Memories of cooking rice with my mother
Photo: Ann Stratton; food stylist: Susan Sugarman
For her mother, a bowl of fragrant, steaming rice, meticulously prepared every day, was a ritual, a religion, a reminder of where she'd come from, an expression of love for her family. Nora Okja Keller discovers the importance of going with the grain—and the technique of getting it right every time.
When I got married a decade ago, my mother presented me with a rice cooker. Squat and beige, it wasn't the prettiest appliance, but it had a button that kept the cooked rice warm. My mother sighed with satisfaction. “Now your family will always have something ready to eat,” she said.

My mother took her rice seriously. Whether it was short-grain or medium, California or Japanese, mochi or brown, while we were growing up she made sure we had it every day. “If I don't have my bowl of rice,” she said once, “I still feel hungry no matter what else I eat.”

I, on the other hand, was a child who was careless with rice. Blasting the raw grains under the kitchen faucet, then heedlessly dumping the cloudy water, I lost handfuls of our meal down the drain.

“Rinse more carefully!” she would scold when it was my turn to wash rice. “You're wasting too much!”

“Why the fuss?” I grumbled. “It's just rice.” To me rice was cheap and plentiful; for only a few dollars we could buy a bag the size of my little sister.

“You kids don't know how lucky you are, rice every day,” my mother grumbled, ready to launch into one of her wartime-in-Korea stories. “When I was little, many times we went to bed hungry. You can't even imagine what some people would do for a handful of rice.” My mother nudged me aside and grabbed a fistful of wet rice. “Every grain is important,” she said, holding the rice to my face. “Every grain meant that someone could eat and live that day.”

She dipped her hand back into the rice pot and scrubbed at the pellets under the water. Massaging the rice until the water looked like skim milk, she continued: “Take your time. Take care of the rice,” she said, carefully pouring out the cloudy water, her fingers cradling the lip of the pot to hold back any floating grain. “It's like taking care of yourself.”

After washing the rice three times, then rinsing three times, my mother filled the pot for the seventh time—the number of heaven—to boil the rice. She measured the water with her middle finger, the knuckles her ruler, and each time her rice came out perfect: sticky but not mushy, chewy but not crunchy.

Whenever my family visits my mother's home, we are greeted at the doorway by the scent of rice. “Are you hungry?” my mother will ask, bustling to the door. Before she hugs us, before she says how much she has missed her grandchildren, she'll offer food, telling us to sit and eat a bowl of rice.

The last time we had a family get-together at my brother's house, my mother, as usual, made the rice. While she was turning on the water to wash it, my youngest daughter dragged a stool up to the sink.

“I want to help, Halmoni,” she demanded. She climbed onto the seat and kneeled over the basin to plunge her hands into the cold water.

“Like this,” my mother cooed, placing her hand over my daughter's, guiding her fingers as they wiggled into the submerged rice.

My 12-year-old nephew, watching from the dining table, said, “I remember once my mom made the most perfect rice.” His voice was wistful, nostalgic, as if recalling a lost love.

Shooting my sister-in-law a teasing smile, I goaded: “Just once?”

“Yeah,” my nephew said sadly. “Usually we get leftover rice that's kinda yellow and hard.”

My sister-in-law let out a horrified giggle and my mother's lips thinned.

Before my mother could deliver a lecture on how her grandchildren should have fresh-cooked rice daily, I jumped in. “So, ah,” I asked my nephew, “what made the rice so perfect?”

My nephew, dreamy eyed, breathed, “Well, when you lifted the lid on the cooker, the steam escaped in this puff of cloud, and under the steam, the rice was like this. Like a rainbow.” He held his hands in the air, palms down, in the shape of an upturned cup. “And every piece was white and perfect, not goopy or bullety.”

I nodded, caught by his reverential description, knowing just what he was talking about.

“That's right,” my mother said, smiling at him. “Must be you know what is good rice because you're Korean, right?”

Later that night, as the family settled around the table for what would turn out to be a three-hour meal, my mother served that perfect rice. As we talked, trading stories about the past and present, my mother kept jumping up to scoop more rice onto our plates. “Just chokum more,” she urged, ladle loaded and poised above our heads. “Just have a little more to keep me company.”

And so my siblings and I and our spouses and children each held our plates up to receive second and third helpings, feasting on remembrances and rice.


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