From My Grandmother’s Kitchen to NYC’s Best Restaurants, My Life in Rice

You have to commit to a bag of rice. And I’m not talking about the little one-serving-in-a-bag microwaveable disasters – I mean the big 50 pounders that are always near the registers in grocery stores like Seafood City or 99 Ranch that you have to put in a bag rice dispenser, an indispensable piece of furniture in Asian households.

Growing up in the Philippines, we ate rice with every meal. Every day we had to choose what to eat with it. Intoxicating aromas of the grains boiling in the pot filled the kitchen whenever my grandmother cooked, wonderfully aided by everything she found in the damp market that morning, be it dílis, little anchovies that she roasted with chilli and sugar would, or ampalayá, fry bitter melon with pork and fish sauce. Some days just a bowl of rice was enough.

When I was about eight years old, my grandmother taught me how to cook rice on the stove, fearing for my future independence and self-sufficiency: “God forbid that the rice cooker blows up!” Plastic barrel in which we kept the grains. I could hardly see about it; I ran my hand through the rice. She encouraged me to feel how cool the rice was on my fingers, how my hands were covered in a powdery silt that smelled musty and sweet. “That,” I remember, she said, “is all you need.”

She had shown me how to clean the dry rice, remove any leftover husks and small pebbles, and how to clean the rice while it was wet and rinse it again and again until the water is clear and it feels like large grains of sand, the just stick together. She emptied the pot, put it on the stove and gifted me the magical cooking method: pour water over the rice until it is an ankle length above the grains (regardless of the amount of rice underneath) and pair that with patience.

As Bigás morphed into Kánin and my excitement for the crispy tutóng increased, something clicked and I felt connected to my bloodline.

Tagalog has about as many words for rice as there are stars in the galaxy. As Bigás morphed into Kánin and my excitement for the crispy tutóng increased, something clicked and I felt connected to my bloodline. I grew up in the eyes of my grandmother. Using a simple vessel, she taught me how to turn humble rice into a porridge called lúgaw, how to fry it with garlic for sinangág, and most importantly, how to appreciate something deceptively mundane as a source of such comfort. She had nothing to fear.

When I was 10 years old, I moved to the United States without papers, had a heavy accent and was fraught with culture shocks. From the Manila subway to insidious health in a suburb of Orange County, California, I maneuvered my new-found American through my Jesuit upbringing, apologizing almost at every turn for the Filipino I presented myself. My taste buds changed and grew as I began eating more and more very American food, things I’d seen in movies and magazines: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chocolate milk, square pizzas, ranch dressing.

Illustration by Sophi Miyoko Gullbrants

Almost every immigrant child has the shameful experience of unpacking lunch, which is culturally valued at home but smells strange or looks bad to other children. To avoid this shame, I bought lunchables, cheeseburgers, and french fries at school, taking care to control my youth by keeping my Filipino food and rice at home. Despite my best efforts to assimilate, I didn’t feel entirely American because I still ate very Filipino dinners that always had rice present. Although rice became a memory of a place I would never call home again, I never felt like I was eating it either. A warm bowl tastes like a hug, the nostalgic scent brings me to my grandmother’s kitchen, thousands of kilometers and too many years away.

My mother and I studied American history together, she for her citizenship test and I for my citizenship course. Our sessions were strengthened by Filipino food as the orange light from the rice cooker shone in the background. After my mother obtained her citizenship, I was also naturalized, but I still felt uncomfortable about the prospect of having to describe myself as an American.

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