Ingredient: The story of rice, from farm to table in Vietnam

Lunchtime on a converted rice barge in the Mekong Delta. When asked about Vietnamese rice, our host said, “The yellow rice is taken to a factory, made into white rice, boiled for 30 minutes and steamed. This is what you are having for lunch.” Over the next few days, I learned that there is somewhat more to the story.

rice barge with Mekong eyes decoration waiting to deliver to rice factory in Vietnam

Our host then presented us with a white porcelain serving dish, lifted the lid with a flourish, and in a hushed tone said, “Here is your steamed white rice.” The Vietnamese are very proud of their rice.

Vietnamese rice, steamed and served in a white porcelain dish

It all begins here, in the rice paddies. This particular field belongs to several families, each of whom grows a different variety of rice. They can distinguish their plots by the slightly varying shades of green.

view of a field of Vietnamese rice paddies from a local family farm

These rice stalks are about 2 months old, too young for harvest. If you squeeze the kernel, it releases a starchy milk because the endosperm has not hardened within the husk.

a stalk of green Vietnamese rice, an empty kernel shows an undeveloped endosperm

Once the rice is ready, the farmers harvest by hand, dragging nets across the fields to collect the stalks. They keep about half of the rice for food, drying the kernels in the sun. The rice must be dried within 3-4 days, otherwise the germ will sprout and it is no longer suitable for storage.

rice drying in the sun along a roadside in Vietnam

The rest of the rice is loaded onto small barges to sell at the local markets.

small rice barge loaded with baskets to sell at market in Vietnam

In the rice stalls, each bowl features a different variety of local rice.

rice stalls displaying local varieties for sale in a local market in Vietnam

The rice straw is also harvested, dried, and loaded onto barges to be sold at the wholesale markets.

rice straw piled high on a barge in Vietnam

The straw is used for mats, fuel, and as compost for the mushroom farms.

rice straw compost covering the ground on a mushroom farm in Vietnam

The larger rice farms bring their harvest to the local processing plant.

rice barge delivering to a rice processing factory in Vietnam

The factories use an auger to lift the rice out of the barges.

Vietnam rice factory using an auger to lift rice from a barge

Inside, they dry and polish the rice. The rice husks are saved to fuel the kilns, which are then used to dry more rice and to make bricks.

rice factory next to a brick factory and kilns in Vietnam

The factories use a conveyer belt to load the de-husked rice onto larger barges to carry upriver.

Vietnam rice factory conveyor belt loading rice onto a barge

And some rice gets spilled in the process.

grains of rice spilling into the river in Vietnam

As the rice harvests are collected and aggregated, the barges get bigger, eventually delivering rice around the globe.

large rice barge going upriver in Vietnam

So, what is the story of rice? Yellow rice is taken to a factory, made into white rice, boiled for 30 minutes and steamed. This is what you had for lunch. And I’ll never look at it the same way again.

close up of a single grain of Vietnamese white rice

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2 Comments on “Ingredient: The story of rice, from farm to table in Vietnam”

  1. nurulthecook
    24 August 2012 at 06:49 #

    Wow!! Thank you for the story. I’ve recently spent a year in Bangladesh and saw the whole process from planting to harvest. Damn-and mostly done by hand except for the ploughing which gets done with the help of cows, and milling done by a machine. I totally understand my parents drilling into me from a young age the respect for rice. At some point in the future I will put the story on my blog.

    • spotcleanfood
      24 August 2012 at 17:15 #

      Oh you should! It would be great to know about rice firsthand from Bangladesh.

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