Thursday, April 10, 2008

The world in a grain of rice

The first lines of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” play in my head when I think of the so-called rice crisis. The word rice has taken the place of the word sand. “To see the world in a grain of rice, and heaven in a wild flower…”

Many rice crisis seasons ago (when fancy rice was P20/kilo), I wrote a piece on rice that a number of readers responded to because it brought on memories. This season I again often think of rice in all its glory, the many names of rice in the four Philippine languages that I know and the images they bring forth.

Rice harvests conjure up images of the past, of one’s childhood, of summers and fiestas and times of plenty, of peasants and revolutions, of the simple folk, the countryside and its beauty, of hunger, hope and humanity. No wonder Amorsolo celebrated some of these in his paintings.

When a particular thing—food, animal, plant, product—holds an important place in the local culture, it is given many names. These names could refer to its various forms, the different stages in its life, the end products. They could refer to quality, consistency, strength, age, beauty.

We are a rice-devouring people and we have many names for rice. We use many names to refer to rice in its various stages of growth, its forms and outcomes when cooked.

We don't simply say uncooked rice, cooked rice or rice porridge. We don't say unmilled rice or milled rice. We have precise terms for all of these in Filipino and in many languages and dialects. We don't need adjectives. One word is enough.

Here is a list of remembered words (Filipino, Hiligaynon, Bicol, etc.) that refer to rice. As you go through the list, think of their equivalent in your own dialect/language. Think of your own life. What do you remember? Hunger or plenty?

Palay (humay) - the rice plant; palay, humay - unmilled or unhusked rice grains; palay, pasi - stray unhusked rice found in milled rice; bigas, bugas, bagas) - milled rice; binlid, binlod) - small cracked rice; kanin, kan-on, maluto, inapuy - cooked rice; bahaw - day-old cooked rice; tutong, dukut – toasted rice at the bottom of the pot; lugaw - rice porridge; pinipig – flattened rice crispies; ampaw - puffed rice; ipa, upa - rice husk; darak - rice bran; am - rice gruel (without the grain), taken from boiling rice and fed to infants; hugas-bigas - rice water

In Iloilo where I grew up and which is supposed to be the rice bowl in the Visayas, there are even more precise words to refer to “rice forms”. As a half-Bicolano I also know a few rice words used in the Bicol region.

Humay is synonymous with palay but Ilonggos don't use it to refer to unhusked grains found in milled rice. The word for the stray unhusked grains is pasi (pronounce it maragsa).

There are hundreds of names for different rice recipes in different regions. Palitaw in the Tagalog region, tupig in Ilocos, inday-inday in Visayas, pinuso in Bicol, etc. Coconut is rice's tried and tested partner.

I know I’m Filipino/Asian in taste because if you spread out various types of Western pastries and rice-coconut kakanin before me, I’ll zero in on the latter. I can make a mean ginatan.

The rice crisis has brought to the fore the important place this grain occupies not just on our tables but, more importantly, in our culture. We are what we eat, the saying goes. Our bodies are nourished by its carbohydrates and vitamins. So when the price of rice suddenly shoots up, the country is in trouble. There is not just a food crisis, there is something very culturally upsetting.

Marami ka pang bigas na kakainin (You're going to have to eat a lot of rice yet) is a local expression that means one has a long way to go. Rice will get you there yet, in other words. But how if there is not enough of it? During the dark days of martial rule, militant peasants coined the saying—bigas hindi bomba or bigas hindi bala. This was the cry when ricefields became battlefields.

At the base of the socio-economic triangle one often hears this: “Kahit pambili man lang ng bigas…” There’s so much pathos there, you can't translate it into English. Only a special class could make it hit home. Rice is first on the list. Forget the ulam. For the overfed, rice is just one of the items on their market list. But for those who have nothing, rice, and only rice, is what will make them survive the day.

One unforgettable one-liner that I heard a long time ago from farmers with a sense of humor was: “Hindi na kami magsasaka, magsasako na.” (We’re no longer rice farmers, we’re now rice sack dealers.) That’s one pun that gets totally lost in translation because the punch rests on one vowel of a Filipino word. Forget it if you don’t understand Filipino.

The letter O of magsasako might as well be a fat zero, meaning empty. Empty sacks. Where have all the palay gone?

There are many causes of troubled rice yields, rice shortages and vanishing rice varieties. One could blame wanton land conversion, chemical poisoning of the soil, wrong government agricultural priorities, overpopulation, disasters and multinationals who play god. Name it.

Have you heard of SRI? I attended a conference on SRI or System of Rice Intensification three years ago. SRI is a system, not a technology, because it is not set or fixed. It has to be tested and adapted to particular conditions. If practiced skillfully, SRI could increase rice produce by 50 to 100 percent, and in cases where initial production level is low, the increase could go as high as 200 to 300 percent.

SRI experts, please come forward!