Little Rice Box Who Killed His Mother

Also, how to cook sticky rice

When I was about seven or eight, one of the books I bought during a trip to a used-book market with my uncle was a compilation of folk and fairy tales from around the world translated into Thai. I was attracted to the beautiful illustrations on its cover and inside it, but I didn’t get to read the stories until I got home. And, wow. Thanks to this book, I didn’t just discover that some of the fairy tales didn’t end happily the way Disney’s wanted us to believe, but I also found some of them pretty scary and depressing.

The translation of The Little Mermaid in that book, for example, was based on the 1800s version by Hans Christian Andersen in which the prince had no clue it was the Little Mermaid who saved him from drowning and instead gave all the credit to another woman whom he later married. Our mute Little Mermaid was heartbroken to the point where she came pretty darned close to ending the prince’s life with a dagger in her hand. But instead, she threw her finless, human self into the ocean in what appeared to be a suicide. Andersen tried to soften things up by turning her soul into some fairy-like, sea-foamish entity, but who was he kidding? This is a tragedy.

There was also a collection of short stories featuring Mullah Nasruddin, who was funny and likable for the most part. One story was about how Nasruddin and his wife served the same homemade rabbit soup over and over to strangers who kept showing up at their home uninvited. Rabbits have never been raised or consumed as meat in Thailand, but I’ve eaten my share of rabbit meat as an adult, so it doesn’t affect me anymore. But back then, you see, I had a pet rabbit named George, and even though the story is pretty funny to me now, I remember finding it depressing.

And, of course, there was The Little Red Riding Hood. The Thai translation in the book, as I found out years later, was based on the 17th-century version by Charles Perrault, Le Petit Chaperon Rouge,1 in which the wolf ate both the grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood. A very unhappy ending indeed.

Also included in that anthology were some biblical tales that could be plucked out of their chronological, cultural, and canonical contexts and still make sense as stand-alone stories. Of course, the well-known stories of David and Goliath and Jonah and the big fish were included. But, among them were also some of the lesser-known stories, like the one from Genesis 25 about Esau being so hungry that he was willing to trade his birthright for “some of the red, red thing” that his brother Jacob was cooking, thus forfeiting everything that was rightfully his as the firstborn. For what? A meal. How tragic.

Looking at the Esau and Jacob’s story today, I’m thinking of the way the author(s?)/redactor(s?) of Genesis2 reported Esau’s request to Jacob to give him some of “this red, red thing” (הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה) and how funny that is.3 It could be that Esau was so hungry he couldn’t think straight or form his sentence more clearly. Perhaps the guy didn’t know enough about food to be able to ID what was in front of him—or he simply didn’t care enough to be precise. Perhaps the narrator wanted to emphasize the point that a guy who would trade his birthright for a bowl of stew wasn’t very bright.4 Regardless, without the preceding and following contexts of Genesis 25, we wouldn’t have known “this red, red thing” was pottage of (red?) lentils.

[Photo credit: Supanut Arunoprayote, Wikimedia Commons)

The book also included a Thai folktale with a theme similar to the Genesis 25 story—only sadder and more gruesome. Kong Khao Noi Kha Mae (literally ‘Little Rice Box (who) killed (his) mother’) is a well-known story about a young rice farmer known as Little Rice Box (Kong5 Khao Noi) who lived a long time ago in the area known in the present day as Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand.

Every morning, Little Rice Box would leave his house before dawn, walking in the searing heat to work in the rice paddies across the vast stretch of parched, sandy soil. On that fateful day, as Little Rice Box was taking a break from plowing the rice fields, he realized his elderly mother, who usually brought him lunch before noon, was late that day.

Moments had passed before a tiny figure appeared across the field. Instead of feeling relieved, he was fuming. This old woman—did she not know what time it was? Did she not know how hard he had worked all morning? The water buffaloes had slid into a deep pool of mud, resting and content, after all the plowing they had done. What about him? The sun was now right above his head, and the shadow of the scrawny cassia tree he sat under was so short it no longer shielded him from the the scorching heat. He was so hungry he could faint. And look how slowly the old woman walked.

The mother finally got to where Little Rice Box was, holding a small woven bamboo container aloft. Where the hell have you been?—the young man barked. And why did you bring so little food? His mother assured him that even though the lunchbox was small, it was tightly packed to the brim with sticky rice and some other things to eat it with. I tried to get the cooking fire started this morning, the mother said, but my arthritic hands acted up and slowed things down. But I’m here now, son. Eat your lunch while it’s still warm.

But all Little Rice Box saw was how small the container was and an irresponsible old woman who had the audacity to suggest his assessment of the situation was wrong. His face was hot—his vision blurred and the sounds around him distant and muffled. Little Rice Box grabbed a large cassia branch on the ground and swung it at the old woman with all his might.

Here’s the funny thing about sticky rice, as those familiar with it will tell you: what looks like a small amount of rice is quite a lot. This is because the grains stick to one another, making it look like there isn’t much rice. And when you eat Thai/Lao sticky rice properly, pinching off a portion and kneading the grains lightly with your fingers—softening them and forming them into a bite-sized ball, you are eating an amount roughly equivalent to three or four bites’ worth of cooked long-grain rice.

This makes me think that—assuming this story really happened—it wasn’t about the rice or the size of the container at all. The story of Little Rice Box is set in the region where you can safely assume everyone is familiar with this most common and one of the most prized varieties of rice. How could the man not know how much rice could be packed into that little basket? How could he not know how sticky rice behaves?

It could be nothing more than a hypoglycemic rage. It could also be that plus everything else in that mother-son relationship that had accumulated until it reached the irredeemable depth.

Regardless, as you can probably guess, Little Rice Box had eaten only half of the food in the basket when he realized that he was pretty full and that a few feet away lay the lifeless body of his mother.

The young man sobbed and sobbed, but it was too late. The repentant Little Rice Box erected a small memorial at the site of his mother’s death, and his story became an oral tradition since then. Some two hundred years later, a larger stupa was built over the original memorial. That stupa has become known as the luk kha mae (“the son (who) killed (his) mother”) stupa, which was later registered by the Fine Arts Department as a protected ancient site in 1982 and became more commonly known as Phra That Kong Khao Noi.

You see, I’ve told you this story only to let you know that if you’d like to read about how to cook Thai sticky rice, you should head over to my article, How to Buy, Cook, and Serve Sticky Rice, on Bon Appétit’s website.

[There is so much more to say about sticky rice, including how to get sticky rice extraordinarily soft, tender, and yet firm the way it is at some very good food carts and shops in Thailand. While it’s not that hard to cook good sticky rice, to achieve that level of greatness, a few more steps are necessary. The post will be available to premium subscribers only, so if you have only signed up for the free issues of The Epestle, please subscribe now. You can also check with your supervisor to see if the subscription fee can be reimbursed as part of job-related education.]

1

You can listen to it in French here.

2

At least as it appears in my Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia.

3

Various translations, including the Alfred Rahlf’s 1935 edition of the Septuagint (τοῦ ἑψήματος τοῦ πυρροῦ τούτου, “(some of) this red pottage”), have supplied “pottage” or “stew” to this sentence. The word is absent from this verse in Codex Leningradensis, which is the vocalized text informing Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, however.

4

A less fun but more plausible option is that it is a way to set things up for the editorial reference to Edom at the end of Genesis 25:30.

5

This is the same word as “klong” (box) in central Thai, written without the initial consonant cluster.