More Rice, Anyone?

In my childhood, one of our favorite topics of conversation was “America.”

“Garo dae aco mabubuhay sa America,” Peping my playmate would often rain on our parade.

“Why not?”

“Mayong maluto sa America”

I agreed with him.

Everything in school was about America. Arithmetic was “1 apple plus 1 apple” or “2 pears plus 2 pears.” English was about “Brownie, Jack and Jill, etc.” Most, if not all, of our textbooks and songs were showcases of the wonderful world of America. Each Christmas we’d sing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” in a land that never experienced snow. “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse” were part of our DNA, and “Dick and Jane and Judy and Spot” were household names. If our dogs were brown we called them Brownie, if black Blacky. I’ve even seen a white dog named Brownie because the owner happened to be a fan of Brownie. After school we’d play “baradilan.” And you know who the “good guys” were.

Notwithstanding all these learning books, songs and games to make us appreciate the beauty of America, Peping and I did not want to go to America. There was no rice there. Or if there were, we were sure it tasted different.

The snow and changing weather patterns would not bother us. But not eating rice was a big deal.

That was decades ago. I am now living in America and have been here for four decades. I discovered that America has an abundance of rice! Did you know that there are more than 40,000 varieties of rice? Walk down the aisle of Key Food Grocery in New York itself, and you will find about 50 of these varieties. For good measure, you can also find, cook and eat almost all Filipino dishes here.

Of course, I decided to stay in America not because of the rice. I stayed because I met my future wife here. But that is another story.

I am inclined to believe that eating is all in the upbringing. As I mentioned in my cookbook (There’s More to Eat Than Cooking), one usually gets accustomed to the way food is served to you during childhood. For example, if you grew up in a Japanese household where you were used to eating raw tuna, it takes time to adjust to eating it for the first time in the form of “sinigang.”

Different cultures cook and eat differently. It may be the same fruit or vegetable but depending on your culture, you eat it in a different way. Take the avocado.

I grew up in a culture where avocado is eaten as dessert. I could not imagine eating it in salads or in any other form other than with milk and sugar. In Western culture, however, avocado is treated mostly as vegetable and eaten in salads, guacamoles and fillings for a sandwich. Today, with a slight adjustment, I can eat avocado both ways. Breakfast consists of a sandwich with avocado, a slice of cheese, egg white and some spinach leaves. On the other hand, I can also use avocado with milk and sugar as snack or dessert.

Which reminds me of the plantain. Plantain is a cousin of the banana and considered as vegetable by many. It grows in tropical regions and is not meant to be eaten raw. When my brother visited me in NY many years ago he thought it was a regular banana. He quickly grabbed one and ate it raw. I never saw him eat one again, cooked or uncooked. People cook plantain in a variety of ways. It can be cooked ripe or unripe by boiling, frying, baking, mixing in stews and in many other ways. Filipinos in the east coast use plantain as substitute for “saba.”

And then there’s “gulay na natong” or “laing.” I use spinach instead of gabi leaves because the latter is not easy to find. There are some Indian stores that sell gabi leaves but I do not use them, for other reasons. So far, most of my friends coming from different cultures who have tasted my “laing” and my way of cooking rice have found this combination second to none.

And this brings us back to this universally prolific ancient grain that can be cooked in a variety of ways according to one’s culture. I have eaten rice cooked by different cultures and all of them tasted great. The secret is in the people behind the cooking.

I never saw Peping again. The last time I went home to Naga I heard he is now living in Thailand, a rice exporting country.

Stands to reason.