As you drive along the road through the village of Pheam Ek near Battambang in Cambodia, you can literally see hundreds of round circles placed on grid-like trays, leaning against the edge of the greenery of plants and trees, out in the sun. They are the specialty of this village, made in family workshops. They are rice paper for spring rolls.
As I stopped in this village, I was able to watch two women hard at work making these rice paper circles by hand. One by one by one, into the shape of perfect circles. It was hot out, and I’m sure that the heat from the cooking process made their work even hotter. Yet they were intently working away, as I watched in amazement, and took photos. And tried to figure out their process…
In front of one woman who was sitting, there were two cooking trays. In a seamless motion, back and forth, she would create each rice paper circle. As you can see in this photo above, in the tray closest to the front of the picture, the woman had just dipped that silver bowl into a batter that is made out of rice flour, salt, sugar, and water. After she poured the batter onto the tray, she used the back of the bowl to spread it into its perfect circle. Meanwhile, in the tray in the back of the picture, covered with a wok-type lid, an already-shaped rice paper is being cooked by steaming.
Then the lid is transferred to the rice paper that was just formed so that it can steam for a few moments, as in the photo below. The rice paper that has just finished cooking is carefully removed from the tray using something that looks like a wooden spatula.
While the front tray is still covered and cooking, a bowl of batter is spread around the back tray, into its perfect circle.
Finally the lid is removed from the front tray, transferred to the back tray, and the cooked rice paper circle is once again removed with the wooden spatula.
This process repeats over and over and over again, creating perfectly formed rice paper circles.
If you look closely in the background of the above four pictures, there is a contraption that has four wooden cylinders shaped like a plus sign. When the rice papers are removed from the cooking process, the woman places the rice papers on these wooden cylinders.
Another woman then takes each of these cooked rice papers and carefully transfers them from the wooden cylinder to a bamboo rack. She seems to know exactly where to place each rice paper on these racks, as I counted that each rack can fit 70 rice papers!
Finally, once a bamboo rack is filled with rice papers, the woman carries the entire rack out to the road so that the rice papers can dry in the sun. And so that as you drive along the road through the village of Pheam Ek in Cambodia, you can literally see hundreds of round circles of rice paper on their bamboo racks, placed against the edge of the greenery of plants and trees.
Perfect circles of rice paper created by hand. Just like the perfect circles of a woman creating pottery by hand. And just like the inspirational women who silk weave and label wine bottles at the only winery in Cambodia.