Before the women’s Bill, before Pakistan’s water war cries against India, before the Oscars lauded a woman was a telling photo of foreign secretary Nirupama Rao (in a beautiful black sari) and her Pakistani counterpart walking on either end of the red carpet. In both countries, diplomats and politicians have long sought to bridge gaps and foster connections. To the pantheon of profound thoughts and diplomatic obfuscations, I add my own: rice. Yes, rice.
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As Ronald Cantrell, former director general of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, once told me: “Rice is the one thing that truly defines Asia. Asia has no common political systems, religions, philosophies or shared social values. However, each and every day most Asians come together to eat rice.”
White gold: Rice isn’t just food, it’s a source of celebration and prosperity.
Whether it is Saudi Arabian kabsa, Iranian pilaf, Pakistani biryani, Indian curd-rice, or Japan’s sticky rice, the varieties in the East are about as many as the types of cheese in France. Unlike the West, the East doesn’t regard rice as an accompaniment veering on a condiment. For Eastern people, rice is more than a dish; more than a grain. It is the source of celebration; symbol of fertility; rite of passage; a healing potion; and the harbinger of prosperity. In Asia, rice is life itself.
Prime Minister Singh pointedly did not enlist Saudi cooperation in solving India’s issues with Pakistan when he visited the country. But an oblique path to Kashmir might have been the rice dish kabsa, touted to be Saudi Arabia’s national dish. In Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, it is called majboos. In Malaysia, nasi lemak or rice cooked with coconut milk and wrapped in pandan (screw pine) leaves with eggs, anchovies, peanuts, cucumbers and sambal paste is served at hawker stalls everywhere. In Singapore, Yangzhou fried rice, also called “golden rice”, is popular among the Chinese. Created in the sixth century for an emperor who visited the Yangzhou province, this colourful rice is one of the few Chinese rice dishes not darkened with soy sauce, according to Andrew Tjioe, owner of the Tung Lok Group of restaurants in Singapore. “In China, rice symbolizes abundance and prosperity so the more rice you have before Chinese New Year, the better off you will be,” says Tjioe, whose restaurants cover the gamut of Chinese cuisines ranging from Canton, Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan and Beijing to Buddhist. They all serve rice.
Rice pervades Japanese culture and language. “Toyo-da”, for instance, means “bountiful rice field”, and “hon-da” means “true rice field”. The Japanese believe that soaking rice releases its life energy. Since seven gods live in each grain, it is disrespectful to waste rice, they say. Japanese children snack on rice balls filled with umeboshi plums, fish or vegetables all day. “Asians don’t feel satisfied until they’ve eaten rice,” says Tetsuya Wakuda, the Japanese-born Australian chef of Tetsuya’s Restaurant, Sydney. “They may be full, but not satisfied.”
More than Buddhism or Islam; republic or democracy; the sari or the kimono, all of which are more different than similar, rice may be the one thing that connects the East. Consider these paradoxes: Islam doesn’t sanction idol worship, yet Java in Indonesia—with the highest Muslim population in the world—worships Dewi Sri, a Hindu rice goddess. Hinduism and Shintoism have little in common. But Shinto priests offer rice to Amaterasu, the sun goddess, every morning and Hindus end their daily puja (prayers) with the same offering. Tibetan Buddhists hate the Han Chinese but both offer rice to sacred ancestors and ghosts during the Festival of the Dead. India and Pakistan disagree on almost everything except rice pilaf recipes.
In India, rice gains mystical even mythological proportions. It is the first food that we eat and often our last. We honour ancestors by offering rice balls speckled with black sesame seeds to crows (who are believed to carry the souls of our ancestors). Rice coated with turmeric is sprinkled on newly-weds as a confetti-like blessing; cooked rice with a dollop of ghee is offered to gods as prasad before a meal. Rice kanji or porridge holds the same comfort-food status in Asia as chicken soup does in America. As Grace Young says in her book, Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, nothing compares to the importance of rice in Asian cultures. “If all else fails, there is hopefully still rice.”
Eastern obsession with rice permeates everything—worries about the monsoon, rituals, recipes and even aesthetics. The idealized Asian landscape is a village sandwiched between mountain and rice field. Hotels in Bali frequently incorporate rice into their interior design, Indians draw kolams (designs) in their courtyard with rice flour, and verdant green rice fields are part of our collective unconscious, looking as Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, says, “like stepping stones to heaven”.
Rice is among the easiest things to cook, and yet, because of the high status it holds in the Eastern food chain, the hardest to perfect. The time-tested recipe is two parts water to one part rice placed in a rice cooker, but this can vary depending on how sticky or pearly you want your rice to be. In ancient China, rice and water were poured into bamboo tubes, sealed with a banana leaf, and cooked over an open fire. Wrapping hot rice in leaves imparts an immensely satisfying—to the Asian palate anyway—fragrance to the rice. Eating hot rice with a dollop of ghee on a banana leaf is my idea of comfort food. In Malaysia and Indonesia, rice is cooked in the ketupat, a woven bag made of palm leaves. Once cooked, the bag is torn open and the rice, sliced and served with satay.
Being from the south, Rao no doubt knows how to make a variety of rice dishes. The next time her Pakistani counterpart comes to Delhi, she can break bread at diplomatic dinners. But she might also consider making the gentleman a nice bisibele bhaath or mutton biryani. It might go a long way towards calming him and his country down with respect to water-sharing and otherwise.
Unlike other south Indians, Shoba Narayan can go for weeks without curd-rice. Write to her at email@example.com