I have a complicated relationship with rice. I adore it; what a magnificently simple comfort food. Let’s explore it a bit—my personal history and relationship with it as well as its importance as a food staple in many cultures. I am excited to feature a video where I am joined by my friend Suzu. We chat about traditional Japanese obento and she shares some insight on both day-to-day obento and also the labor-of-love behind creating character-based obento.
Rice has always been a staple food; it rounded-out many meals growing up. It was a busy household—especially once my mom went back to work as my brother and I got a little older. Boil-in-bag rice was the go-to and I loved it with a little butter and pepper. Rice in chicken soup has always been a source of comfort as well. Once I was more established, in my mid-twenties, and rented a small house, rice took another yet another level of comfort. I was still working to anchor my career and there were times when money was tight. I remember one day, I had a terrible headache and I wanted one of those fancy heat-up neck packs to help soothe the discomfort. I couldn’t afford one, though.
I took an old knee-high sock and filled it with rice and tied a knot in the end. Into the microwave, it went! I was so pleased with myself! It worked really well and over the time rice took on a toasted aroma which added to its comfort. I had this old rice sock for years—even after I got married—only giving it up years later after smoke damage from a house fire claimed all of our possessions.
In May of 2013, I was told by my gastroenterologist that I could no longer eat gluten. This was an outright bummer, but being a chef I accepted the challenge with as much grace as a proper-pizza-deprived person could. I don’t generally eat processed foods and so all-in-all it was not too difficult to navigate—except for eating out or at friends’ homes. As far as take-out food goes, I can still have Chipotle—so life ain’t too shabby. I used rice as a great gluten-free way to round out meals—either in its normal rice form or as a flour in pasta. Well, I ate so much rice that I caused an intestinal bacterial imbalance (SIBO). It takes up to a few years to correct and entails eating almost no grain or starchy foods whatsoever (no rice, corn, potato, tapioca starch – no gluten-free grains or any grains or grain additives).
As a writer, I’ve pondered the most eloquent way to summarize this challenge. I think the great bards throughout history would agree—it totally sucks.
I miss rice terribly. I love the smell—warm and comforting—and it fills me up without feeling weight down. It’s inexpensive—even the Fair Trade, organic brands are still affordable. There’s countless varieties, colors, and flavor profiles. Did I mention this sucks and how much I love rice? Only recently have I been able to add small (small!) portions of rice back into my diet--on occasion.
Well, there must be more to my personal love for the grain; it is the staple food for many cultures throughout the world. In my Food Anthropology course at UMass Amherst, we’ve explored quite a few cultures whose diets and culture are very much an amalgam of rice and its varied forms of preparation. The preparation of rice and the eating of rice are both of tremendous importance. The writing of Beoku-Betts (We Got Our Way of Cooking Things: Women, Food, and Preservation of Cultural Identity among the Gullah) highlights the women of Gullah. In ninety percent of the women interviewed, rice was mentioned as the main component of a meal. One woman mentions that “Many people feel if rice isn’t cooked, they haven’t eaten.” The writing goes into great detail of the importance of rice—physically and symbolically—but also the importance of how it is cooked, the process—tradition. The author examines and reflects on how the rice acts as the nucleus of the culture and how the women who cook the rice feel a strong connection to their history and culture through its preparation and consumption. We’re reminded here that each small grain of rice holds extraordinary potential and meaning.
I feel I need to interject some genuine honest and let everyone know that the preparation of rice…eludes me, having grown up on boil-in-bag goodness. It had always been a food staple that this chef just can’t quite perfect. I like to stir and it’s a rice no-no. Somehow I can resist the stir-temptation when making Paella but standard rice….I get twitchy, I feel I need to stir! I often use the magical technology of the rice cooker, although I know I am missing out on the more meaningful experience. Boeku-Betts mentions rice cookers as well—in reference to a gift given to one of the households included in the research work. Rice for them can be labor intensive and yet the gift of the rice cooker went unused—even though the gift was certainly appreciated.
Food is never just food—nor is its preparation “simply preparation”.
I also love to make quinoa in my rice cooker!
Suzu does not need any helpful rice tips. Suzu and her family moved here from Japan. I know them through my work at a local organic farm. Her son Taka is a volunteer and they are all often at the farm. She has been kind enough to chat with me throughout the fall about traditional Japanese obento. I have been very curious since reading about it in class. Rice, once again, is featured as the primary food staple in Japanese culture. Author Anne Allison explores the symbolism within obento in another of our Food Anthropology readings. Similar to many food cultures we’ve discussed, she goes on to say that, “To be Japanese is to eat Japanese food, as so many Japanese conﬁrm when they travel to other countries and cite the greatest problem they encounter to be the absence of “real” Japanese food. Stated the other way around, rice is so symbolically central to Japanese culture (meals and obento often being assembled with rice as the core and all other dishes, multifarious as they may be, as mere compliments or side dishes) that Japanese say they can never feel full until they have consumed their rice at a particular meal or at least once during the day”.
Suzu and I met at local television studios (WinCAM) to film a short video to share. She was kind enough to bring in some obento supplies and we had a wonderful conversation about obento. She was able to share with me firsthand experience in the creation of obento. In our readings we learned that it can be stressful for some mothers; they may feel pressure to create elaborate obento. The readings also highlight that a savvy mom can be very efficient by using leftovers—and Suzu seems to flourish here. She explains that it can be a lot of work and planning but that there is a sense of pride and the young children are generally very excited and so it is worth the effort. Our video went a little long but we were just having such a great time.
Here is a list of the wonderful foods she shared in the obento:
Studio goodies and gettin' serious with the editing software...trying to make a quality video!
I wish we had “smell-o-vision” so that you could all experience the intoxicating aromas of all of the delightful foods she brought. Take a peek here:
This has been a wonderful journey and experience. I have enjoyed relating the readings from my Food Anthropology class to everyday life. I a very lucky to know Suzu through the farm and have the opportunity to further explore obento as well. Rice will always be comforting to me and I look forward to further "perfecting" its preparation!
Suzu was also kind enough to share a few recipes.
Here is one for the marinated mushrooms she used.
Suzu’s Marinated Mushrooms
The not-so-simple art of perfect rice
I usually follow very obscure websites and Pinterest sources but sometimes I just need a simple recipe…for rice! This recipe from Real Simple has been one that I’ve had success with (finally!!). Do not lift the lid—don’t give in to temptation as I have done for oh-so-many years.
Thanks for visiting; now snuggle up with some rice. Rice pudding, anyone?!
chef mel has been creating food experiences for over 20 years. she embraces an "aspiring homesteader" lifestyle & grows over 40 types of edibles when she's not teaching classes & hosting farm dinners. she adores simplicity, new food & edible flowers. her writing reminds us there's wisdom & humor among the seeds, stalks & sauce pots. we're not perfect & that's okay - keep it genuine & journey on!