Learning how to cook rice was a rite of passage for me.
When I was 10 or 11, my father pulled me into the kitchen to teach me how make my first pot of rice.
My mom did the majority of the cooking in our home and rarely allowed my sister and me to help out in the kitchen. It wasn’t because she didn’t want to teach us how to cook, but she was more concerned about efficiency. Looking back, I realized that cooking was really another chore for my mom. When you’re a working mom with young kids, weeknight dinner is just another item on your to-do list.
While the surrounding details are fuzzy, I still remember that scratched beige saucepan, with two brown and tan stripes wrapped around the upper third of its exterior. For most of my childhood, we cooked our meals’ mainstay in that worn pot. Rice holds such a revered place in Vietnamese culture that we have different words for rice, depending on its state: growing in rice paddies, uncooked, cooked.
At first, it felt odd that my father was in the kitchen. He’d much prefer to tinker in his workshop outside. My father is a quiet man who prefers to observe than participate so I seized this special moment between us.
I reached into the cabinet under our stove and opened the big container halfway filled with fragrant, white grains of jasmine rice. The lidded kitchen sized trash can never fulfilled its original purpose, but held a more important role: protector and keeper of the 25 pound bag of rice I painstakingly poured into it each month.
Sitting inside the bin was a tin can. My mother never used measuring cups or spoons in her cooking. We repurposed cans, lids, and boxes out of necessity, not because we were environmentally friendly. This particular can once held sweetened condensed milk. In the mornings, I’d watch my parents carefully spoon the thick and creamy sweetener into their coffee. The happy Buddha label always makes me think of Vietnamese coffee.
I scooped three cans of rice into the pot and headed to to the sink. Under my father’s watchful gaze, I rinsed out the rice. Not just once, but twice. Then he showed me how to measure out the perfect amount of water. He stuck his finger straight into the pot until his fingertip grazed the leveled grains.
“Make sure the level is up to here,” he pointed with his other hand. I looked at his partially submerged finger and the lines of each joint. I nodded and etched the level into my mind: one-third the way past the first joint of the index finger. We placed the lidded pot on stove and brought it up to a boil. The last step was just as important. After the water boiled off so we could only see bubbles popping through the grains of rice, I turned down the heat and replaced the lid to let the rice steam for fifteen minutes.
Fifteen minutes was just the right amount of time to let the rice steam to a stickiness perfect for eating with chopsticks. It also gave us that slightly charged crunch bottom crust that my mother loved so much–and I fell in love with my teen years. After that, it became my job to make rice for every weeknight dinner.
Now our family uses a fancy Japanese rice cooker that will cook 5 different kinds of rice perfectly, but I’ll never forget how to make a pot of rice on the stove.
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