Tuesday, June 18, 2013


The Global Foodie reports in!
Take a good look at your next bowl of rice. Be it boring white, yellow and fragrant with saffron, fried golden brown for nasi goreng or a similar dish, or Arborio in a risotto, bet you never thought about how it got to your table. I'm sitting at an internet cafe in Rantepao, Toraja, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, and have just spent the day hiking through miles of stunningly beautiful rice paddies. I also tried my hand at threshing rice (maybe twenty whacks against a board, four minutes total and that was enough, thank you very much). The women who'd let me try the task laughed at me, and went back to threshing, which they would do for ten hours each day. As pay, they get 20% of the harvest.
In his recent book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell talks about the hundred hour weeks a rice farmer has, fifty two weeks a year. It's a work ethic only a dirt farmer could understand.Those little white grains you so
casually scarf down are the end result of thousands of hours of unremitting, back-breaking labor. Rice paddies are not always wet, but the young seedling plants, about eight inches long, are plunged into the thick mud of the paddy in a fast rhythm - bend, poke, bend poke, maybe one every five seconds. Three women can plant a fifty foot square paddy, the plants spaced almost perfectly straight, eight inches on center, in a half day. You do the math on the total plants, and know that somewhere, as you read this post, a bunch of women are bending over, knee-deep in mud amply mixed with buffalo shit, in the rain or in the sun, planting those pretty green springs that will someday arrive at your local grocery for a lousy forty cents a pound.The cycle of planting, flooding, draining, tinkering with the irrigation or the walls or turning the buffalo loose to eat the stumps after the rice is harvested, is endless. In Toraja, they get two harvests a year as they do not irrigate, they rely on rain. Some places, with irrigation, have got it down to three harvests. Most of these places rely almost 100% on manual labor, although there is something called a "Japanese buffalo", a small mechanized gadget that will dig up and renew the paddies before plantin, which I suppose puts the water buffalo out of business. Except on Toraja, where he is very important to funeral festivities (although it's not so festive for the buffalo)
More later, after I walk the next rice paddies.

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I try to answer all comments, but when I'm on the road sometimes I'm not near internet cafes. Patience! Eat some chocolate! I will get back to you!