I come from a very complex and large Asian American family. If you have seen “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” my family is similar to that family. I wanted a way to document different aspects of my family and this blog is the perfect avenue for that. Enjoy this first of MANY family posts to come.
It’s not shocking to anyone that rice is a staple food at my parent’s house. Growing up, I would go to the Asian market with my family to get assorted household ingredients needed for the week. Lad Na noodles, Bok Choy, garlic, black bean sauce, oyster sauce, thick soy sauce, turnip cakes and rice. Most people buy their rice from the grocery store in a small bag or box. That will last them about two months before they go get another. My family would never survive with one box of rice. We would go to the Asian market and buy a 50-pound bag of white jasmine rice. A 50-pound bag at the Asian market is about 25 bucks. Growing up I had no idea rice came in a small box at the local grocery store. I had no idea people didn’t get their rice from the Asian market. Money was tight back then, and my parents had three kids to feed. That 50-pound bag of rice was not only cheap, but it was filling and would last us about 6 months before we would have to get more. I can remember we would eat rice for dinner every day. Rice with chicken, pork or beef. Fried rice, rice with curry, sticky rice, rice for dessert the list could go on and on. I joke that my family is the Bubba Gump family of rice. My siblings loved to eat plain rice with fish sauce on in. To the normal Joe on the street, that probably sounds revolting, but don’t hate on fish sauce until you’ve tried it. The brand with the large squid on the front is the best, just FYI. Rice was something even my extended family had a passion for. At family parties or get togethers, there was always enough rice for everyone plus some. My Yiyi always said, for every grain of rice you don’t eat or leave on your plate, that is how many pimples you would have. I grew up thinking rice was almost a sacred food. You don’t waste it and you eat a lot of it.
When I got to college, I didn’t have a rice pot with me. I could never find one that was small enough for a college student to use. I would eat what a normal college kid eats- ramen, microwaved quesadillas, chips and salsa and the occasional salad. I remember I would scope out Chinese restaurants just, so I could have rice. When I would go home, I would crave rice. All I wanted to eat was my comfort food and I just didn’t know how I would be able to get it without a rice pot or 50-pounds of white jasmine rice. I remember one night, one of my college roommates was making dinner for all of us. I scoped out the kitchen as she was cooking, and to see if I could help. I noticed a box on the counter and grabbed it to see what it was. The top said, “white rice.” I looked in amazement that a rice not only comes in a box, but it comes in a small box. I asked her what kind of rice this was, and she looked at me confused and sheepishly said…”um… white rice?” I asked if she had a rice pot and again, she looked at me and asked, “what is that?” I explained to her that it’s a specific pot that you plug in and it makes steamed rice. I thought that was so simple and everyone knew what a rice pot was. I was so taken a back that she had never heard of one. She laughed and said she didn’t have one of those, but she makes rice on the stove in a pot. I just about fell over backwards. I didn’t know what to say, so I nodded and said, “o, yeah! I’ve seen that before. Hey, I have some homework to do, but thanks for dinner! Can’t wait, this all looks so good. I was just seeing if you needed any help.” She continued to cut veggies and scoot around the kitchen and replied “O, no. I am good. I’m almost done, the rice will just take a few minutes.” Again, I was amazed rice could be cooked in just a “few minutes.” The rice pot takes at least a half hour. I smiled and thanked her again, as I went back to my room completely bewildered by the idea of boxed rice cooked on the stove and done in a few minutes.
I went home that weekend and told my family this story and my dad, not growing up in an Asian household, said “o yeah, that’s minute rice. That is what I used to eat growing up. It’s not that great.” I agreed and went on to tell them how I was so shocked nobody knew what a rice pot was and that they could buy small boxes of minute ready rice. I told my family the minute rice was just a little sticky and mushy. Rice in a rice pot is the perfect “restaurant quality” rice. It produces perfectly soft individual grains, but each grain still holds its shape. It has a rich taste and is so good it can be eaten on its own. Rice pot rice is just the perfect rice. Not too mushy, not too hard and spot on flavor.
