The Right Rice by John Lee-min

Mixed Love: The Right Rice

Can love survive when a couple disagrees on the most quintessential of foods?

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Words by Irene Jiang

Mixed Love: A JoySauce column about interracial/intercultural relationships within the Asian diaspora experience, and how these unique love stories make our lives fuller, funnier, and more interesting.

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One of the first things many immigrant kids learn, sometimes even before their mother tongue, is the right kind of rice. 

The right rice is the only acceptable rice, the rice that anchors you to home amid turbulent seas of Lunchables, cafeteria pizza, and dining hall meatloaf. My Chinese grandma, a Beijinger, taught me that the right rice is short-grain, white, and always sticks together just enough to be gently hoisted to the lips by a pair of chopsticks. The right rice soaks up the fatty juices of hong shao rou (red roasted pork), provides a cushion for garlicky soft cubes of mapo tofu, and becomes the next morning's breakfast porridge when doused with water and boiled again. Grandma taught me that food is the heart of any home, so long as the rice is right. 

The right rice is the only acceptable rice, the rice that anchors you to home amid turbulent seas of Lunchables, cafeteria pizza, and dining hall meatloaf.

Of course I ended up falling in love with a vegetarian who shies away from meat and its juices, who prefers hard tofu to soft, who crinkles his nose at any rice shorter and stickier than the long, dry Basmati grains indispensable to the South Indian cooking he has eaten since he was a child. 

We were introduced by mutual friends, who both heaped praise on his character, intellect, and good looks. But one thing these friends, who are both vegetarian, failed to consider is his plant-based diet—something I’d always considered a deal-breaker in a romantic partner. 

Like many families shaped by food scarcity, mine regarded meat as a precious thing. My mother grew up scavenging for grasshoppers during a famine, while my father, who hails from the herding culture of Inner Mongolia, subsisted on lamb and potatoes for most of his youth. I never thought I’d choose to be with someone who doesn’t share my family’s inbuilt gratitude for the gustatory and nutritional value of meat. 

Yet I became enamored with this smart, handsome vegetarian of Brahmin descent, and for him, eating meat is an affront to his ancestors and his herbivore’s digestive system. While he and his family don’t identify as Brahmin and eschew the concept of castes, they maintain the religious values and vegetarian eating habits passed down through previous generations. 

There was nothing to do but accept my fate. We would never eat hot pot together or make my mom’s dumplings on Chinese New Year. If we ever visited Inner Mongolia together, I could never share my beloved lamb shao mai with him. I could learn to stomach this with time, albeit with great difficulty. Little did I know, meat wouldn’t be the only source of mealtime consternation.

Because our relationship began mostly online, our different eating habits weren’t much of an issue at first. He lived in Seattle and I lived in New York, so most of our dates were online and most of our meals were alone. The issue of our mismatched food preferences only arose during our in-person visits, but we were always so happy to see each other that we didn’t care much what we ate. When he visited me, I cooked the only two vegetarian dishes in my repertoire: Chinese egg and tomato and Moroccan beid wa matisha, which is also egg and tomato.

When the pandemic hit the US in March 2020, I flew to him expecting to stay no longer than a week or two. But we ended up sharing his one-bedroom apartment for three months during the worst of lockdown. During that time there was no escaping the chasm between our comfort foods, something we’d tried our best to ignore up until that point. 

His favorite comfort food is Basmati rice with yogurt, and I’m lactose intolerant. But even without yogurt, basmati rice is too scattered to soak up meaty stews, too hard to eat with soft tofu, too stingy with its starch to be boiled into breakfast porridge. Fresh basmati slips through chopsticks. Thinner sauces run right between its stiff grains and pool at the edge of the plate. And twice-boiled basmati refuses to thicken, instead forming a quicksand of soggy, stubborn grains. 

