Our family eats a lot of rice.
My husband is Japanese and for most Japanese, rice is a big deal.
I have learned from my mother-in-love how to buy the right kind of rice for what I am preparing. I have learned that rice is harvested, packaged and shipped from Japan at different times of the year and when the new, fresh rice shipments are arriving in the city.
And I don’t buy the red label one.
I have special rice paddles made from plastic and a variety of different woods, a massive flat bottom bamboo bowl for cooling sushi rice which I hauled in my luggage from Kyoto a decade ago, a dedicated plastic dish for washing rice (a minimum of three times no less).
At special events my mother-in-love makes lucky rice with red beans. On holidays she makes an aromatic, woody mushroom rice which I can eat platters of.
Over the years, I have come to have a discerning palate when it comes to rice. In Japanese restaurants I can tell if the rice is fresh, what kind of seasoning they have used for the sushi and whether it is too soft, too overcooked or just right.
All bowls of steamed rice are definitely not the same.
I knew India was also a culture where rice is a big deal.
The waiter brought over a 2 X 2-foot bamboo leaf and handed it to me. I looked at my companion and he told me to unfold it and place it on the table. Then he told me to cup my hand and he poured water into my hands, which I was then told to rub on the leaf to release the flavours. We then held up the leaf, let the water run onto the table and down to the floor and we placed the leaf back in front of us.
The waiter then proceeded to bring metal tins filled with all kinds of sauces and chutneys, curds and pickles and place them around the leaf. He then ladled heaps of rice onto the middle of my leaf followed by four heaping spoonfuls of a variety of dishes - sambar and rasam, koyambu, poriyal, raita and other delicious items. [Note: I had to look up all those words because all I knew was rice even though my companion was patiently explaining everything to me during this gastronomic adventure].
Then I watched my companion begin to separate the rice and mix the various items with his fingers, pulling them methodically, purposefully. I followed suit, poorly but enthusiastically. He showed me how to, once again, SEPARATE the rice with the various dishes so they would not just glob together in a big pile (say hello to the beginners glob over here); how to add the creamy curds to temper the spice and how to mix each dish thoroughly with the tips of the fingers on my right hand so that the sauces and rice blend together gently, creating savoury mouthfuls of the most explosive flavours.
In Japan, we keep every food dish separate, bento boxes ensure their portion size and individuality and the rice is ever so subtly flavoured with mirin or rice vinegar, garnished simply, elegantly with seafood or vegetables.
But in India, we infuse the spices, sauces and rice together, with multiple flavours and textures holding their aromatic position in tandem with two, three or four other equally pungent delights on the same round rimmed plate or banana leaf. The vibrancy of the colours, the texture between my fingers, the bold smells awakening all my senses as I brought the rice to my mouth.
Rice. Culture. Fingers. Flavours.
This made me curious…And I began to reflect on the idea that how rice is served in these two countries might reflect the soul of each one.
The dominant Japanese aesthetic is formal, elegant, minimalist and paired down. The notion of standing on one’s own is a prevailing aspiration, self-sufficiency and success are much sought after and yet like the bento box, one is undeniably and eternally connected to ones’ family of origin.
Having been here only two weeks, India feels like this buzz of organized, explosive chaos where there likely is some kind of order or overall structure but it lies far beneath layer upon layer of colour, texture, complexity and vibrancy. My senses are heightened from morning to nightfall and I am forever looking in all directions all the time so as not to get run over.
I LOVE that I have been grafted into my Japanese family with a nuanced richness that now runs through my white European veins. And how incredible that I am living this adventure in India, immersed in meaningful work with new relationships being cultivated amidst the spices, sounds and ever-present sunshine.