By KUPLUTHAI PUNGKANON
THE MOST widely consumed staple in the world, rice has long been Thailand’s major export. While the country is expected to hold on its place as a leading supplier of the grain, competition in the ever-expanding global economy has led to the need for product innovation to raise the value bar and ensure top prices can be earned.
Launched by the Commerce Ministry’s Department of Export Promotion in 2015, the “Think Rice, Think Thailand – We serve the best quality rice to the world” campaign makes the point that Thai rice is no longer merely served on the table but is also as a key ingredient in medicine, skincare and cosmetics.
Reflecting the old adage that agriculture is the backbone of the country and, more specifically, referring to the farmers who work tirelessly to ensure their fellow countrymen are well-fed, the campaign aims to bring a new perception to rice production in the Thailand 4.0 era.
“For more than 30 years, Thailand was the top-ranked rice exporter but it has now been overtaken by India, which produces 110 million tons compared to Thailand’s 20-21 million tons. Half of that is exported and is worth Bt180.27 billion. Where Thailand has the advantage is in the variety of rice species. These include long grain, short grain, fragrant rice, parboiled rice, white rice, coloured rice, brown rice and glutinous rice and organic rice and are sold under such names as hom mali rice, hom mali brown rice, riceberry rice, red hom mali rice and so on,” Adul Chotinisakorn, director general of the Department of Foreign Trade explained during a recent lunch at Khao restaurant.
“Local strains have been registered for Geographical Identification (GI) for their own unique flavour, fragrance, and texture. Among them are Tung Kula rice from Surin province, and Sang Yod rice from Phatthalung. Today, rice products from Thailand are highly regarded and preferred by health-conscious consumers all over the world.
“Hom mali rice is very nutritious, containing high fibre, vitamins B1, B2, B3, carbohydrates, protein, iron, calcium and phosphorous. It’s also gluten free. Red hom mali rice has a low glycemic index and is high in antioxidants while Kor Khor 43 has a much lower glycemic index than ordinary rice, meaning that conversion of starch into sugar in the body takes place slowly and this helps keep blood sugar levels low,” he adds.
“There is an increased demand for such rice products as rice bran oil, rice cakes, rice cereals, rice crackers, rice noodles and even rice pasta as well as for non-food products. As we want to maintain our position as the world leader in rice and food production, we are embracing change and the more we look into our research, the more we discover interesting studies.”
Various products made of Thai rice were presented to the press during the lunch. One of the highlights is the Surada Rice Sponge – a haemostatic rice sponge developed by Punyanitya Medical Instrument, which acts as an intraoperative agent for stopping bleeding at low-pressure haemorrhagic sites, such as venous or capillary areas. You merely cut a small piece of the rice sponge and place it over the area that’s bleeding. After just a few seconds, the blood flow stops and the wound healing begins.
Rice is also used in serum and skincare products by Herbalist Siam. Its Red Jasmine Rice Phyto Cell Revitalising Cream claims to efficiently remove age marks by using cultured red jasmine rice callus to obtain an extract with more antioxidants than other extracts. Likewise, Smitra Gold Rice Serum also uses concentrated rice callus extract with the highly potent anti-oxidant and amino acids working in combination with 24K gold to rejuvenate the skin.
“Such rice products for medical and cosmetic use can greatly increase the price. The rice sponge value-added has soared more than 2,000 times,” Adul says.
Nutrition gets a boost with the young rice milk drink, produced from carefully selected rice species during their milky period. A product that’s lightly scented and easily digested, it’s packed with vitamins B1, B2, E, as well as calcium, soy bean protein and minerals to boost the immune system, is low in fat and contains no cholesterol.
Rice is also the key active ingredient for such popular skincare products as the rice soap collection by Cosmos and Harmony, the Hom-Nin Rice Series moisturising hair care and scalp treatment, the Yod Sang rice hair revitalising tonic and various products made under the Apaiphubeth Hospital brand including lip balm and talc-free baby powder.
“The government is promoting and supporting the introduction of new technology and techniques to create rice innovations to enhance the competitiveness of Thai rice. Our Institute for Agricultural Product Innovation is promoting innovative agricultural businesses and pushing for full-scale development in line with the ‘4Cs’ strategy. These are: API Campaigns to introduce product innovations to various media; the API Contest to promote new ideas and recognition; API Connect to link researchers and manufacturers; and API Channel to provide marketing distribution outlets including new markets in foreign countries. We have taken our road show to Canada, the US, Australia, Singapore, and Malaysia. China is a very big and prosperous market that we intend to push strongly.”
Chefs and food bloggers also have a role to play, especially in teaching the world how the taste and texture of rice differ from one variety to another and showing how each one is suited for different dishes and desserts.
Vichit Mukura of Khao Restaurant, who worked as head chef of the top Thai restaurant Sala Rim Nam at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok for more than 30 years, has invested his energies in rice farming for seven years now, doing everything from transplanting rice seedlings to harvesting and bringing it to the table.
“I wanted to spend my retirement living with rice, not just cooking it. I bought some land in my home province of Chon Buri and started work on the entire process. It’s been a wonderful experience. When the rice flowers are blooming and pushing into ears of rice, the fragrance is so beautiful that I built a house right next to the rice field. I chose to plant red hom mali rice. The colour is beautiful and has great health benefits. Rice tea is one of my favourites. In the old days, Thai people commonly drank rice juice. I add mint for a sweeter, fresher scent,” he says.
For his special rice menu, Vichit cooked spicy minced pork with curry rice wrap, deep-fried prawn and squid cake, spicy duck salad with foie gras and condiments, double boiled fish consomme soup with Taraba crab and, for the main course, served grill Australian beef tenderloin with chilli dip, fresh herbs and sticky rice.
“Sticky rice –or khao nieow in Thai – is ideal for pairing with grilled, steamed and spicy food as well as for making desserts because of its texture, which is sticky but also fluffy, soft and fragrant. I use rice to make ice cream with sugar cane, sticky rice with mango, and emerald tapioca with shredded coconut for dessert. Thai rice embodies our passion and goals in promoting the culinary world,” he says.
And with all the innovations in the ways that this simple grain can be used, it’s easy to understand why rice has always been and still is the country’s most important crop.