With the world coming to the realisation that Cambodia produces some fine fragrant rice, the Kingdom’s farmers are beginning to detect the sweet smell of success. Will Jackson reports.
Chef Luu Meng treats his rice like fine wine. Bringing a bowl brimming with raw fragrant jasmine grains close to his face, he gently inhales the aroma. “Can you smell that?” he asks, proffering the bowl. “The milky smell is the sign of real quality.”
The famous chef and rice connoisseur – whose restaurants Malis and Topaz are among Phnom Penh’s best – is crazy about what he calls Cambodia’s “white gold”.
Sitting at a table at Malis, Luu lovingly points out the qualities that would probably be inscrutable to most – he says it takes years of experience to be able to judge really great rice.
“Only when you touch something every day, then you are very sure what it is.”
First he looks at the rice to analyse its physical characteristics and points out the grains’ consistent shape, translucent appearance and lack of chalky residue.
Then he smells it, highlighting that particular “milky” aroma and lack of smelly contamination.
Finally, to be sure of its quality, he munches with a look of satisfaction on a spoonful of the rice that has been cooked.
Luu is not the only one who thinks that Cambodian rice is top notch.
Last year, he helped select the samples of Cambodian rice that went on to win World’s Best Rice at the Rice Traders World Rice Conference, held in Hong Kong in November, for the second time in a row.
He says the quality of Cambodian rice has been good for many years but was only just starting to be recognised internationally.
“But how big a proportion [of the rice is excellent quality]? I think that’s the good question. I think before, it was a smaller proportion, but now maybe it’s getting a bigger and bigger quantity,” he says.
Luu says farmers did not have to choose between producing large quantities of rice and good quality rice.
Much like one couple could as easily raise five children with good parenting practices as one child, with good systems in place a farmer could grow a lot of excellent quality rice as easily as he or she could grow a small amount.
“If you have a system that you are willing to implement to grow quality rice then you can grow as much as you like,” he says.
Farmers and industry players agree the Cambodian rice industry is undergoing something of a resurgence at the moment.
Once one of the great rice producing nations of the world, the Kingdom’s paddy fields and rice mills were decimated during the civil war.
Exports were suspended by the Lon Nol government in 1971 in a futile attempt to ensure domestic stocks.
After the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, they had grand hopes of exporting mountains of excess rice to fund their revolution.
But their ideas about agricultural reform didn’t work as well as they thought and while they followed through with their plans to send thousands of tonnes overseas, they left the local population starving.
Agriculture was once again a casualty when the Vietnamese invaded and the countryside became a battleground in 1978. The nation suffered a subsequent food crisis in 1979.
It was only in 2009 that Cambodia officially resumed rice exports.
While a meagre 12,613 tonnes was sold abroad that year, exports have increased rapidly since, rising to 378,856 tonnes in 2013, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has set a target of 1 million tonnes of rice to be exported in 2015.
Meanwhile, the quality of Cambodian rice has continued to rise as farming techniques improve and an increasing amount of land is used to produce premium fragrant jasmine rice – also known as Phka Rumduol – rather than the cheaper and more common non-fragrant white rice.
Phnom Penh-based rice buyer Smith Totiemsri, who is Vietnam and Cambodia general manager for Thailand’s CP Intertrade, says there is no doubt Cambodia’s premium rice is now rivalling Thailand’s for top spot on the international market.
Cambodia’s best rice is grown in the Battambang region which has the ideal soil and a higher elevation for growing premium jasmine rice, he says.
“Battambang and some areas of Pursat have a lot of very good quality fragrant rice and very stable quality throughout almost the whole year,” he says.
However, he adds that Siem Reap, Kampong Cham and Kampong Chhnang also produce some excellent rice, but in small quantities.
He says the premium Thai fragrant rice is being sold for $910 per metric ton whereas Cambodia’s is sold at $870 per metric ton. Vietnamese fragrant rice only fetches $520 per metric ton.
However, he says $40 saving is not really enough to entice quality conscious buyers and price conscious buyers would go for Vietnamese rice.
“Hence, the Cambodian rice industry really needs to speed up itself to catch up with the competitors,” he says.
He says the World’s Best Rice win could provide a much-needed boost to the Cambodian rice industry as many buyers still believe Thai rice is superior.
“Until today, many buyers . . . are still reluctant to buy and try Cambodian rice,” he says. “[They] are still waiting for the quality to be further improved and the export price to be lowered.”
Kunthy Kann, chief executive of Battambang Rice Investment, represented Cambodia at the Rice Traders World Rice Conference last November in Hong Kong.
He says he was thrilled when the result was announced, but as Cambodia had launched a major lobbying effort – about 30 rice exporters with distinctive kromas singing their product’s praises to the judges – he was fairly confident of winning.
“[Winning comes down to] the whole package, how you brand yourself,” he says. “The rice is important but you have to do other things too.”
He says developing the rice industry has the potential to improve the lives of millions of Cambodians.
“About 70 per cent to 80 per cent of Cambodians, or about 10 million people, are farmers, so developing the agricultural sector is the right path to reducing problems of poverty,” he says.
Ben Chhov, a rice farmer who owns about 10 hectares of land in Bavel district’s Ta Hy Village near Battambang, says that over the past three or four years he has begun to pay more attention to selecting the right paddy seed and preparing the land.
He says he grows fragrant rice on about four hectares of his land and uses the rest for non-fragrant white rice.
“I am going to expand my area of growing fragrant rice next year, it provides better income and is easier to sell,” Chhov says.
“If we have fragrant paddy, there are many middlemen competing with each other to buy ours, but if just simple paddy, we have less chance.”
He says Cambodia winning the World’s Best Rice award again is great news.
“I hope it means that villagers who grow fragrant paddy will have many markets to sell their product,” he says.
Additional reporting by Hor Kimsay.