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Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Way of Rice

In malls throughout the United States I have seen vendors selling grains of rice with microscopic words--even entire poems--novelly inscribed on a single grain of rice. It's an ironic endeavor given the pervasive and timeless role that rice has played in Asian societies. Rice is a central part of the culture here in Korea and has been for thousands of years influencing music, dance, how respect is paid to ancestors, even providing straw roofing for homes.

Rice is literally served with every Korean meal. It is so integral to Korean society that there are perhaps two dozen words for rice--each describing a specific state, stage or nuance. For example, mo is a rice seedling, sal is husked rice, pap is cooked rice, beo is rice grain, nwi is unhusked rice in husked rice--you get the idea.

"Pap" cooked rice, in Korean

My earliest and rather fond dealings with rice were with a black man I met as a kid. Perhaps the most comforting face in the A&P supermarket--where my mom shopped--was that of Uncle Ben. His iconic image graced the package of what was certainly one of America's most popular food products of the 1950's and 60's, Uncle Ben's rice.
My first experience with rice was with this gentleman
The U.S. was, and still remains, a leader in rice production--ranking 11th worldwide. But Korea, roughly the size of the state of Indiana, is 12th, producing 7.4 million tons of rice annually. China ranks first with a harvest of nearly 200 million tons. (data courtesy of Dr. Yoo Man, V.P. of ICID)

Rice paddies found throughout Korea paint the country in rich, undulating shades of green. Visible from high-speed trains, car windows or along local streets and country lanes, rice paddy fields ("non" as they are known in Korea) grace the space between mountains, rivers, cities and villages. In a sense, they fill the spiritual space, the soul of place here.

It's hard to over-estimate what rice has meant in the history of society here, and frankly, what it continues to mean in a Korean's life. Indeed, the words of a single grain of rice have centuries of stories to tell.

Rice paddies on the campus of Yeungnam University

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