Throughout September, Ia’s phone rings off the hook. “What is it?” she answers. But she already knows. The rest of the year, her customers are satisfied with rice from the store. In autumn, though, people call day and night for the chance to buy the rice that she grows.
The Hmong name for it is mov nplej tshiab— roughly, “newly harvested rice,” but its appeal is not merely freshness in a world of stale store-bought stuff. The reason customers clamor for this mov nplej tshiab is its aroma. Ia (who asked to be identified by only her first name) roasts the grains over an open fire. As the sugars inside the rice are transformed by the heat, they impart a transcendent fragrance that is buttery and warm like popcorn, rich and spicy like pumpkin pie.
Really, though, the allure of that aroma is shorthand for something more complex. This rice is their rice — Hmong rice. The seeds have traveled with Hmong people since before anyone can remember, sustaining generations of ancestors backward into the distant past. In her birth country of Laos, and probably before that in Vietnam and China, Ia’s predecessors prepared rice in the same way that she does on the farm in Fresno. Originally, it was meant to hasten the end of the hungry season, that aching period when last year’s rice had all been consumed but the new crop was not yet ready. Each family would harvest a meal’s worth of immature grains, and, to make their green interiors palatable, roast them.
Before any living person ate this rice, a portion was removed. This first serving of mov nplej tshiab was offered to the ancestors with a request for their blessing of the harvest and protection for the year ahead. Then, at last, after having gone perhaps months without their most essential food, the family would eat the roasted rice. In their mouths, the ineffable fragrance became a beloved flavor, inside of which lay the promise of a new year.
Today, in Fresno, there is no hungry season in the traditional sense — rice can be bought 365 days a year. But when women in Fresno load Ia’s mov nplej tshiab into their steamers, the aroma that fills the kitchen offers another kind of nourishment. In a sense, it is just as vital.
Ia’s ancestors farmed rice for countless generations before her, but by the time she fled Laos, she had none left to bring with her. Really, she had nothing left at all. After the Americans disappeared from Laos in 1975, effectively ending a war that began before Ia was even born, Hmong and others who had allied with the United States were left to suffer the brutal retaliation of the newly vested Communist regime. Ia’s family tried to evade the violence and hold on to their life in the country’s northeast; instead, they endured a slow loss of nearly everything they had once known and loved. When, in 1979, Ia escaped across the mountains to find refuge in Thailand, all she brought was a backpack full of rice she had gleaned from an abandoned field and a pot to cook it in. When at last she swam across the Mekong River to freedom, she left even those last vestiges of her former life behind.
Ia was not alone in fleeing Laos. Over time, well over 100,000 Hmong would resettle in the United States. In 1981, one of them managed to have 12 rice seeds from Laos sent to him in North Carolina, where he sowed them in his backyard. Only two matured, but what seeds they made he planted the next year. In the four decades that followed, both the seeds and the people planting them multiplied: Today, a word-of-mouth network of Hmong farmers grow small plots of rice in North Carolina and Arkansas, Oklahoma and California.
Over time, new seed has been smuggled from Laos in honest-seeming postal parcels and carry-on bags. The seed is tested as farmers try it out in their American soil and climates. Many types fail, but when one succeeds in reproducing, seed is saved and replanted the next year; enough years and the type might be named.
In Fresno, after the hired workers have gone home and the farm is quiet, Ia leaves her farm shed and walks into the fields. She carries a small knife that her husband made: a flat half circle of wood, whose round edge has been whittled smooth and whose straight edge is inlaid with a razor blade. With this tool held tight against her palm, Ia raises her hand to a stalk of rice, curls her middle finger around the stem, and severs the plant by simply twitching back over the razor blade. This is not rice to be roasted and sold. It is seed.
There is no complex science to the process: She saves the prettiest ones, which for her are those that have stayed pure: perfect white, deep purple. If she sees a mutant or an odd type that looks nice in the field she will pluck out its seeds and plant them back separately, in hopes of building up a whole new kind of rice.
Nature does its own selecting, as well, using drought and pests, scorching days and early frosts. What seed makes it through the gantlet of the growing season is saved, carrying with it the knowledge of the previous year’s troubles. Every year the cycle repeats, the rice that endures accumulating data, adding layers of memory — of knowing — that help it to survive another season in this place that is not Laos. Gradually, it becomes less of a stranger to the industrial semidesert of Fresno, more of a resident.
Ia and her trials are not the first to shape this rice. Her layers are placed on top of all the layers added by those people who preceded her. In their time, they were just doing what she is today: responding to climatic challenges, enacting their particular senses of beauty and value, unconsciously recording their paths of movement in tiny genetic fragments. Over time, though, all those individual memories compounded into a collective history, embedded in the grain. That’s what made this “Hmong rice” — their rice.
The same thing happened all across Asia: After Oryza sativa was domesticated, people carried it to nearly every valley, hillside and plain from Pakistan to Indonesia to Japan. Migration necessitated adaptation, and adaptation produced diversity — and, over time, resilience. In some places people coaxed the semiaquatic plant to grow in dry soil, like wheat. In other places they conditioned it to withstand seasonal flooding by growing with the rising water, on stalks that could become several meters tall. When a mutation caused a special aroma, they saved the plant’s seeds. When a new type of rice came to them from outside, they shaped it to reflect their own place and desires. Over time, the spectrum of rices in a village became a collective portrait of the group self. When they migrated, they brought their rice with them. It was food, of course, but more than that: It held the story of who they were, and served as seeds for their next incarnation.
Ia carries her two bundles of seed to the shed and pauses, looking for space. Bundles like it are laid out to dry on every level surface. Among them there is sticky white rice and non-sticky red rice and three kinds of nplej tshav, “blood rice,” with its deep purple grains. There is one Ia calls “Arkansas” because she got it from her aunt in the Ozarks, and another called nplej Mai Tia, because someone once got it from a woman named Mai Tia and the name just stuck.
Nothing is labeled — Ia can identify them by sight. She knows each one’s story, how much it will yield in a good year, which will withstand a bad year best. And of course, which one has the finest aroma. Customers think they know, too, and ask for their favorites by name. A few years ago, Ia sold out of the one that customers asked for by the same name they had known it by back when they lived in Laos. She told them she had a new kind that smelled even better, but people balked — it was called nplej niam tais, “grandmother rice,” and no one had heard of it. So Ia changed the name, matter-of-fact in her branding. She called it nplej Nplog Teb, “rice from Laos.” It’s her new best seller.
A writer and photographer, Lisa Hamilton is the author of The Hungry Season: A Journey of War, Love and Survival.
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