Some nights waves of nostalgia hit me. I’ve been thinking about food and the meaning of food quite a bit lately, and it reminded me of an old blog post I wrote, 4 years ago…
March 15, 2012
Scooping out the rice from the rice cooker, the fresh jasmine aroma overwhelmed me with memories of my family…
~ ~ ~
“What did you eat today, koun (daughter)?” Mak asked over the phone.
Living on campus during college, I didn’t have the freedom to cook. “Umm.. pasta,” I answered.
“Pasta?!?! But that’s not rice. You’re going to go hungry, you need rice,” Mak advised.
“Mak- pasta is okay too…it’s still a carbohydrate, it gives you energy the same way.”
She probably didn’t know what a carbohydrate was…Who are you to act like you’re smarter than your mother?!
Instead, she replied, “It’s not the same.”
~ ~ ~
At the dinner table, about 10 years ago, we all sat wide eyed, staring at my sister’s rice bowl.
“Why aren’t you eating anything with it?!” Mak looked bewildered and a bit insulted. Steaming hot entrees sat in the center of the table, all to accompany the rice. Mak and Ba always cooked fresh meals, every night.
“I am. I put salt on it.” My little sister leaned over her bowl, and shoved a spoonful of salt-sprinkled-rice into her mouth.
Our eyes followed.
She swallowed, then frowned. “It doesn’t taste that good.” She released her spoon from her hand and set it in the bowl. “I’ve been reading this book about a Khmer girl living in the labor camps during the Khmer Rouge. She said something like eating salt on top of rice… tastes like heaven. Is this what heaven is supposed to taste like?!”
As Mak and Ba listened, their demeanor changed. The gates guarding their dark memories of genocide had slowly lifted. Temporarily.
“Koun (daughter)… it tastes like heaven.. if you have nothing else to eat. Like Mak… Mak had nothing to eat. I wasn’t even lucky enough to get rice. I was only given water with a few grains of rice in it.”
“Oh,” her eyes lowered. So this is why Mak and Ba never take food for granted. Learning about our parent’s starvation, we lost our appetites.
“Nyam bay, koun (eat rice, daughters),” they encouraged, heaping meat and vegetables into our bowls.
~ ~ ~
“We don’t say I love you,
we say, are you hungry…?”
-“Cold” by Magnetic North & Taiyo Na
This song resonates deep within me. I have never heard my parents say, I love you.
As I whiffed the sweet scent of rice this evening, I was reminded that though I may never hear such words of affection, but the people whom I love- I know how they like their rice.
When Mak cooks rice, it’s always the perfect consistency: never too wet, nor too dry. Mak always prefers freshly cooked rice. Warm, from the rice cooker.
Ba always taught me to stir the rice in the pot after its been cooked, so the grains don’t stick to the bottom. Ba will eat Bai Kok (“frozen rice” in Khmer, aka leftover rice) so we never waste food. Hot or cold, he never complains.
My sister and sister-in-law like rice, but prefer noodles if they have the option.
Mom (my mother-in-law) likes her rice steamed with dried shrimp on top.
Dad (my father-in-law) likes rice, but especially likes Shanghainese rice cakes.
When they weren’t working, my parents spent all their time in the kitchen, cooking for us. My parents-in-law too..they cooked, even if they didn’t like cooking, and even if it hurt to stand too long in the kitchen.
These feelings, they linger.
I wish to break free, be more bold. Be bold enough to shout aloud, “Mak, Ba, I miss you! I love you!! Mom, Dad, I miss you!! I love you!!” Yet it doesn’t come out. The words are frozen inside… solid.
Until I become less of a coward, to speak how I really feel…
I resolve to learn to cook better,
and, perhaps, more often.