She was creeping around at night looking for food. Well, it wasn’t really night, only just past sundown, and the call from the mosque still hung in the blackening air, but there was something furtive about her movements which recalled the criminal. She moved like someone with something to hide, and it was because of this feeling, because of the girl’s sensation of subterfuge, that she was trembling. Although she knew exactly what she wanted, and although what she wanted was – finally – abundantly available and free for the taking, she could not shake the feeling that she was doing something wrong.
Wrong, or simply unusual. What was out of the ordinary, the girl supposed, would perhaps always feel bad, as though she were scandalizing some pious observer with Very Firm Ideas about what was right – and what was not. The girl had long concluded that this spectator could be none other than her former self; still, she thought with a frown, it was undoubtedly a sour, po-faced character. It loved what it was used to and kicked up a stink upon the merest whiff of deviation: it was not the sort of self you wanted around.
Unfortunately for the girl this self had been lingering, like those archipelagos of grease used to on her plate back when her father had fried potatoes – how she’d hated those meals – and it was for this reason that she was tiptoeing around, hoping that tonight at long last she might be able to outwit it. If only it would just dissolve, she thought, like the water at the bottom of the rice pot when her mother set it to boil, then everything would be easy. Water didn’t seem to have a problem: it was abundantly willing to give itself over to the rice and to transfigure itself into the fragrant steam. But apparently people were not like water. No matter how the girl pulled at the taut presence, there it’d be again in the morning, watching and admonishing; there it’d be, pinged back into place like that lurid green mask in the old Jim Carrey film. The one she had not found remotely funny.
Frequently the girl felt bleak; nevertheless she continued to hope. To hope and to wait; to try and to tiptoe. It hadn’t always been like this, she hadn’t always been trying – but now she was here, here in the land of her mother’s birth, and the girl was tired of the usual. The usual felt out of place here: the usual, with its old controls and solitudes, belonged to another world.
Yes, how tired she was! Her mother was asleep in the room next door, and so the girl pulled tentatively on the fridge door handle, looking over her shoulder as she did so. Its rubber seal squealed as it peeled away, relinquishing its grip on the sides with reluctance. But there was no denying it anymore: it was what she wanted. It was more than what she wanted: it was what she needed. A few mouthfuls of rice. Cold rice; it would do. She would not feel full, feel whole, until she’d had it.
The girl’s hankering for rice was a recent development. In London it had been something to be avoided. Not that avoiding rice had cost her much effort, at least to begin with – for it hadn’t been much there. There’d been no pot of it bubbling dependably away in the kitchen, and there’d been no dependable kitchen either. The kitchens in London had changed daily, and with them so had the adult sitting at his or her table, clutching his or her knife, towering over his electric hob or her gas flame. On Mondays it had been his kitchen, on Tuesdays hers, on Wednesdays his once again. And so on. Ad nauseum, the girl thought now, bitterly, even though apparently the arrangement had been her choice. Who do you want to live with, they’d said, and she’d replied, I want to be fair. For goodness sake, she’d always wanted to be fair: to be fair and to be kind. It had been her undoing. All fairness had ever achieved was the transformation of her young body into a little parcel, a tight bundle shunting itself this way and that like a camel, with two days’ worth of schoolbooks on her back.
During those early years, rice had showed up every now and again. It wasn’t that her mother hadn’t known how to cook rice – of course she had, she was a Malaysian. But in those days her mother was a Malaysian displaced, disinterested, and – she realized in retrospect – depressed. Her mother had been away from her homeland – ‘ expatriated’, we’d more commonly say today, but this term carries a whiff of privilege which was wholly alien to her mother. White people go abroad? Expatriates. Black, brown, yellow? Migrants, refugees, spongers. She’d arrived in the UK in the late seventies, fresh of face and soft of skin, driven by the need to escape. To escape her large and stifling family, the girl supposed; to escape and then to arrive in a land she’d believed would be happier to host the incisive mind and untameable heart for which her own island appeared to have little use. It had been a bid for freedom, and she’d come with her best friend in tow, but without even the whisper of a Plan in her head.
Whether the girl’s mother had found freedom in England or not the girl has never been certain. Eventually she sat her accounting examinations, and though this qualification yielded up employ which permitted her to purchase all the frozen meals her daughter could stomach, the spectre of those initial years of single motherhood, alone in a basement flat without even a rice cooker to her name, never left her.
