Rice was not a pleasant part of my childhood food experiences.
The stuff seemed like sticky goo. I hated it. It was usually brown. A little mushy. Generally flavorless.
Growing up with the strong Ameri-Finn immigrant tradition of meat, potatoes and pasty (our own version of meat pies. They’re AMAZING.) with a green salad on the side, who needed something gross like rice?
Then at the bright-eyed, unaware age of 20, I bought a one-way ticket to live in Malaysia post-junior college.
You know, there’s a lot of talk about culture shock but it has always been more of a phrase than a real thing to me.
But it’s very real. A lot of it can be overcome with rest and receding jetlag. The part that really knocked me off my tether? The food.
The flavors were good, incredibly good, but they were so strong! Eventually, your palate gets overwhelmed and all you want to eat is toast. Toast!
When you’re surrounded by a stunning array of the most delicious, varied, multi-cultural street food in the world… you’re munching on dry toast because your stomach is playing hop-scotch with the edge of nausea.
It is a real shame.
(In my own defense, the bread was incredible, topped with butter shipped from New Zealand.
Real butter has a rich yellow color and an incredible flavor that blew my bland, overprocessed butter brain American. I haven’t put it back together since. KerryGold butter from Ireland is what I can get here in the US and it saves my life. Anyone who eats the average American butter, ya’ll haven’t lived.
Okay, okay I’ll put this into another story at a later time because this tiny sidebar is getting too long. Cool? Cool.)
Alright, back from the love of my life — butter. For now…
In Indonesia, while traipsing through the streets of Bali (and making the vendors angry by haggling too hard, too early, but that’s another story), I bought a round bundle of not-quite-white and not-quite-brown rice wrapped in thick brown paper.
With my ultra lux to-go ‘container’ in hand, I took a bite and began walking to wanded through more stalls where every type of rich, gauzy and silky fabric you can imagine hung from the sides.
The flavor of the plain rice was incredible.
All I could think was. “this rice and I should be together for the rest of our lives. I can eat it until I die and am buried in it with a smile of pure joy mummified on my rice-y face.”
Yes, the experiences are really this dramatic in my own head. You can’t make this stuff up!
That day changed my life. From then on, I ate rice like crazy. And since chopsticks were always available and fork/knife/spoon rare, I became a master at eating everything with chopsticks.
Once I returned to the US, I could barely eat with a fork. It was downright painful.
Also painful? How I pleadingly asked random restaurant servers if they had chopsticks…to which they gave me hella weird looks and a slow, “Um….no.”
“But you have this one slightly Asian dish on the menu! There should be chopsticks!”
I believe I told a poor, hapless server that once.
Reverse culture shock is a mad mama bear, let me tell you.
Anyway, I went back to rural living and American food for the next few years. Cooking fell by the wayside because I missed Asian food and refused to process all of the emotions that went along with it.
Who needed to enjoy food anyway? Life is busy. Blah.
Then, last year, I tried a meal prep service. One of their meals included jasmine rice with this incredible togarashi chicken and zucchini.
I grumbled, prepared it and braced myself for the coming blandness.
And oh my lands-o’-mercy, the flavor, the texture, all of it just knocked me from my feet…
I was whirled back to the searing, steamy, strangling heat of the tropics, shouts and smells all ‘round me from the vendors and customers of an outdoor restaurant. Rice on my chopsticks, a smile of joy in my belly.
They say that traveling makes you leave little pieces of your heart in many places so that you are never whole again.
I prefer to think that travel gives you many places in the world to call home.
One of those places pops up every time I take a fork or chopsticks full of really, really good rice.
And that moment? Well, it’s perfect :)