Friday, October 1, 2010

What rice do you buy?

Because I'm a heavy rice-eater, I often find that my work easily gets mixed with my social life. At reunions with family or friends, I normally get asked about my job.

What rice do you buy? 

That's normally the first thing I ask in an attempt to explain what I do. Without being too technical about my work: I'm looking for the reasons behind the overall texture (or mouthfeel) of cooked rice (mainly those from Southeast Asia and from Africa) and then determining the genetics behind these reasons. 

The typical reaction I get when I answer a question about what I do is, "So what? I don't really care about the rice I buy. I get what's available in the market." Hmm... this scenario is so different from what I'd expect from people whose lives are tangibly attached to the rice farm. I get the impression that a lot of the people I've talked with, most of whom are from the urban jungle, take rice for granted. 

Surely, however, these people have opinions about the rice they choose from the market. For instance, two of my friends (based outside the Philippines) were in town for a few days. I found out, over dinner, that they buy Thai jasmine rice. Both of them don't like the pre-packed microwavable rice that is also available on the shelves. According to them, they select the jasmine type because it is of high quality.

There's the magic word: QUALITY.

By good quality, they meant that the jasmine rice was aromatic and had good texture. Aha! Texture is important to them after all. More often than not, rice texture is hard to describe fully; it is the point at which people start to have a loss for words. After all, there's more to texture than the grains being either hard or soft. In the case of my two friends, they knew what they liked, they just couldn't describe it. This lack of texture descriptors certainly isn't limited to them. 

"So what?", they, and other people, have asked. Their difficulty in describing the texture of the rice they like is exactly why I am challenged with my job. There is a need to develop high-yielding rice whose grains are deemed good quality. That can only be achieved when breeders know exactly what they are searching for... and it's part of my job to find these aspects of texture.

Here's what I've learned (the most recent person to say this is Dr. RK Singh)  since I started:
Rice consumers, rich or poor, are picky when it comes to their rice.