It’s Fall and all over South Korea farmers are out with mechanical harvesters, scythes and traditional wooden backpacks—collecting the rice from their now golden fields.
Korean rice is very different from the rice you might find in the cuisine of almost any other Asian country. They don’t enjoy it light, fluffy, soft or tender. Koreans enjoy their rice sticky and glutinous.
In this country food is taken very seriously and that includes rice. There are two words for rice in Korean—when raw it is called “ssal”, when cooked it is called “bap.” Surprisingly Koreans don’t eat rice with chopsticks as you might expect, instead opting for spoons. To eat your rice with chopsticks is considered bad manners. In South Korea the prevailing opinion seems to be that rice grown in Korea is the best in the world and they are prepared to pay for it. Local rice dominates the store shelves with a 5kg bag costing between US$12 and US$25, depending on the quality.
Except for a few areas of plains near the west coast, most of Korea is mountainous. They are mostly not tall mountains, but mercilessly steep and rocky. As a result a lot of farmland is in narrow river-valleys and small fields terraced into the not so steep sides of hills and mountains.
Where the fields are large enough to make it worth their while, farmers use mechanical harvesters to bring in their crops—tiny and cute in comparison to the monsters you might see being used in the US or Australia. These are similar in size to a forklift or a tiny car.
Where the fields are too small or too difficult to access with machinery, the rice is harvested in the traditional way, by hand. First it is carefully slashed with a small scythe and gathered up into armful sized piles. These are then stacked into a kind of wooden frame which the farmer straps onto his back like a knapsack and hauls it up or down the hill to somewhere flat and dry. After threshing, the rice is often laid out in the sun on tarpaulins across country roads to dry. Needless to say this makes for some interesting traffic obstacles.
I think one of the nicest things about rice in Korea is that it is almost always grown by somebody’s Mum and Dad.
Agriculture in South Korea is still mostly small scale and family oriented. This is one of the reasons many South Koreans protested so violently against the South Korea-US Free Trade Agreement in recent years. They believe that the agreement posed a threat to family farms and the Korean villagers’ way of life. I’m not sure whether this is true or not, but I do believe South Korea’s village life, family farms and gorgeous rural landscape are worth protecting.
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