miraclecello (miraclecello) wrote,
miraclecello
miraclecello

THE RITE AND MYSTERY OF A GLORIOUS POT OF STEAMED RICE

As a backpacking item, there is nothing fussier than rice. It takes up space in your pack as you trudge up mountains, is heavy, and requires an even bigger volume of water, pot and fuel to cook. In terms of nutritional value, the yield is meagre, and there are so many ways that the cooking could go wrong. You wonder why we persist at eating it.

At highland camp sites where electric rice cookers do not dare to tread, preparing the steaming pot of grain into white, fluffy morsels of perfection is a ceremony imbued with importance. Only the most reliable stove, the biggest pot, and the best cook in the team are allowed for the task. The rest of the team are best advised to steer clear and stick to slicing and dicing, or frying ham and bacons, because, short of injuries or tents being dismasted by typhoons, flooded by rain or set alight by stove flames, the most terrible tragedy that can befall a Filipino backpacker is having to eat half-cooked or burnt steamed rice. It has even been known to trigger fights, because a botched pot will subject the hapless culprit to an entire weekend of ribbing. To my knowledge, I have never attempted it, except during those few times when I chose to climb as a self-contained entity.

In terms of bang for the buck, steamed rice does not offer much. Cheeses, meat and fish, as well as nuts and seeds other than cereals, all pack more in terms of calories and protein. A 100-gramme portion of steamed rice, the usual volume consumed by an adult Filipina in one sitting (men can go 150g-200g or even more, depending on their lifestyle or the nature of their work), yields a calorie count of just 111, plus 2.6g of protein. Even as a source of carbohydrates, the sugar that gives climbers that ready, extra surge of energy on long days on the trail, it offers a paltry 23g. Ready-to-eat bread has nearly triple the carbohydrate yield at 56g per 100g, on top of a whopping 289 calories and 12g of protein.

We are, however, a rice-eating nation, taught in infancy to take it at least three times a day, from that time we achieve the ability to swallow solid food. We always feel hungry without it. Each time we fire up the hearth to cook it, we tip our hats to our ancestors who first tamed the wild weed, some 9,000 years ago. Filipinos rank sixth globally in per capita consumption, each eating 267g per day, behind only such heavyweights as Bangladesh, China, Indonesia and Burma. We insist on growing it even in typhoon-hit areas or in places without adequate water. Sometimes it is the only food on the table in some households. I have frequently observed backpacking guides, which we are required to hire at many of the mountains that we climb, swallow at least three entire mouthfuls of steamed rice or more before they start tucking into their viand.

There are many ways to do it even up in the mountains, where pressure and evaporation rates vary and play tricks on you. Still, the best achieve it without a single burnt grain, using only pocket stoves. In our club the men tend to be the experts, favouring butane stoves with wide pot supports, or the dual- valve MSR Dragonfly white-gas stove. It is a brave camper who would attempt to cook it with an MSR Whisperlite, which has no simmer control.

Some boil water first before throwing in the cereal, while others follow a secret volume ratio between grain and water, measured with the fingers, before putting the mix over the fire. Some stir the pot in the process of cooking, while others would bawl you out if you so much as lifted the pot lid to check its progress. There are remedies applied to salvage botched calculations, including sticking a layer of plastic between the rice and the lid while simmering. Some switch off the fire as soon as all the water evaporates. In the frantic twilights of poorly lit, rain- and wind-lashed camp kitchens, accidents are not infrequent -- tipped-over pots, rice cooked with vodka, and even rice soaked in alcohol or white gas.

The most surprising thing, if you are climbing for the first time, is that we don't even wash the grains before cooking them, like we do at home. Water is such a precious commodity in the highlands that we dispense with this frivolity.
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