by Alpheus Llantero, FINDink Contributor
At seven my mom decided that it’d be best for me to learn Tagalog, maybe foreshadowing our return to the Philippines. The numbers, the colors, the greetings, the basics — and then the important stuff — the call to the dinner table. Sometimes learning about words are straightforward: fruit is prutas, mango is manga. Then there’s the meats, not so straightforward: beef is baka, pork is baboy, chicken is manok, fish is isda.
Let’s not go through the entirety of the Filipino-English dictionary. I picked up on these words fairly easily, except for kanin, rice, and kain, eat. Standing at the dinner table I’d call the rest of the family, “kanin na”, let’s rice.
My elders would poke fun of this particular confusion, but “let’s rice” instead of “let’s eat”, ricing over eating, would not be too far from the truth. My mom would scold me for eating pizza for lunch, or spaghetti, lang. I’d laugh with my dad about how at parties my mom would grab pasta, bread, and rice, before he’d scold me for not eating the bits of rice left on my plate. He’d remind me of all the starving kids in the world, or in the Philippines for that matter, and that in Japan they invented sushi so that not one grain would be wasted.
It wasn’t until I moved to New Jersey that I realized how intertwined rice had been in my life.
I’d bake cassava cake, the magnum opus of my childhood in all its creaminess. Every year that I’d go back to Zambales, my dad’s home province, I’d bask at the market’s variety of suman, espasol, and biko. During times of contemplation and fasting, those treats would be tempting us on the table during Holy Week. My uncle’s sacrifice for lent? Give up rice.
Every time we’d pass by Marikina, we could not miss out on the puto(understood as a profanity everywhere else) and kutsinta lined up by color at pop-up stores. They were treats to bring home, “we have puto!” we’d scream as we burst through the door, giving generously to every single member of the household.
Every Christmas after church bibinka and puto bumbong would be waiting for us; it simply was not Christmas without those vendors. For my family, it was a tradition that we’d cook arroz caldo every New Year’s Eve. Even as my grandparents grew weak, and as houses changed, and as presidents changed and fireworks were banned, we’d still sit by the table and eat arroz caldo.
Whenever I got sick, my mom would frantically run around the house and lay all the medicines she could think of for a cold in front of me. “Take these”, she’d tell me “I’ll make you lugaw”, as if this was the magic formula to health. When I was better, I’d willingly eat a less plain goto, beef tripe, a hard boiled egg, and calamansi.
Deserts like ginataang mais were cooked up on a bi-monthly basis. It was hard to get sick of the sweetness, though. It was rare, however, that I’d find champorado — maybe it was just me, that or I always assumed that it was a rich people dish.
There was nothing like the pure, unadulterated, rice. What do McDonald’s and the ballrooms have in common? Rice. Nowhere else in the world would you find a McDonald’s that has chicken on rice. But the real classic feel-good go-to for me was Mang Inasal, known for its unli-rice, that’s right, unlimited rice. I think my record was six cups. I was hungry that day.
Right before I was sent off to college, I spent a month back in my hometown, Hilo, Hawai’i. I would learn that this was my last chance to experience the joys of rice. Tinola on rice, pinakbet on rice, sinigang on rice. What’s interesting about Hawai’i is it’s the only non-white state. The annexation of the Kingdom of Hawai’i was followed by American recruitment of farmers from the Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines.
My uncle tells me that Hawai’i works as a multicultural state because of pork. I think it’s rice. Native Hawaiian cuisine, poi, haupia, kalua pork, and lau lau are all united by rice. Poké becomes a bowl when placed atop rice. Spam musubi is spam sandwiched with rice. And the Filipino favorite? Adobo over rice.
At Rutgers, I figured I needed to start the assimilation process. Exiting the train station, our first meal was a meat lovers pizza. At the orientation, I had hot dogs, sloppy joes, and cheeseburgers. And then at the convocation, subs. I figured I was doing a great job learning how to be a mainland American until I was told that I have an “exotic” accent. I didn’t realize how far I was from home until I found myself asking to replace toast with rice at a diner.
My friends tell me, “you’re in America, stop looking for rice”. But for Thanksgiving weekend, a friend brings me to her home. With her family, we say a prayer and what we’re grateful for and I don’t say it but I’m grateful for rice. As tita ends her speech, she proclaims “kain na”.
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