At the beginning of my stay at his apartment, I was aghast to find his pantry contained only a small box of long-grain rice, Ziploc bags full of dry spices, and a teeny-tiny bottle of low-sodium soy sauce. He often cooked stir-fried frozen vegetables with hard tofu seasoned with a teaspoon of turmeric, which I privately regarded as blasphemous on multiple fronts. And when I made egg and tomato, eating it with long-grain rice only made me miss my short-grain rice more. Eating the wrong rice every day made his apartment feel just a little less like home.

Eating the wrong rice every day made his apartment feel just a little less like home.

One day, he promised he’d make the rajma-dal recipe that had won his mom a chili cooking contest in high school. It was easy enough to throw together—tomato chunks, kidney beans, lentils, and a symphony of spices and aromatics in the Instant Pot. But we had just run out of rice, and I saw my opportunity to finally enlighten him. I bought Nishiki short-grain rice to replenish his rice stocks, eager to blow his mind with what was undeniably the one rice to rule them all. 

But when he saw the bag, his face fell.

“What is this? This is wrong,” he said as if I'd just screwed up a basic math equation.

“What are you talking about?” I said. “This is the best rice you’ll ever taste.”

But when we brought the rajma-dal and the rice together, my precious Nishiki didn’t perform as well as I’d assumed it would. The short grains huddled together in heavy clumps that summarily rejected the dense, saucy stew. The mush of the beans clashed against the mush of the rice. Each mouthful was a soggy reminder of what could have been had we only used basmati.

For a few weeks, I stubbornly persisted, and we ate the short-grain rice with every meal. Though my boyfriend admitted that short-grain rice was necessary for my egg and tomato dish, he patiently waited for me to realize that the short grain, though a stalwart companion to the meat juices that give my favorite Chinese dishes their flavor, is a cumbersome companion to his favorite South Indian foods. Thick curries and spicy, pan-fried okra need space to spread out and chill between grains of rice. Forget about putting short-grain with yogurt and mango pickle. The yogurt simply escapes. 

Eventually, I reluctantly came around to the fact that my pigheaded devotion to short-grain rice was the root of our culinary woes. This was a difficult and humbling realization. Throughout my life, I’d always kept a twenty-pound bag of Botan or Nishiki rice in my pantry. Even when I lived in Morocco, I made regular pilgrimages to the one Chinese grocery store in Casablanca to obtain the right rice. But only a fool would cling to the idea that there’s such a thing as the “one true rice.” When he made his mom’s fried potatoes with nutty toasted mustard seeds, it was clear that the firm bite of basmati would have outclassed the softer texture of my beloved Nishiki.

But only a fool would cling to the idea that there’s such a thing as the “one true rice.”

After weeks of eating Nishiki rice with Indian food, I finally relented and we bought a bag of basmati. The obvious solution, which had somehow eluded our combined creative problem-solving skills for too long, was to simply keep a bag of each kind of rice in the pantry. Perhaps each would receive less shelf space than they would have been entitled to in our individual kitchens, but there they sat together, occupying just enough space in the pantry to recall each of the two homes that this compromise melded into one. Now we could comfortably accommodate either egg and tomato or rajma-dal any day.

A year after our domestic experiment ended with the lift of the lockdown, we’re still discovering new differences in our basic habits and preferences. The things that meant home to us when we were children will never be perfectly recreated in our relationship. By choosing to be with each other instead of people from our own backgrounds, we both sacrifice a degree of familiarity and comfort. But the twin of this unfamiliarity is personal growth, and by choosing to be together, we choose to grow together. 

If someday we live together again, the process of creating our shared home will be challenging, but also dynamic, original, and full of surprises. One thing is certain, though: in the pantry, side by side, there will be two kinds of rice.

Published on April 1, 2022

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Words by Irene Jiang

Irene Jiang is a writer, filmmaker, and collector of odd jobs, including circus popcorn girl, bourbon steward, and fake hotel manager. You can find her outdoors snooping around for morels or at www.irenejiang.com

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Art by John Lee

John Lee is an artist, illustrator, educator, and displaced southerner in New York City. He puts Tennessee Pride sausage in his mapo tofu and watermelon in his sinigang. Find more of his work at johnleedraws.com.