Culture of Rice in Thai Culture
Food and culture are closely related. For example, people from one culture can be differentiated from another culture based on the type of food they eat. In this way, culture influences the idea of food and our eating habits. The type of food that we eat can also influence how we relate with others. For example, rice is a staple food for the Thais and as such, sharing food among the Thais will most likely influence how they relate with one another because this is a tradition that has been handed down to them from one generation to another. The definition of culture can also be seen in such a simple act as sharing of food among people from the same culture. According to Hall, culture can be defined as “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). Rice is a key component of the Thai and by sharing it; this signifies sharing of cultural values. We can distinguish the Thai from another race because they eat rice as their staple food, and the other races do not.
In many societies, food and culture are closely related. As Hamilton has observed that, the consumption of food can be used as a way of identifying the social and cultural behavior of a given community, and as a national symbol (11). Rice is regarded as part of the Thai’s cultural heritage as it symbolizes the Thai tradition. To the Thais, food is not only a source of nourishment but is also a symbol of national and cultural identity. People take pride in the food that they are identified with because it differentiates them from other races. It gives them a unique identity amid all the other races. In the case of the Thai, they feel attached to rice because the food signifies who they are. The Thais mention rice in their music and other forms of art like paintings, poems, and sculptures. Rice can be found in the folklore, traditions, language, and rituals of the Thais. For example, the Thais perform various rice rituals to the rice goddess in the rice fields in order to ensure the fertility of the land. We can thus see that rice is important to the Thais from a cultural point of view. Rice is embedded in the Thai culture as it symbolizes value for kinship and societal wellbeing. Since rice was first cultivated in Thailand, rice farmers and the Thai society in general have tried their best to ensure that this particular crop became part of their culture. This is because in many way, the cultivation of the rice crop integrates various cultural elements of the Thai. For example, the Thais would perform different types of rituals starting from the point of planting rice, all the way to its harvest. This is important as rice sustains the lives of Thais from one generation to the next.
Although there are other crops that the Thais are known to cultivate, they are more attached to rice than these other types of crops. May be this is the case because of the many cultural rituals that are performed at the different stages of growth of rice. Thus, rice in many ways, brings the Thais closer to their culture. In addition, the passing down of such rice rituals from one generation to another means that Thai children grow up having a strong attachment to rice and as adults, they also pass it down to their children. Part of this essay involved conducting an interview with someone on food and how it affects their life. I decided to interview a 21-year-old college student by the name of Emma Tanasoontom. She was born in the United States, but her parents migrated here from Thailand in the early 1990s. Below is an excerpt of the interview:
Interview: Hello, Emma? Thank you for your time and welcome to the interview
Emma: Thanks, the pleasure is all mine (Tanasoontom).
Interviewer: So, Emma, what is your relationship with food?
Emma: I cannot claim to have a very good relationship with food. I try to restrict what I eat most of the time, which is very little, by the way (Tanasoontom).
It is evident that the culture that we are brought up in influences what we eat, and our attachment to certain foods.
Interviewer: Why are you restricting your food intake?
Emma: Because I am on a diet. I am watching my weight. Before I joined college, I weighed about 150 pounds. I felt I had put on too much weight. Plus, I was the odd one out as most of my friends weighed no more than 110 pounds (Tanasoontom). In this case, Emma’s family and the society has influenced her eating habits. She is now on a diet to lose weight because she grew up in a family where losing weight was the right thing to do.
Interviewer: What type of food do you enjoy the most?
Emma: I am a big fan of fruits, mostly apples. So, basically I eat a lot of these. I also love to take ice-cream (low fat of course), especially on a hot day (Tanasoontom). Emma has had to change her dietary habits to reflect her desire to lose weight and be healthy as well.
Interviewer: Can you say that your upbringing has had an influence on your eating habits?
