Six weeks after I came to America, I began to hanker for plain white rice, cooked the way my mother used to back in Bangladesh. I was tired of fried rice, of Mexican beans and rice, of the sticky Japanese stuff, of wild rice from Louisiana, even the rice in Indian restaurants--tired of what the whole, noisy medley of "ethnic" cooking had done to an elegant food staple.
To the Bengali bourgeoisie, the class in which I had been reared, rice was the essence of a good meal and was no simple affair. First, one always ate white rice (Atap), none of that coarse brown nonsense, which one could never tell if it was properly husked or not, and when cooked, always seemed to retain a faint gamy undertone. Before cooking, the rice had to be picked and washed free of all grit, the dust of Bangladesh. Second, one always ate it hot, freshly cooked, ladled out steaming from a bowl in the center of the table, never as a leftover. Third, the color wasn't a bright, hard-edged white but had a softer, matte finish. Fourth, plain meant plain, white rice cooked without peas, carrots, or vegetables of any kind. No oil, butter or margarine, thank you very much.
The right rice cooked properly, as my mother would say wrinkling her nose, never "smelled." It would have a clean, faintly starchy aroma. And cooked rice should never, ever be mushy, which could ruin a meal, if not possibly the day. In the perfect dish, each grain would lie as a separate, opaque entity in a delicate latticework, yet pliant. When squeezed between thumb and forefinger, it dissolved into a white skidmark of carbohydrate.
Though rice is cooked plain, no Bengali ever eats it plain; it has to be accompanied by either lentils, curried fish or vegetables. Or as a dessert delicacy, with mushed bananas and yogurt. Even the poorest, even the beggars, would scrounge up some salt and hot peppers, mixing it into the rice with their fingers before squatting to eat.
As a boy, I would accompany my father when he would go to the bazaar to buy the week's, or month's, supply of rice. On weekends especially, men and women jostled each other on its crowded paths, trailing children and servants in their wake. All the rice merchants would be in one section of the market, fat men fanning themselves in the heat with hand-held pakhas, keeping a hawk eye on their tiny empires of bulging rice sacks arranged in neat rows. There was rice of every variety. My father would stop in front of these open sacks of rice, scoop up a handful and look at the grains, assess color and shape, hold it close to his nose for the bouquet, then pour it back in a slow shower. After going through a few of these shops, he would ask the price -- rice was a no-haggle item yet he would always ask --and then in the din of the chaalmondi, skinny helpers would weigh out the amount on large wooden scales and cheerfully lug it to the car. Or the rickshaw.
In America, of course, there was no bazaar to go to, and no way was I going into a supermarket to buy my rice. The Uncle Ben's was laughable, the other stuff too enriched and it seemed to me that the rice was less important than the packaging. So I hit one of those Indian immigrants' shops that dot Washington D.C.'s suburbs. I had never been to one before: Hmmm, not quite the haats back in the Old Country, but still, it had that familiar slapdash air about it. Spices, loose tea leaves and mango chutneys lined the rickety, narrow shelves. Bankers boxes of squash, spinach and cauliflower were stacked on the floor with ginger, garlic and Coke in the refrigerated section. Dum maro dum mit jai gum issued faintly out of two tinny speakers. The man at the counter looked like one of my uncles in Bangladesh, only far more forlorn.
I headed for the 10-kilo bags piled on the floor. No good old Atap here, only Basmati, which was a little fancier than what I wanted but it would do. Nicely. The gunnysack bags were sewn shut, which meant that I could not see or feel or smell the rice. So I did the next best thing: I studied the labels. Basmati from Pakistan came in bags with roses and scales stamped on them. Bags from India tended towards elephants and the Taj Mahal (one from Dehra Dun had a princess with a beatific look). Instinctively, I hefted several bags in trying to decide, chose one from Pakistan and carried it to the counter, suddenly reminded of sun-blackened coolies unloading sacks of rice at railway stations, backs bowed by the weight. For a split second, I was a chasha in a gray-green rice paddy, barefoot in the water-logged clay, bending to plant tiny rice shoots by hand. Bolo soobho shaamm...
One day, much later, coming out of a store in Virginia with a bag in hand, I noticed a car pulling up, an Indian dad and his two children inside. Dad got out, but the children slid down in the back seat, trying to be invisible. Dad was probably an immigrant with a hankering for plain white rice, while his children, born here into an uncertain brownness, hated to go inside a funny-smelling place that literally screamed outsider. Messy, I thought, this business of being squeezed in the middle.
I called my mother -- my Betty Crocker -- in Bangladesh to get it right. She started to laugh, "You? Cook?" Afterwards, I followed her instructions to a T.
First, I washed the rice, letting the water run from the tap into the bowl, scrubbing the grains. Thoroughly. It removed all traces of any smell. Rice exported to America was exceptionally clean, the usual grit picked out by nimble fingers elsewhere.
"Remember," my mother had said, "if you want pulao, soak it for an hour."
"Nah," I had replied, "no pulao."
After draining the water, I transferred the wet grains to the cooking pot. According to my mother, this was the tricky part, how much water to put in. Too much and the rice would get unspeakably mushy while too little would mean brittle shards of chalk.
"After you put the rice in the pot," she had said, "the water level should be three fingers above the rice."
Okay, I thought as I added the water and put the pot on the stove. Brought it to a boil, then cut the heat back by a quarter, and watched the rice. About eight minutes later, I took a spoon and lifted a few grains out from the middle. I blew on the rice to cool it, took a single grain and squeezed it between thumb and forefinger. Ah, almost there. I gave it a couple of minutes more, lifted the pot off the stove and dumped the whole thing into a colander, then set the colander on top of the pot.
"Never cover steaming rice," my mother had said, "sure way to turn it soft."
And so right there in the kitchen of my basement apartment in Washington, D.C., I made my perfect pot of rice, with nothing else to eat it with, no lentils, no fried eggplant, no curried fish with tomatoes, but who cared? I was home!