The lack of rice had scarcely been noticeable to either of them. Rice was not common in London at the time: it was expensive; it was bad. A nondescript starch. There were no ‘types’ of rice other than ‘white’ or ‘brown’. Before her mother’s flash new job, nappies had been the principal drain on her weekly budget, and the mother had fed the girl on carrots, lentils, beans. After the job, which had demanded that the girl’s mother claw her way to the City before dawn and after dusk, there had remained neither the time nor the taste for such crude comestibles. The girl had eaten instead the sorts of meals which come sealed in cellophane.
After a few years of work, the girl’s mother had become tired. The girl’s mother was being stretched. The girl’s mother had decided she wanted the independence of which she was finally able to catch a whiff. There was no whiff of it the flat with her daughter, but there was plenty, the girl supposed, in the champagne-swilling City. And so soon the girl was spending not fifty but seventy, and then eighty, percent of her time with her father.
On the rare days when she’d returned to her mother’s home, the girl would dump her school bag in her bedroom, pull a meal from the freezer, discard the card slip, light the aged oven with a child’s extra-long match, set the egg-shaped timer to its twenty minute, clattering, tick-tocking countdown, and return to her room to await the alarm. Her mother would not be there and her mother would sometimes be there and the girl no longer much cared either way.
Admittedly, rice had sometimes featured in these meals. Yes, admittedly sometimes it’d been there, but it’d come in unrecognizable form: frozen and ensconced in a rigid black plastic oven- and microwave-proof cavity, alongside which a twinned depression held various incarnations of frozen Quorn in frozen sauces: korma, caponata, stroganoff, spinach and cream. The rice itself, having been mauled in opaque factories by anonymous hands, had appeared swollen, translucent, each grain a world unto itself, fully cooked and yet arrested, petrified in proximity but not in collusion with its compatriots beneath the lid.
So the girl’s meals had been a one-person affair. Whether her mother had been there or not, she ate alone, and then moved on to the packet of Go Ahead! garibaldis, which she’d shove down, one after another, knowing they were her mother’s favorite, and that she really should stop.
And then it was not eighty percent but all the percent: her mother was busy, too busy it seemed, and the girl’s life of to-ing and fro-ing was over.
And so began the dark, utterly rice-less days.
When she’d gone to live full-time with him, the girl discovered that her father neither knew how to cook rice, nor much liked it either. He’d pour a random quantity of grains straight from the bag into a large pot, and submerge it beneath water from the kitchen tap. An ocean of water. A flood of it. The rice being done or not was total guesswork. Dip a fork in, swill it around; try a burning mound, which would still be dripping with scalding water. The water would be by then cloudy but still in abundance, and so the rice could only be retrieved by pouring the contents of the pan through a plastic sieve meant for flour. When served, the girl would push it to the side on her plate, eating the veggie burgers and the broccoli and, eventually, only the broccoli. She and her father had sat opposite each other, with the evening news blaring from the eight inch TV on the kitchen counter, eating-not-eating their rice with knives and forks. Hers pushed to the side, his dropped, a grain here, a grain there, from his over-heaped mouthfuls. Her father would not save leftover rice. It all went straight into the bin.
Monday to Friday mornings, the girl would dutifully accept the white-bread, cheddar-and-margarine sandwiches her father had made, and then drop them into the skip outside the school gates. She took to joining her friends in the queue at the chippie for lunch instead, where she’d purchase a cone of greasy square-cut fries, holding it out in front of her like a fashionable accessory. She would douse the fries liberally with clear vinegar. This would seep swiftly through the newspaper, making her fingers smell vaguely sour for the rest of the afternoon. She’d sniff them in class, and think about what she’d eaten.
Time passed. A year. School passed. Five years. The girl was older now, and Who needs fries really, she’d long ago concluded. Who needs anything at all. Remarkable, she’d discovered, how little you can get by on. Least of all, a mother.
It is now fifteen years since her school days, and food is no longer an accessory and her mother is right here. She retrieves the rice pot from the fridge, places it softly on the kitchen counter, takes a spoon, and eats directly from the pot. She sprinkles some white pepper onto a small patch at the side, and then eats that patch, careful not to sully the rest with her adornments. She smoothes over the cavity she’s created with the other grains, trying to make the mottled landscape look natural, untouched.
