Friday, November 7, 2008

No, it’s not rice paper. We eat the rice, make the paper.

If I had to pick the most FAQ in this business, it would have to be:" Do you carry rice paper?"
My initial inside reaction is a back and forth inner dialogue of whether or not to enthusiastically educate the customer, or to sarcastically quip the title of my sophomore blog.
Feelings aside, it is easy to just say "yes!" but with so many types of papers out there that mimic what the customer is really looking for, I ask a couple of more questions to discern what the customer really wants.
If we had time and a couple of cups of chai, there is the philosophical one, "What is rice paper to you?" Since we do not have that luxury, but the fear of a long silence on the other end, I just proceed to the next one: "What are you using it for?" This return question is of course a set-up to spread the word about washi, Japanese paper, the important commodity that is so near and dear to my heart- the child I never had, and the product industry I have dedicated my whole career to promote.
Since I split my time spreading the word between two countries, it does not allow me to field every rice paper-question. So I leave it to the faithful paperwomen back in Providence.
When a customer calls in asking if we carry rice paper, I have trained my staff to read said customer’s mind and think of three basic papers they may be referring to. One is a plain white or natural printmaking paper with no visible fibers. The second is a lightweight sumi paper- usually white and used for brushstroke painting and calligraphy. The third and probably most recognizable, is called "unryu", seen right, which is a traditional Japanese paper with long, unbeaten fibers embedded into the sheet. Unryu literally means "cloud dragon", and you can see why as you gaze upon random, sinewy pieces of…something…that seem to dance on the paper. But what is it? Part of a branch? Tree bark? Rice?

To resolve this issue once and for all, here is a brief lesson in the components of selling or buying handmade paper, or washi:
The paper that most people think of when they refer to rice paper is actually mulberry paper, made from the inner bark of the Asian paper mulberry plant, or as we in the paper world refer to kōzo. Here is the secret ingredient that makes up these papers. This shrub is lovingly grown, boiled, beaten, dried, and turned into a beautiful sheet of paper for you to enjoy. Naturally, there are thousands of variations of a finished piece of kōzo paper. And naturally, we stock at least hundreds of varieties. However, it truly can blow you away when you consider the effort put into what was a humble shrub to an intricately designed silk screened paper, such as seen below. No trees are harmed; nor have they ever been.

Kōzo, seen freshly clean and boiled below, is of one of three main papermaking bast-plant fibers. The other two are gampi, known for producing silky paper, and lastly mitsumata. Both gampi and mitsumata are included in the daphne family of plants. I also have to mention the important ingredient used to ensure the incredibly strong and often thin sheets- tororoaoi. That is your new Scrabble word of the day.

Ok, perhaps I am losing the focus of all you black thumbs, but for a paper lover, it is vital to know these key elements. As we see everyone going green, and rightly so, it is comforting to know that washi has been a green, tree-free paper for centuries! The papermakers we represent at Paper Connection, and cheer on, have been among this treasured group, who have been faithfully supporting their surroundings and creating beauty at the same time.

There is such a thing as rice paper, by the way. Made from rice straw, this is not the "rice paper" that people usually think of. But I will save that for another blog. Because, lastly, but certainly, not in the least, there is the rice paper that is my favorite: used to make spring rolls, wontons, etc. I’m getting hungry.

Next time: It’s the annual Paper Connection Warehouse Sale, December 5 & 6th: The familiar faces, the paper deals, and the guilt-I won’t be there to help!

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