It’s a simple task but one that I feel I’ve never gotten quite right.
The first time Mom graduated me from just cleaning the rice cooker to actually cooking rice meant that I’d grown up a little in her eyes. It was almost a solemn moment when she said she would teach me how to do it – but I saw a little sadness in her eyes, maybe because of the passage of time that eluded her the few years leading up to this point. And a little anxiety, even. But, determination, too, after all, every Korean girl should know how to make rice with one hand tied behind their backs by the the time they’re ten.
The rice cooker was clean, and she pulled out the container. After measuring out the cups of uncooked grains and pouring them into the container, dancing all over like the sound of maracas, she showed me how to rinse it all in the sink until the water would pour clear. The water was cold as she filled it up and massaged the grains in methodical handfuls around the perimeter. Like she was coaxing out softness and flavor.
A ritual. A rite of passage.
She had me massage some of it as well before pouring out the smoky water carefully so no grains would be wasted. I rolled the rice around in my hand like marbles or pebbles, like sand at the beach. I nervously tried pouring out the water, too, but immediately at least half a cup slid towards the drain.
“Ayyyyy!! She scolded before grabbing the container from me. “Slowly,” she chided me in Korean, tipping it towards the sink so that all the water rushed out but the grains magically sunk to the bottom and stayed in the bowl. “Three to five times should be plenty to rinse the rice.”
And then instead of taking a measuring cup to pour water into it to cook, she showed me how to use her hand. The directions maybe say about 1 1/2 cups of water for every 1 cup of uncooked rice, but she put her hand in the water, rest on top of the rice, and filled it up even more until it hit about the middle of the top of her hand. She put the container back in the cooker and pushed start, and about 20 minutes later with the steam pouring out from the top it was done. Perfect. Soft and sticky.
I realize now how essential the basics are for anything – a good sandwich is only as good as its bread, good pasta is only as good as its noodles, good Korean food is only as good as its rice. This moment turned out to be less about pleasing Mom, and more about perspective. And practice. Cooking rice may seem like such an insignificant thing, but it’s the beginning of everything else. And one that I’m still learning to master on my own.