bank account."

Asian Americans should likewise ask relatives about their experiences with rice for a deeper appreciation of the grain in their families and communities.

"Our grandparents may have gone through severe food shortages in their lives such as during wars and famine," Nguyen says. "Ask them what it was like back in the homeland when there was no rice to eat. It will help you gain perspective."

Tran encourages young Asian Americans who visit their relatives in Asia to try low- and high-end restaurants as well as visit different markets to see what kind of rice is sold to all sectors of that country.

"It was an important lesson for me, years and years ago, to see the unbelievably low quality of the best rice available to my family in Cu Chi," Tran says, referring to a district in Ho ChI Minh City, Vietnam. "iThey are] rice farmers themselves, before the war, who could still remember the smell of ripe, well-aged jasmine rice. It was dismal because the best rice was always shipped out of the country - to people like us."

Jennifer Bagalawis-Simes is a San Jose-based freelance writer and graphic designer who secretly wishes to become a foul-mouthed chef in her next life, preferably with a British accent.

San Jose-based writer JENNIFER B. SIMES tucked into the issue of sustainable seafood and Asian American eating habits for this issue. Simes, who written for Asianweek, Nha Magazine and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, said the dish that exemplifies the community's contradictions is shark's fin soup. "People say they won't order shark's fin soup in restaurants, but if it's at a wedding banquet or an associate bought it for them, they won't hesitate to eat it. Some don't want to be rude while others simply don't want to waste. There's that dichotomy of thought and action."

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