Meditations on Rice From a `Potato Girl'

WHEN I was a child, my mother used to call me "the potato girl." I've always loved potatoes prepared any way: baked, boiled, mashed, au gratin, French fried, in salad. To my mind, my mother didn't cook potatoes often enough. Most meals were accompanied by rice, which I found bland and boring. Not liking rice was a problem in our house. My family is Korean, and rice was a large part of our diet.

I wouldn't have minded if we could have eaten other kinds of rice occasionally. I like brown rice, wild rice, basmati rice - anything with texture and flavor. But Koreans will eat only the white, short-grain variety that sticks to everything. