How important can be a bowl of rice? I know now: very important.
Whatever we ate, we also ate rice. Mother’s culinary range had expanded, because she had friends from other states and countries. Our typical meal might include lentils as done in Tamilnadu and bread pudding as made in Scotland. The family had lived in Bihar and Maharashtra and mother had learned to make bread in a variety of ways that we liked. But no day passed without some rice on our plates.
When I started working and lived in my own apartment, I acquired a cook and moved, metaphorically, even farther from the kitchen. As I travelled in different countries, the pattern continued: a cook cooked and I ate. On rare occasions, especially if there were guests, I suggested what should be cooked.
Because I eat out frequently, and even at home the accent is on simplicity, it is not often that rice is on the menu. On the rare occasion that rice is on my plate, it is a spine-tingling experience for me. I have discovered anew what a wonderful thing rice is.
This will seem an exaggeration to many. There are those who consume quantities of rice, as in India, and some who consume it thrice a day, as in Bangladesh. They seem to take it for granted, as people take their spouses for granted or kids their parents. They would be taken aback to find someone singing hosannas of something as pedestrian as rice. They would never consider eating rice as it is, without a generous drenching of lentils or some form of sauce or salsa.
At the opposite end are the westerners I encounter who find the insidious intrusion of rice in an elegant repast a kind of alien invasion. What, their raised eyebrows suggest, is wrong with some herbed mashed potato or a baked potato topped with sour cream? Gently they place the side-dish of rice aside with an impatient fork and approach the solitary filet mignon, perhaps with a steamed broccoli or some Brussel sprouts.
I was impressed by the reverence with which the Japanese treat their rice. The preparation has to be seen to be believed. I love the charming delicacy of their fried rice which seems to raise simplicity to an uncanny level of excellence.
It is a little embarrassing to place the Chinese fried rice a step down, since it was my early love. That is only because of my confusion between the eight different schools of Chinese cooking. I know that I adore Shanghai and Fujian cuisine, but the Hunan and Sichuan style of cooking rice I find a little overwhelming.
Let me not quibble. I am incurably partisan. I feel I have had rice so long in my youth that it runs in my blood. I will always long for rice, in one form or other, in whatever cuisine I run across. Heavens forbid, if it runs short, I can imagine myself hiding, very carefully indeed, a large bowl of rice somewhere in my cupboard.