Emma: Yes, a lot. I grew up in a family where both of my parents were deeply concerned about their weight. I am an only child, you know. Therefore, basically there was a lot of concern on avoiding high fat food and junk food as well. However, once in a while, especially on weekends, my day would treat us to a pizza or an apple pie, and then it would be fruits and vegetables the rest of the week (Tanasoontom). Emma has learnt from her family and society that watching one’s weight makes one good looking and healthy. In the same way, we can claim that because most Thais grew up knowing that rice is a very important part of their culture. As a result, they have thus come to associate it with their cultural values. Now, rice is reflected in their religious practices, customs, and even government.
Interviewer: Once again, thank you Emma for your time. I wish you all the best in your weight loss program.
Emma: You are most welcome (Tanasoontom).
From the interview above with Emma, it emerges that the family and the culture influences the eating habits of future generations. This means that the family and societies will also endeavor to pass down cultural rituals affiliated with food to future generations as well. In the case of Thailand, the reason why these rice rituals are performed is so that the Thai can get a good harvest of the rice crop. A good harvest is normally expected to make the rice farmers happy and when they are happy, the rest of the community is also happy. Therefore, a good rice harvest will make all Thais happy. It means that the Thai do not have to worry about food and can thus focus on other pressing issues in their lives.
It is also important to note that the rice rituals are normally done to reduce worries and increase morale. Maybe that is why the Thais are strongly attached to the rice crop because it brings about national unity, joy, happiness, and prosperity. For example, then the rice plant has fully matured, ready for harvesting, the blessing ceremony is done. The Thais often regarded it as a significant rite in rice production. Rice rituals are a way of expressing the religious beliefs of the Thais, and their communal way of life (Na Thalang 99). The rituals are also a sign that the Thai culture is based on living in harmony and mutual support. While I have never experienced any of the rice rituals being conducted, those who have been part of these ceremonies claim that the rituals help to bring the Thais close to one another. The Thai have also incorporated rice in their folk songs. In this case, the Thai compose different folk songs to represent the different stages of rice farming. Whenever the rains were delayed when the planting seasons was due, the Thais would perform rituals to appease to the rain gods. In one such ceremony, the lord of the Royal Plowing Ceremony scatters rice seeds around the Grand Palace as a means of appeasing to the gods of rain. In this case, rice was used as a medium of enabling the Thais communicate with their gods. It is also a sign that rice also holds religious significance among the Thais.
Another way in which rice farming was related to the Thai’s religious beliefs is that the Thais were expected to worship the Rice Mother while cultivating or tilling rice fields. This worship was necessary to avoid misfortunes like hunger, sickness, and poverty. At the time of harvest, farmers also had to appease the Rice Mother by dedicating the biggest rice heads to her. Again, this is proof that rice is a central element of the Thai’s religious beliefs.
To the Thais, the cultivation of rice was also connected with leadership. This is because in the Thai culture, the King and the Royal Family are the custodians of all land. In other words, they hold the right to land on behalf of society. Therefore, the look up to their rulers in order to protect their rice farms (Delcore 38). The rice crop thus helps the Thais to relate well with the government because if their rulers are happy, they are also happy as their land is protected. This is a traditional that has been passed down over many generations, but is slowly dying out due to a reduction in land available for farming rice.
Culture influences our eating habits, including our attachment to certain foods. To the Thais, rice is a symbol of their cultural and religious values. Not only is rice a symbol of Thai’s national identity, but also of religious heritage. The various rice rituals that have been passed down from one Thai generation to another, something that has now become part of the Thai’s cultural heritage, evidence this.
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(2004): 33-50. Print.
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cultures and globalization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Hamilton, Roy. The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler
Museum of Cultural History, 2003. Print.
Na Thalang, Siraporn. Legends of Rice in the Tai’s Belief. The Tai in Folk Tales: from the
Perspective of Folklore and Folk Literature. Bangkok: Matichon, 2002. Print.
An interview with Emma Tanasoontom