Going against the grain

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Rice farmers in Battambang province. Heng Chivoan

Going against the grain

An American serial innovator has proposed a radical solution to increase the market value of Cambodia’s award-winning aromatic rice variety. Is it folly or a flash of genius?

In the heart of Pursat province, the verdant rice paddies that stretch toward the horizon have taken on a yellow tint, signalling the start of the harvest season for what has been dubbed the “world’s best rice”. Despite phka rumduol winning the coveted title three times between 2012 and 2014, the price of the premium rice variety has actually fallen in world markets.

Jim Plamondon, chief executive of rice marketing firm AwardBest, said the problem is often attributed to the highly successful marketing of cheaper Thai jasmine rice, but really boils down to the fact that foreign buyers have never truly experienced the unique qualities that earned phka rumduol its crown.

“You’ve got independent, objective surveys from world-renowned chefs that say phka rumduol is the world’s best rice. That’s marketing gold, yet Cambodia has not been able to exploit it,” he said.

The reason why, according to Plamondon, is that the complex suite of compounds that give phka rumduol and other aromatic varieties of rice their distinct flavour and fragrance fade quickly after harvest. By the time the premium rice is milled and delivered by container ships to consumers in Europe and the United States, its signature aroma is as faint as perfume the day after a cocktail party.

“The [fragrant] quality of phka rumduol fades so fast that by the time the rice gets to the customer, the quality has already declined by half, and then the delta, the difference between the best rice and the not-so-good rice, has also declined by half. And if you wait a couple of more months, the delta becomes non-existent,” he said.

At that point, it might as well be a box of Uncle Ben’s, its faded flavour no match for even low-quality freshly harvested rice, leaving consumers wondering what all the hype over phka rumduol is about.

But there is a simple and readily available solution to ensure that international consumers experience the full flavour and quality of phka rumduol, and that it commands a market price worthy of the world’s best rice, insists Plamondon.

The former technology evangelist for Microsoft and serial innovator said that if Cambodian millers would vacuum-pack and flash-freeze the rice they could lock in the harvest-fresh characteristics of phka rumduol until it reaches the consumer. And with this, they could demand a far higher price for the product.

Flash-freezing revolutionised the food industry when it was first introduced nearly a century ago. Previously, frozen foods once cooked were soggy and bland because when water freezes slowly it forms crystals that rupture cell membranes.

But rapidly freezing food mans only small crystals are able to form, which do not damage cell membranes, preserving the food’s maximum flavour, texture and colour.

Plamondon said flash-freezing is crucial for preserving foods that lose freshness rapidly.

“In the US, something like a third, or maybe a half, [of the green pea crop] is frozen in the field within hours of harvest, because as soon as you harvest a fresh pea the sugar starts turning into starch, and it goes from being a sweet pea to a starchy, mushy dried pea,” he said.

But how does the taste compare to fresh? Plamondon cites academic studies that found that flash-frozen aromatic rice stored frozen for up to a year, once properly thawed, was virtually indistinguishable in taste and aroma from its freshly harvested counterpart.

“Flash freezing is very well known for meat, fish and vegetables – but it’s never been done before for grains like rice because there was no reason to, unless its aromatic quality had some kind of volatile element that was going to be lost,” he said, adding that regular non-aromatic white rice can last for decades if properly stored.

Song Saran, chief executive of Amru Rice, one of the Kingdom’s biggest rice exporters, said he has heard the pitch for flash-freezing rice, but he doubted its commercial viability.

“We agree that flash-freezing would guarantee the quality of the rice,” he said. “But if we use this technology the price of rice would be so high that nobody could afford it.”

He said a blast freezer for his mill would costs around $350,000, while the cold supply chain would increase transport costs on rice shipments, raising the selling price of premium aromatic rice fourfold to about $3,000 per tonne.

“Even now, at around $750 per tonne, it’s difficult for Cambodian jasmine rice [including phka rumduol] to compete in the international market against Thai jasmine rice, which is about $30 cheaper.”

Plamondon, however, claims the higher costs would result in a substantially higher retail price, with better margins for Cambodian smallholder farmers. He said shipping to the US by refrigerated containers costs about four times that of regular containers, but he thinks phka rumduol could fetch at least 10 times its current price if its harvest-fresh quality could be guaranteed.

He points out that in the 1970s Americans were content to drink ghastly drip coffee. But then along came a chain that saw coffee not as a commodity, but as a gourmet item whose quality should be valued. Today, millions of Americans spend over $5 a cup on Starbucks coffee, while drip coffee is cheap fuel for gas station convenience stores.

Plamondon sees the same potential for Cambodia’s phka rumduol, and is both talking to local producers and developing his own supply chain to deliver flash-frozen packages to the US market, making it available year-round.

Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng.

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