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The History of Phka Rumduol

Posted by James Plamondon on November 02, 2015 . 0 Comments

For centuries — before the Angkorian civilization, the ruins of which can be seen from space (see below) — Cambodian farmers have been using traditional plant-breeding methods to give Cambodian Jasmine Rice a better flavor, fragrance, and tenderness. The Somaly Kra-oob line was their crowning achievement, and Phka Rumduol™ — the best variety of the Somaly Kra-oob line — was the jewel in that crown.

Angkor Ruins from Space.jpg
"Angkor Ruins from Space". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet in the 1970s, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of traditional rice varieties were lost under the Khmer Rouge. The genocidal regime forbade the planting of any non-irrigated rice varieties, including Phka Rumduol. Because rice seeds rapidly lose their ability to germinate, if these orders had been followed, the whole Somaly Kra-oob line would have been lost forever.

Emblem of Democratic Kampuchea 1975–1979.svg
"Emblem of Democratic Kampuchea 1975–1979" by Elena in General - http://khmernz.blogspot.com/2008_06_27_archive.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

However, some brave Cambodian farmers near Ratanak Mondul in Cambodia's Battambang Province— we will never know exactly who they were — risked their lives to plant Phka Rumduol in secret places, year after year. They risked death so that Phka Rumduol, the gift of their ancestors, would survive for their children, for their children's children... and, eventually, for you.

When the fragrance of Phka Rumduol first fills your home, honor those who struggled for generations to create it, to improve it, and to preserve it. When you experience its unique flavor, you'll understand why Phka Rumduol was worth the risk. When you have a second bowl, you are celebrating their victory.

Share it with a friend. The more people who enjoy Phka Rumduol today, the sweeter the victory of those who risked everything to save it.

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The story above is both romantic and true (as best I can determine). Equally romantic, to a nerdy geek like me, is the later history of Phka Rumduol — the story of the agricultural scientists who struggled to revive Cambodia's agriculture after the devastation of the Khmer Rouge.

Most of this history is not documented anywhere else that I can find, and comes from personal communication with sources who were there at the time, notably Dr. Ouk Makara, now Director of CARDI, the Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute. I am sure that I've introduced a few errors into this; please blame me, not Dr. Maraka, for those errors.

In 1988 — when the Vietnamese were still occupying Cambodia — an international effort was initiated to help re-start Cambodian agriculture. The "Cambodia, IRRI (the International Rice Research Institute), and Australia Project" — CIAP — aimed to improve the productivity of Cambodian rice farmers. This was a many-faceted task, including pre- & post- harvest grain management, farming systems, nutrient management, plant protection, etc.

One facet of the CIAP project was the identification of productive traditional rice varieties. Thousands of samples were taken from around Cambodia.

A suite of approximately 40 samples was of Cambodia's ancient Somaly Kra-oob line, noted for its flavor, fragrance, tenderness, and relatively high productivity (for jasmine rice, which is notoriously low-productivity). Each Somaly Kra-oob-line sample was planted on a different little hill. The seeds planted in Hill 1771 were from a sample collected in 1993 from a farm near Ratanak Mondul, in Battambang province. The exact location of the farm has been lost. Note that the Khmer Rouge was still active in Battambang then, and the province was strewn with landmines (which continue to kill and maim Battambang farmers every year, to this day), so gathering these samples was an act of heroism.

Of all of the Somaly Kra-oob samples, the rice grown on Hill 1771 tasted the best, produced the most, and passed on these characteristics the most consistently. The seeds from Hill 1771 were planted in a small rice paddy, and the seeds from that paddy harvested and planted in a larger paddy, and so on, producing more and more seeds of the "Somaly-1771" variety. CARDI later named this variety Phka Rumdoul™, "flower of the type Rumduol," after the national flower of Cambodia. CARDI and the Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry (MAFF) released Phka Rumduol to Cambodian farmers in 1999, and has been planted across ever-increasing acreage ever since.

Importantly, Phka Rumduol is 100% GMO-free. It is not a modern hybrid. It is a pure-line selection from an ancient "heirloom" lineage.

Perfectly adapted to the unique terroir of Old Battambang (which included modern Pailin, Banteay Meanchey, and part of Siem Reap), Phka Rumduol thrives in the heavy clay soils of its rainfed lowlands.

To quote Dr. Makara, "Phka Rumduol is moderately photoperiod sensitive and yields 3.5-5 t/ha under rainfed lowland conditions. It has long slender grain with nice aroma of Jasmine type, little chalk, and low amylose content (13.8%). The milled rice is translucent, and the cooked rice is soft-textured, flavor and maintains full grain. These physical, chemical and cooking characteristics make it The World's Best Rice."

Credit for creating, improving, and saving Phka Rumduol goes not only to the nameless Angkorian farmers and Khmer Rouge defiers, but also to the dedicated scientists of the CIAP project — from which CARDI was born —among whom these Principal Investigators were particularly notable:

  • Dr. Harry Nesbitt
  • Dr. Ram C. Chaudhary
  • Dr. Men Sarom
  • Dr. Sin Sovith
  • Dr. Ouk Makara
  • Mr. Pith Khun Hell
  • Dr Edwin Javier
  • Mr. Hun Yadana

Thank you all — the named and the nameless — for bringing this ancient gift, Phka Rumduol, to the modern world!  :-)

(If you have any corrections or new information that might improve this blarticle, please contact me at science@AwardBest.com.)

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