The girl’s return to rice has, she feels, been nothing less than a resurrection. After her mother finally renounced the land by which her own nation’s history had been made, the land upon whose English language her Malaysian education had been based, the land which seemed to bear the print of her identity and ideology more than even her homeland itself had; after, that is, her mother had completed a three decade foray into Independent Living and had ultimately deemed these decades to have been wanting, her mother had said, Enough, and declared that she was, Going back, you do what you want, how could the girl have done anything but follow? She was not going to make that mistake again. She was not going to let her mother slip through her fingers, like grains of rice through the tines of a fork.
It is the next morning, and the girl is unfolding a stupa of chalky white grains. Each clings to the other, a whole clan-full of them reaching up to their crown: an approving dollop of fiery scarlet sambal seals the deal at the acme of their communality. Here in Malaysia, the girl, who is no longer a girl, finds that she has gone back to eating from cones you see – but these are cones transformed, inverted; these are cones remade as miniature mountains. In contrast to those of her schooldays, which had been more like funnels, and which had seemed spitefully designed in order to channel their contents out the bottom, the waxy banana leaf she unfolds from around the portion of nasi lemak not only contains but embraces its contents, adding fragrance to functionality, becoming one with it, nature’s packaging, like a banana or orange is cosseted in its skin. Not plastic. Not paper. Leaf.
The stupa is from the good aunty: it has been purchased fresh from the market by her mother, who goes at the crack of dawn. The no-longer-girl eats with a spoon. She retrieves it from the translucent green ‘plastic’ (that is, bag: in Malaysia, there is no need to waste energy on superfluous words); positions it in a thumb-and-two-fingered clasp. She knows now to tip the spoonfuls into her mouth, for she has learned the hard way, following an early phase of folding her lips over Chinese-style implements, of the sharp edges which she must keep away from her gums. A few bites, and it is gone. Another? Her mother would never buy just the one.
Can eat three packet no problem one
Eat only one ah what diet issit, how can full mah?
So small ah eat one only how caaan
…not to mention, how delicious.
Return has been a bumpy road. The shock of finding herself amid a riot of aunties and cousins – a throng of people whose names she scarcely knew – had made her pine for her former solitude, which had long been shorthand for her competence, denoting not only independence and self-sufficiency but her very selfhood. She’d been a stereotypical only child – an intensely private creature – and as the crowd had roved around the family table, she’d mourned the old private, ‘peaceful’ meals, during which she could ‘concentrate’ on her single-portion, heavily-packaged, carb-free affairs. Malaysia had seemed so crowded. She’d felt like she was drowning inside a solution, and she’d not wanted to drown, not wanted to dissolve; she’d wanted to keep her edges very clear hard firm thank you very much. When she’d looked at rice in her bowl it had swarmed before her eyes; she’d cried out for something to eat that was just one. One potato say, or one piece of toast in the mornings – two would be okay but the important thing was that it be something she could count, something, you know, that she could get a handle on.
Being in Malaysia had felt hopeless at those points: she’d wanted neither the rice nor the company. She knew she was deemed Difficult: she tried for a while to request the accompanying dishes without the rice, to her aunties’ much verbalised horror; she tried to eat salt fish curry and kangkong belacan and sambal petai, all without a single grain. Sitting around the round table of her mother’s childhood home (There’s no head at a round table, her mother had told her, So much more democratic than your despot West), the rice would be spooned out from a large rice cooker and handed around; it was the only item to which one didn’t help oneself. The rice was the lynchpin of connection. Of community. Of family. Even she’d understood that. Her rejection had been thought rude. It was antisocial. It was impossible. She was impossible. They’d been right.
A few months became a year and a year became two, and for all that time the girl had felt herself lodged inside a strange, foggy interregnum. She’d been vested of the place from which she’d come, but she still didn’t feel remotely certain of the place in which she’d landed. She was uncomfortable. Of that there was no doubt.
White rice, brown rice, red rice, black rice, sticky rice, long rice, short rice; rice steamed, rice boiled, rice fried, rice porridge; rice with lemak, rice with tomato, rice with oil; rice made into noodles, into dumplings, into fermented pancakes; rice dyed blue with pea flowers, rice dyed yellow with turmeric, rice nearly totally green from shredded ulam. Rice banjir, swimming with ten gravies.
