• Sunday, September 10, 2006

    Talk does not cook the rice - Chinese Proverb

    A particularly lively discussion thread on caught my eye when I was scanning Chowhound the other day. It’s no secret that food and food memories stir passions, evoke memories, and often broaden horizons. Or not.

    People in the Chowhound rice discussion share their disdain, disgust and frustration with what other people put on their rice. Some plead for tolerance in the debate. Some invoke a rights-based view of individual freedoms, all should be permitted to eat rice with toppings of their own choosing. Some of the participants are downright livid about what other people put on rice. Many are sure they have the correct answer, citing various and sundry authorities such as ex-girlfriends or boyfriends and the people they observe in their suburban take-out joint.

    It says something about rice that simple bowl of it can reveal so much about human nature.

    What I learned from a bowl of rice.
    The discussion reminded me of some early cross-cultural epiphanies. Rice figures prominently, as you may have guessed. My mother is Japanese; my father Scottish/English/Hungarian. Japanese eat rice with nearly every meal. We eat short-grain rice, which is a little stickier than long grain, but not as sticky as glutinous rice. As a child, I was horrified to see a commercial on TV showing converted rice grains falling loosely down the screen. I couldn’t imagine what rules someone had broken to be forced to eat that dry rice as punishment. (The logic and world view of a ten year old didn’t allow that one might willingly consume that kind of rice. )

    Revelation number one: People eat, and enjoy, different types of rice (food).

    The second revelation came over breakfast with a visiting relative. As kids, we would often have a bowl of rice for breakfast and were allowed to add nori (toasted seaweed, similar to that which wraps sushi) and bonito (shaved, dried fish) and soy sauce. Seasoned nori was expensive so our tasty ritual was a real treat.

    A relative from our father’s side of the family joined us for breakfast one morning during her visit. We offered her some rice. Sheepishly watching us prepare ours, she asked for some milk and sugar. Politely, we kept offering this nice Midwestern Avon Lady of an Aunt our toppings. “Sure you wouldn’t like some seaweed? Don't you want some shaved fish?”

    Can you imagine the thought bubbles above the heads at the breakfast table? Ours: EEUUWW! Milk and sugar? Gross! Hers: Oh my, what on earth...!?

    Years later, someone introduced me to rice pudding. I realized this was probably what my Aunt was trying to approximate.

    Revelation number two: One person's "gross" is another person's "yum."

    So many grains, so little time.
    Henny Youngman said "Rice is the perfect thing to eat when you want 2000 of something." Not only could you eat hundreds (if not thousands) of grains, but you could easily eat over 2000 varieties of rice.

    As an adult, I appreciate an unadulterated bowl of white rice. It’s so comforting. I also love to use the rice bowl to transport morsels from the family-style dishes when we eat Cantonese style. The rice will catch a little sauce from this or that. As I have been introduced to things like red beans and rice, my appreciation for the various ways cultures use this grain has grown. There are literally thousands of types of rice to try - red, Wehani, black Forbidden rice to brown (could be forbidden) rice.

    Varieties of rice suited to particular dishes have become associated with those cuisines: Arborio is well known as the perfect rice for risotto. Have you tried Carnaroli? My favorite is Vialone Nono. Since it also happens to be National Mushroom Month, why not make a good pot of mushroom risotto. Drop me a line, I'll share my tips.

    Spanish Bomba rice is preferred for paella, long grain for Chinese dishes. Basmati’s nutty fragrance is perfect with Indian food. I like Jasmine rice (it has a light toasty scent) for Caribbean dishes. Simple medium grain or long grain for Jambalaya.

    Almost everyone has a favorite rice dish. Since it’s National Rice Month, why not check out a new kind of rice? Doesn't Forbidden rice sound fun? Be sure to read the Chow thread for insights into peoples' rice rules. I promise, it’s entertaining reading. My colleague June Chua offers her overview here.

    Now, let's stop talking and get cooking! Fuzzy logic isn't just for debates, either. It's the best thing to hit rice cookers since, well, rice. Check it out!
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