Analyzing Food and Culture: Rice and the Thai Culture
For a long time, anthropologists have explored the association between food and culture. As part of culture, food is a key component of a country’s national identity, not to mention that it helps to distinguish one culture from another. Indeed, the very thought of food reveal a lot about our understanding of our collective and personal identities as a people (Longhurst et al. 127). In this regard, such a simple act as eating is laden with contradictory, if not complicated, cultural meanings. Therefore, our thoughts about food to a certain extent, helps to shed light on the messy and rich textures in our quest at self-understanding, and out problematic and interesting “understandings of our relationship to social others” (Bell & Valentine 2). The element of understanding our collective and personal identities is in tune with the definition of culture as postulated by Stuart Hall, namely “the systems of shared meanings which people who belong to the same community, group, or nation use to help them interpret and make sense of the world” (Hall 176). Food is no longer about nutrition and sustenance. It carries with it various cultural symbolic and social meanings. Food tells a story of not just who we are, but where we come from. In other words, we are what we eat. The premise of this essay is to examine rice as part of the Thai culture.
The consumption of food has been interwoven into the contemporary culture of many societies as an indicator of one’s social standing and lifestyle. More importantly, food has historically found use in conveying of cultural, moral, and social messages. For instance, analyzing the food consumption patterns of a community can be used to explain the social processes that characterize such a community (Hamilton 11). Food consumption, over and above its role as a form of personal identity, is also a key aspect of national identity. Therefore, beyond its role in nourishing us, food can as well act as a symbol of the national sentiments in a people. For instance, the BigMac is now almost a symbol of the American dish, while the French revere their ‘haute cuisine’. In this way, food becomes a source of national pride, with the Italians taking pride in their Italian pizza, the same way Indians are fond of the Indian Curries. In fact, the association between national and food in popular discourses is so great that it has become almost impossible for us to talk about one without thinking of the other (Bell & Valentine 4). Food expresses our perceptions of exclusion, inclusion, xenophobia, and national pride in the same way that language does. Therefore, by studying the history of the national diet of a country, one gets a glimpse of the history of such a country, with food fancies, fashions, and fad representing episodes of exploration and trade, migration, and cultural exchange. Such is the kind of relationship that the Thai culture has with rice.
For thousands of years, rice has shaped the culture, economy, history and diet of billions of people in Asia. Majority of them drink rice liquor, sleep on rice straw, and appease their gods with rice. Indeed, the various growth phases of the rice crop signify the passage of seasons and time. In the languages of most nationalities in Asia such as the Japanese, Thai, and Chinese, no meal is ever complete without rice. Therefore, rice to them is part of who they are. It is part of their daily lives and is at the center of their very civilization.
In Thailand, rice cuts across the various spheres of life of Thais of all occupations. It is the sense of life. Rice is to be found in music, especially folk songs. Rice can also be found in the various forms of arts, such as paintings, sculptures, and poems. Actually, rice can be found in the folklore, traditions, language, and rituals of the Thai. This notwithstanding, rice has usually been taken for granted. Increased affluence has seen societies including the Thais lose their strong attachment to rice (Hamilton 37). However, rice still has a special place in the music and rituals of the Thai.
Of all the various crops cultivated in Thailand, rice seems to be the only one that farmers organize to offer ‘begging’s’ at each and every phase of its development, starting from the planting stage, all the way to harvesting. This ritual is normally carried out as a way of reducing worries and boosting morale. In this way, the Thais hope that they will get an abundant harvest and ultimately bring happiness, stability, and joy not just to the rice farmers and their families, but also to the entire community. Therefore, the rice rituals as practiced by the Thai are in fact a reflection of the Thai’s religious beliefs and communal way of life (Na Thalang 99). These rituals underscore the importance of mutual supportiveness and living in harmony that the Thai are renowned for cultivating. Moreover, such rituals are vital in production, distribution, and exchange of rice and its role in the village economy.
The Thai have also incorporated rice in their folk songs. In this case, the folk songs are composed to reflect the various stages of rice farming, from the start of the rice-growing season, all the way to the time of harvest. In case there were delays in rain after the farms had been ploughed and rice seeds planted, the Thais would compose folk songs to beseech their gods for rain. Rice also plays a role in prescribing the responsibilities and roles of government leaders in Thailand, such as the King and the Royal Family. In Thai, Kasat or ‘king’ refers to the ruler and owner of land. It is the responsibility of the Kasat therefore to protect the land from any calamities or dangers. Therefore, the Thai have always looked upon their kings to protect their rice farms (Delcore 38).
The cultivation of rice also seems to be closely inter-twined with the religious beliefs of the Thais. Farmers cultivating or tilling the soil are expected to worship the Rice Mother (Mae Posop) so that they can be endowed with wealth and health. The Thai believe that those who fail to worship the Rice Mother suffer from sickness, hunger, and poverty (Delcore 40). A person has to be careful not to scatter any grains while thrashing or pounding the paddy; otherwise, the Rice mother may get angry and bring misfortune to such a person. During harvest, Thai farmers usually dedicate certain rice heads to the Rice Mother as a way of appeasing to her them.
As part of this essay, I conducted an interview with Arnika Nawigamune, a Thai immigrant on how rice is connected to the Thai culture. The 72 year old grandmother of four had fond memories of how her parents and grandparents before them would offer foods to the Rice Goddess as a way of appeasing her to bless their land and the fruit of their labor: “ I do remember that every planting seasons, once the rice heads were about to flower, my mother and my grandmother before her, as well as other village omen, would offer bitter fruits such as lemons and limes to Mae Posop. Because she is the goddess of rice, and being that the rice was about to flower, this growth phase was equated to the Mae Posop being pregnant. The offering of the bitter fruits therefore, was valid, seeing as the Thai believed, and they still do, that she had a craving for such bitter fruits”.
Arnika Nawigamune further explained why men were not involved in such rituals: “The Thai believe that Mae Posop is a shy god, especially when pregnant and in the presence of men. Therefore, in order for her to accept the offerings and bless the rice harvest, men had to be excluded from such excursions”. Arnika Nawigame also recalled how her grandmother would remind her to show respect Mae Posop while eating “My grandmother would coach me, literary, on how to respect Mae Posop while eating. I was taught that letting even one grain of rice fall on the floor while eating would be regarded as a form of disrespect to the Rice Mother. Moreover, I was not to step over a fallen grain of boiled rice on the floor. Upon completing meals, we children were expected to thank Mae Posop by raising out two hands joined together, a gesture commonly referred to the Thai as a “wai”.
By reflecting on the relationship between the Thai and rice, it has become evident that food is very much a part of our culture. This is a very clear testament of the validity of the expression, “you are what you eat”. Food is a symbol of national identity, with rice being a key component of the Thai cuisine, as is the case with the majority of the other cultures in Asia. More importantly, food connects a people’s social, political, and religious beliefs. Again, the experience of the Thai with rice has taught us that food can be regarded as a spiritual component, as evidenced by the kind of respect that the Thai accord the Rice Mother, or Mae Mosop.
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