Children of the Rice

Some of the hottest food on earth: rice soup with ground-pork balls and an array of condiments. Photo by Chef Boy Ari.
Mention “Bhutan” here in Thailand, and women will comment how handsome the new king of Bhutan is. Last summer, when he was still the crown prince, he came to help celebrate the Thai king’s 60 years on the throne. Prince Jigme made quite an impression as he continued the long friendship between the only two Buddhist kingdoms left on earth.

Bhutanese monks wear maroon robes, and Thai monks’ robes are a golden shade of yellow. The temples, and what goes on inside, are different shades of something similar, as are what goes on in the kitchens of both kingdoms, where some of the hottest food on earth is served with rice.

Neither Thailand nor Bhutan has ever been colonized — which helps to explain the continued existence of both kings, whom enjoy enviable approval ratings at home, evidently well-earned.

Thai king Adulyadej Bhumibol has devoted his life to improving the lives of his people, conducting thousands of scientific experiments and projects. He holds 19 patents and trademarks for a variety of inventions, including cloud-seeding technology and a water purifier, which are in widespread use in rural Thailand.

The king’s charisma, brains, and love for his people has earned him their love in return, which has political weight. Last year’s military coup to oust the corruption-plagued government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was bloodless, and met with widespread approval — including the King’s. Had he disapproved, it would have been a different story.

A big fan of organic agriculture, His Majesty has been pushing sustainably grown cash crops as an alternative to opium-poppy production in northern Thailand. Since he began this effort, called the Royal Project, opium production in that region has declined 85 percent, according to the Bangkok Post. And they’re delivering organic veggies all over Thailand!

One problem with good kings is that even they can sire flunky firstborn males. That, according to the hushed word on the streets of Bangkok, is the case here in Thailand, where the crown prince is known as a partying playboy. His sister, on the other hand, has it going on: Ph.D. in education, 20 years teaching, and director of the history program at a Thai military academy. Is Thailand ready for a queen leader? Stay tuned.

Perhaps, up in the Himalayas, Bhutan’s Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, looked at this paradox unfolding in Thailand and felt compelled to safeguard his country against the vicissitudes of lineage. His recent project has been a constitution for Bhutan, a process that involved examination of more than 100 constitutions from around the world — including Thailand’s, which since 1932 has been modified, re-written, gutted, scrapped, tossed, and resurrected near-countless times.

Bhutan’s not-yet-ratified constitution mandates a royal retirement age of 65, which left His Majesty looking at another 14 years on the throne. He then surprised everyone last fall by announcing that he didn’t want to wait that long, and was retiring now, effective immediately.

His son, who perhaps wasn’t as surprised as everyone else, stepped up to the plate, where the heartthrob of Thailand is now the uncrowned king of Bhutan. The year 2007 has been deemed an inauspicious year by the relevant monks in Bhutan, so things are on hold. The constitution will be ratified and the king crowned in 2008.  

Here in Bangkok, I’m staying in the Boworn B.B. Guesthouse, named after the famous Boworn Niwes Temple across the street, where four Thai kings, including the current king, once lived as monks. Outside the temple walls, life-size pictures of the king in various poses are for sale, including one as a 20-year-old monk in sunglasses meditating cross-legged, lips pursed.

Around the corner, rice soup is served to a late-night crowd. The hot mush is served with ground-pork balls, pork-liver slices, and a raw egg. You’re supposed to doctor it with an array of condiments that includes shredded fresh ginger, chopped green onion, pickled chili slices in vinegar, soy sauce, dried chili powder, fish sauce, and sugar.

The soup, which to my surprise was really good (though I couldn’t swallow the pork liver), reminded me of a Bhutanese dish. The Dzong-Kha version of rice-cooked-down-to-mush is often prepared for an October holiday known as the “Blessed Rainy Day,” which celebrates the last day of the monsoon.

Bhutanese food is simple and bold, and the rice soup is no exception. Instead of pork liver, raw egg, and seven condiments in the Thai style, there are flecks of meat and bones that have been cooked long enough to soften. However the rice mushes, soups like these are the food of kings and monks, not to mention the farmers, teachers, builders, singers, and every other Buddhist rice child since practically forever. It all rather makes me wanna say “om.”


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