At the time, I was still only dating my now husband and by college, we had been together about 2–3 years. I had told him my love for rice and he would say things like, “rice is ok. I’d rather have potatoes.” Now, potatoes are fine. But if I had to eat them every day, I would be unhappy and let’s be honest, food must bring a little happiness. I asked if his mom bought the minute rice and he wasn’t sure. That night was my night to find out. His mom was making stir fry for dinner and I thought, “he probably thinks rice is just fine because he eats that minute stuff.” I was right. Cindy pulled out the red box of minute rice. I watched her as she pulled out the pot, put it on the stove and continued to cook. I asked her how she knows how much water to put in. She looked at me confused and pulled out her measuring cups. My mouth gaped open wide and again, I was shocked. She laughed, noticing my body language and asked why I was so confused. Now, here is where I must back up a bit before this story goes on….
Here are the steps to making rice in the rice pot. It’s easy, fast, works perfectly every time and no measuring tools required. I don’t know if these steps are a “my family only instructions” or if all Asian people do it this way. I’ve alluded multiple times by now that my family is not like other families, so it would not surprise me if this was how only my family does it, but regardless, it’s the only way to measure rice.
Step 1: using a plastic up or whatever scoop you happen to have, put as much dry white jasmine rice into the rice cooker as you want (usually, you want the rice to be about a quarter to half way full- at my parents’ house about a plastic kid cup and a half does it)
Step 2: add water to the rice, swirling it with your hand to clean it
Step 3: drain majority of water out
Step 4: add more water back in and use your hand to flatten out the rice on the bottom of the pot (doesn’t have to be perfect)
Step 5: once the rice is flat, turn water off and measure the water depth with your finger. To do this, flatten your hand and fingertips first, submerge your fingers into the water just until your middle finger touches the top of the rice. If the water comes to the first line of your middle finger, you have enough water. If the water is below the line (meaning it comes closer to the tip of your finger) your rice will be hard and crunchy. If the water is above the line (meaning it comes closer to your palm) your rice will be too mushy. Be sure the water goes right at the first line on your middle finger.
Step 6: put the lid on and set the pot to cook. It will take about 30 minutes to be done
Easy right? You might be thinking, well, everyone has different size fingers and what about the pot size and the amount of rice you put in… I am telling you now. This measurement style works for any person, any pot and any amount of rice. When we work the Dragon Boat Festival every year and have gigantic pots of rice that can feed a hundred people, it consistently works. My dad who is 6’4” and has large hands uses this method and it works. My yiyi who is 4’9” has done this her whole life and she has never made bad rice. My aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, all of us use this method and our rice always turns out perfect every time. I think that is sufficient data to teach this method to anyone. You just need white jasmine rice and a rice cooker (I have tried this with brown rice and it works too).
Back to my story. I explained to my now mother in law how I make rice and the method I grew up using. She was shocked that I don’t measure and was curious how I know the correct proportions of rice to water. I told her I have no idea how it works out so well, but it does. She said she would be too nervous to do it on her own and relies heavily on the proportion rule (I think its 1 cup of rice for 2 cups of water) and must measure.
When I graduated college, Logan and I were planning to move in together. I was helping him clean out his bachelor pad apartment (which is a whole different story) and while I was cleaning out cabinets, you would never believe what I found. A brand-new rice pot. Logan didn’t know who it belonged to, and upon observation it had never been open. Giddy and amazed I opened it and it was as good as new, had never been out of the wrapper. I took this find as a sign of good luck to come. We took that rice pot to our first apartment together, and I would use it frequently. We took the rice pot to our second apartment and of course to our first home together. Every time I measure and make rice, I think about my family and all the people that came before me. Did they measure rice this way? Who taught them? How did they pass down this skill to their children? I think about my family now. How many memories we shared together eating around the table. All the family parties we have had and everyone eating together and sharing in quality time together. I think about something as simple as rice and how it can transform someone’s identity, family and culture. I think about how many people this very simple food has sustained for generations and I can’t help but feel blessed. I feel happy every day that I get to be part of the family I love so much and that I have a deep and complex culture that comes directly from my family back ground. I feel lucky that I can cook rice in a manner most people find odd. I can’t wait for the day I get to teach my own kids the simple pleasure of jasmine rice with fish sauce. Or the amazing method of measuring rice, which anyone can learn. Plus, it tastes much better.