Lima Al-Azzeh

Death or Rice

In Cultural Anomalies on July 19, 2011 at 9:30 am

Death or Rice? - photo by Kamath_In, Flickr

My own private shame is that I, as a woman, as an Arab, do not know how to boil rice. It’s a skill practically embedded in the genetic code of every Middle Eastern female in existence, except for me. Sometimes I think about the fact that if someone were to spontaneously confront me with the choice: “Death or Rice,” I think I would seriously consider the death option. Just because it seems a little more straightforward.

In some Arab circles, my inability to master the perfect pot of rice may render me fundamentally “unmarryable”. It’s the elephant in the room whenever the group discussion turns towards cooking and/or the mystery of my being single (which it inevitably almost always does). I can hear the women at my mother’s afternoon teas and their comments now: “That poor girl, if only she had learned to at least make a half decent rice, she wouldn’t be alone eating only side dishes and half meals right now”. This is our version of the infamous “Spinster with a zillion cats” fable.

Never failing me, my generous mother has never stopped trying to teach me the intricacies of rice boiling. We had our first lesson when I was 14, then again when I moved out at 19, then again when I moved to Toronto (to really, really live on my own this time) at 22.

Each time, she would patiently explain how to soak the rice in warm water and then drain it (do this a few times) to get rid of the excess starch, then how boil it in water, remaining ever conscious of the fine balance between the amount of grain proportionate to the amount of water in the pot. For whatever reason, somehow it never worked out for me. Instead of a sumptuous pot of fluffy, soft white rice I either wound up with a mushy disaster or a pot of vastly undercooked inedible grains. Every time I tried, it was rice apocalypse. My mom still can’t quite explain the phenomenon.

In a couple of weeks, I’ve made a date with my mom to try and learn this essential skill yet again. The motives behind why she’s agreed to undergo this futile endeavour confound me. I suppose her relentlessness is a testament to her maternal skills, or perhaps it has something to do with her own fears of what people will think of an Arab woman who’s managed to raise a daughter with absolutely zero rice-boiling capabilities.

I’m not certain how my next attempt will fare, and admittedly the thought of facing my shame for the umpteenth time in my life is enough to make me want to back out of the lesson altogether (maybe we can just order in some damn rice). And yet, this means too much to me and my for my fate as an Arab woman.

On the bright side, I figure that if all else fails, that is, if the rice should never boil,  I think I’ll make a slightly less dramatic choice than opting for death, I’ll simply meet destiny half way and buy a rice maker.

  1. You make me laugh. It’s easy, I promise. Bring one cup rice in two cups gently salted water to a boil in a pot with a heavy bottom, turn knob to low (2 on my stove), cover, and let cook 20 minutes. Fluff with a fork, butter if desired, and done. Works every time! Though I have to say, being unmarryable is not necessarily a bad thing … when you have another person around, you have this irritating obligation to share meals rather than eat the whole delicious thing yourself alone in your underwear while marathoning Arrested Development for the fourth time.

  2. Oh Em, I make you laugh? Well, consider the favour returned 🙂 I’ll try your theory, but if I should be left with a tragic massacre of the rice kind, I’ll have to send you an SOS. Maybe there’s a future career in here for you? “The Rice Doctor”? So many cultures (and women’s ability to marry) hinge on rice. You could be a saviour of epic culinary proportion. Think about it and get back to me. I’m designing a logo as we speak…

  3. Do as they do in China- an electric rice cooker! Works beautifully every time, and I speak as another woman who can’t cook a proper pot of stove-rice either (though I can cook many other things quite well, thank you– just not rice)

    • At the risk of sounding completely ignorant, I feel better knowing electric rice cookers are widely used in a culture that has sustained on rice for a long time. I can chalk it up to a “technical upgrade for efficiency” as opposed to a “cultural and gender deficiency”. Also, I have full faith you can cook a more than adequate meal! Teach me, oh wise one!

  4. Rice cookers work because the heat is strictly controlled and the done-time is based not on the clock but on weight (i.e. water evaporation and absorption). This means it can tell how long, say, bulgur or brown rice or basmati rice need to be cooked and they power-off automatically when they sense they’re done. I’ve never had a bad batch of rice cooker rice. No Chinese household is without one. They know what they’re talking about!

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