In the end it took not one not two not three but four years. Four years and after all that, the girl discovered that her favorite was plain rice. No. Her favorite was economy rice. Not because it was especially economical (as anyone singlet-wearing, Star-reading, kopi-o-drinking uncle will surely be quick to tell you), but because it let the rice shine. Economy rice is not not plain rice but…it is not plain rice. In Malaysia, she found it a marvel. A wonder. Understand: for someone of Asian descent who had spent her miserable post-university lunch breaks staring into chiller cabinets, calamity firing in the decision part of her brain from having been faced with too-much-choice-no-choice-at-all, the array of dishes was a marvel. How could she have denied herself this for so long? It was food, yes, but it was not like the food in England. Gone were the limp cold sandwiches, the bruised bananas, the overpriced juices in plastic bottles; in Malaysia she beheld the Trays. The Trays were either lined up on heated steel display racks or spread across lino-stapled plywood or folding mah-jong tables; either way, the contents were overwhelming. This was what it meant to want. This was desire. This was her appetite stirring. There was the trembling amber tray of herb-flecked otak-otak cut into three inch slices, the dark greens curled in great clumps around julienned strands of carrot and the occasional pink prawn, the pale greens with their angular pearls of garlic. There were the fried fish and herbal eggs the pyramidal sponges of tofu and the rounds of omelette stacked like pizza slices. There were the long beans cut in the diagonal into mouse-sized spears. There was the aubergine, peeled in one long curling strip such that the pieces, now, looked like chilli-hot candy canes. There was the vat of sweet-hot-hot-sweet chai boey off to the side. She could never choose what to have, and so it became a matter of working around the array over the course of a week. Her process was methodical, but it was not controlled. As she stood with her plate of rice, mulling over the dishes, she knew that she was finally giving to herself. That she was receiving.
Of course rice has always provided a convenient cliché for Asia, the woman thinks: for the uniform habits of a faceless, mass, for the writhing Orient which is eternally Other, for a Far East whose peoples are many and whose tastes, supposedly primitive. The woman herself has never been one for being a part of a group – she has in fact spent her life in a posture of active disdain for the ‘unimaginative’ behavior of others, and has rebelled whenever she’s sensed the encroachment of a collective ethos or, worse, of convention – so it was easy, she thinks, to regard her mother’s land with scorn. She used to think: sheep. Asia was so awful that even her own mother had left it! But now that she’s here, she is discovering that the group, after all, is not invasive. The group is not like the group in the West – it does not press endlessly in in in, wanting more more more of you. Here, family, and the simple company of others, does not intrude. Like rice with its numberless constituents, the woman is finding that other people are an essential supporting act. People, rice: perhaps neither were extraneous. They were essential. A bit like mothers, she thinks.
These days, when she receives the hot white mound at the economy rice stall, she notices how the rice does not swagger: it is neither loud nor punchy, it does not ask centre stage. The rice is, in fact, the stage itself. It gives itself up for the other dishes; it is self-effacing, a quiet laborer at the heart of her plate. All it asks of her is that she look, that she see. Its quietness tears at her heart. Rice: the lynchpin of her meal, without which all the jazzier tastes would fall apart. The woman thinks again of her mother. Of her mother, who is listening to an audiobook on YouTube in the next room.
Bean! the woman hears her mother suddenly call, Take so long ah, what you fetch back? She have the nice nice kari one today ah?
Rice cook oredi, her mother adds.
She lifts her head and yells back, Got, wait till you see how big the bag, thinking as she does so: So this is the new usual. The woman’s mother has come home – finally. And so, the woman thinks, has she.
The woman smiles to herself, and starts to decant the curry.
Recipe: No-drain Rice
One cup rice, two cups water – or the equivalent ratio. Add to a pot. Bring to the boil then turn down to simmer gently, until the water is all gone.
(If you possess neither a rice cooker nor a mother on hand to do it for you, you may need to keep an eye on the pot yourself to ensure you do not cook it beyond this point. Do not worry overly if you do. The crust which forms at the bottom can be rather deliciously chewy once you have managed to prise it free; indeed, it is considered by some to be the best bit of all).
Your rice is ready to serve.
Born in London in 1983 to an English father and Chinese-Malaysian mother, Emilia Ong is a writer and ex-teacher with a degree in philosophy, currently living on the edge of everything.