The Cultural Significance of Rice in the Philippines
My journey to understanding rice started in 2017 when I moved to the Philippines and started my PhD in Geography at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Originally from Switzerland with Italian roots, rice was not a very regular staple for me and rather an occasional food, generally as a risotto. This changed as soon as I arrived in Los Baños. My colleagues taught me that rice would not only consume most of my studies, but also become one of my staples in cooking, baking, and, of course, eating out. They gave me the opportunity to delve into the cultural importance and culinary diversity of rice during my time in the Philippines.
Filipino cuisine is perfectly aligned to serve rice at every meal. Rice is eaten at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My personal favorite is a steamy arroz caldo, also known as congee, for breakfast. In addition, desserts and snacks also often include rice. Hence, its prevalence demonstrates its cultural significance. In this country, where many struggle with food insecurity and malnutrition is widespread, it generally remains the central portion of the dish and calorie provider. Nevertheless, a large dependence on rice can lead to multiple challenges. Health issues related to an unbalanced diet and low nutrients are associated with high rice consumption, especially white rice. Food security policies still strongly focus on rice. They aim to achieve rice self-sufficiency, but the Philippines is still a net rice importer due to stagnating yields (Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) 2013). In addition, the effects of climate change are becoming more challenging and directly influence rice production. Farmers are some of the most directly affected in the rice value chain.
Filipino rice farmers are trying to cope with increased environmental, social, and economic pressure. Although more than two-thirds of the rice cultivation area in the Philippines is irrigated and many farmers use modern varieties, such as hybrid rice varieties or high-yielding varieties, yields are significantly lower compared to neighboring countries (GRiSP, 2013). At IRRI and in collaboration with the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), efforts are made to improve rice farmers’ situation. The introduction of new varieties to reduce yield gaps and increase farmers’ profitability is a key focus. In addition, promoting the use of good-quality seeds and improving mechanization is central. One project at IRRI, supported by the Department of Agriculture of the Philippines, also centers on less favorable rice cultivation areas (IRRI 2015). The heirloom rice project intends to enrich the legacy of traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems. The main objective not only concentrates on enhancing productivity, but also promotes traditional rice cultivation practices and rice’s cultural importance throughout the country.
During my time at IRRI, I have been able to find out about the diversity of rice-related aspects that influence millions and feed billions. The most important lesson that I have learned is that rice is the foundation for a cultural and culinary understanding that goes beyond being a simple side dish. It is the livelihood basis for millions of smallholders in the Philippines and the world. It is a highly variable and adaptable crop that can grow in various climates and be cultivated under different practices. Furthermore, it is a food that connects people and allows them to share their favorite way of preparing or eating rice. The Filipino rice specialty that I will miss the most is bibingka, a sumptuously sweet and soft rice cake that contains a hint of coconut milk.
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