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Batangas town fails to cash in on brown rice's new popularity

By Ariel J. Margen
The Manila Times, October 6, 2003

Rosario, Batangas—Not too long ago, the town market of Rosario was well-known for bigas na pula (red rice), which is actually what is more popularly called brown rice. When it was still plentiful, brown rice was largely looked down on as a variety that is inferior to white rice in appearance, and supposedly, in taste.

Not anymore. Today, brown rice is widely commended for outranking the white varieties in nutritive value and even in taste. Sadly, the supply of brown rice is also dwindling and almost nonexistent even in this town.

What makes rice white (or brown, for that matter) is the way it is milled. The extent of the removal of the brownish outer layer, called the bran, determines the degree of whiteness. White rice has to undergo the most extensive milling to attain its light coloration. Brown rice, on the other hand, is milled least extensively and retains most of the outer bran layer.

This is known as "third-class" milling, which is ironic since it is the retained nutrient-rich rice bran that makes brown rice a prime source of fiber, essentials oils, vitamin B, and a host of other vitamins and minerals. When it comes to nutritive contents, brown rice outweighs white rice in practically all categories gram by gram.

What's more, old-timers swear that brown rice tastes so much better than the white variety. Magdalena Austria, a rice retailer in Rosario, says that brown, unpolished, rice is definitely more maligat (richer in taste) than the overly husked types. It is said to be so soft and gelatinous when cooked that brown rice can be used as a substitute for the malagkit variety used in cooking arroz caldo and sweet rice porridge.

Austria also claims that brown rice is more filling, a trait that researchers attribute to its high fiber content. "My parents would each take a cupful of brown rice early in the morning and take nothing else until high noon," Austria relates in Filipino. Both his parents, who are still strong well into their 80s, used to eat nothing else but brown rice in their youth—another testimony to the efficacy of the humble staple as a health food.

But to traditional rice growers, milling alone does not make good brown rice. The rice farmers of Rosario and Taysan, Batangas (where Austria hails from), specify the native varieties called kamurós, pinursigé and the dumalî, as the only types to make brown rice with. These exotic varieties, which are better in form than the more common ones, are believed to be so ancient as to be pre-Hispanic. An even better-tasting type, the kinanda, is so rare that some believe it is almost extinct.

Although there is a growing demand for brown rice, the brown rice industry is imperiled. Unlike the mode of planting for the wetland varieties, brown rice is grown by sowing seeds across dry land, a tenuous, labor-extensive work. Moreover, a good harvest depends on the annual rainfall, making brown rice production a high-risk venture.

The indifference of the present generation of youth to farm labor and the lack of governmental support to the remaining rice farmers all add up to the bleak picture. Brown rice production, if there is any, is in such small volume that the produce hardly reaches the marketplace.

In Taysan, for example, just enough kamurós is grown for household consumption. Old folk and those who were lucky enough to have experienced the joy of eating this exotic grain literally have to beg for their share of their neighbor's scant produce.

What used to be so common as to be regarded as the "poor man's rice" is now a highly sought-after rarity. All these are happening at a time when modern-day consumers are finally growing aware of the virtues of brown rice.