The Costco parking lot on Thursday was half-filled with cars -- 15 minutes before the DeBarr Road store even opened. A virtual conga line of about 200 customers, mostly Asian-Americans, stretched across the front. Taking up his place at the very end, a man asked a nearby woman: What's the big attraction?
"Rice," she said. "Waiting for rice. Just like in the Philippines."
When the doors opened at 10 a.m., Ki Jeffers, from South Korea, scurried down a snack aisle into a tangle of carts with her toddler grandson bouncing in her cart. Voices yelled in half a dozen languages as men handed bags of rice overhead. Hemmed in by others, Jeffers stood on tiptoe. Watch my grandson, she asked a stranger as she ventured into the melee.
But the rice was gone; it was the third day she'd gone home emptyhanded.
So it went this week, as restaurant owners and other Alaskans who buy their rice in bulky 25- and 50-pound sacks -- spurred by news of shortages and rationing and rapidly rising prices -- hurried to their most reliable outlets.
When available, rice has flown off the shelves at Costco and Sam's Club, both having set limits on rice purchases. But neighborhood stores and specialty groceries that serve the city's rising immigrant population were just as busy.
A buyer at New Sagaya in Midtown said his store sold about 15,000 pounds of rice in a single week. Red Apple in Mountain View sold 20,000 pounds in four days, according to manager Claude Anaruk.
"Right now," he explained, "rice is crazy."
WHY IT MATTERS
It wraps sushi, soaks up adobo, tames spicy curry and makes a cheap meal for a house full of children. Buddhist monks use it as an offering. Japanese mash it into an elastic paste to bring good luck on the New Year. Lao grandmothers mix it with coconut milk and steam it in banana leaves. On the altar in Hmong homes, pearly kernels fill a bowl for ancestor spirits.
Depending on where they're from, people may prefer jasmine, long grain, short grain or basmati; they may serve it chewy, cardamom-scented, sticky, salty, sweet or fluffy.
One thing is true in every home where a cooker bubbles at dinner time: A full bag of rice is a symbol of security, particularly if you are an immigrant with a memory of shortages back home, said Theo Wong, who runs International Marketplace on 36th Avenue.
"(Having rice) is showing you're not poor. It's a mental thing," he said. "My mom, she's Chinese, she compares it to money. I got rice. I got money."
So is there really a shortage? Yes and no, the experts say. Rice is readily available in Anchorage, if you don't mind paying $1 to $3 a pound. While the least expensive brands that are sold in large bulk amounts weren't available on Wednesday -- at New Sagaya, Carrs, Fred Meyer, Wal-Mart or Costco -- there were still ample supplies of small packages of brown rice and instant rice for sale. And buyers expect to receive more shipments soon of bulk medium-grain CalRose white rice from California, a somewhat stickier rice popular in sushi restaurants.
But elsewhere in the world, the rice picture is much more perilous. Global stocks of rice have fallen by half in recent years, partly due to droughts and higher demand. Rising fuel prices have added to shipping costs. Shortages of affordable rice in China, India, Vietnam and Thailand have led to restrictions on exports, which have caused price increases in consumer nations.
As a consequence, the flow to the U.S. of certain preferred varieties of foreign rice is slowing while the price has more than doubled, according to local buyers. Thailand's fragrant and highly popular long-grained jasmine rice might be Exhibit A.
Last month, Costco was offering 25-pound bags of Super Lucky Elephant Jasmine Rice from Thailand for about $12 a sack. They quickly sold out. A week ago Friday, at nearby Red Apple, Super Lucky Elephant was still for sale, but the price by then was $39.99 (for a 50-pound sack, which compared to $24 at Costco). But Costco didn't have any. So by Saturday, the jasmine rice at Red Apple was gone too.
On Monday, Doug Perfetto bought Red Apple's three-bag limit of Dragon Fly Thai at $54.91 per 50-pound sack, plus a couple of extra bags of sticky rice for dessert -- $189 worth in all. Just in terms of the volume of the rice, the purchase wasn't that unusual for his Filipino-American family of 10, Perfetto said.
"There is almost always 200 pounds of rice in our house," he said. "They eat it for breakfast, they eat it for lunch. ... This is their main, everyday food."
Perfetto believes there is a growing global rice shortage, partly because it's all that the poorest people in the world can afford these days -- given the even higher prices of other foods -- and partly because they're storing it for their own food security.
"They're not eating steak, and they're not eating out -- that's expensive food," Perfetto said. "So they're going back to basic staples. And now these people are starting to stock it up. You can store rice; you can't store steak. You can live on rice."
If you can find it.
Rice is food for half the world's population, about 3 billion people. It is considered the longest continuously grown cereal crop.
Origin: Southeast Asia; 4000 B.C.
Maturity: 90 to 200 days
Types of rice:About 120,000 known varieties
Two growing methods:
Transplanting seedlings into the soil
Sowing seeds directly in the soil
Milled production: Around 423 million tons worldwide Rice is a grass
Semi-aquatic plant; high demand for water
Sources: International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), United States Department of Agriculture, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), ESRI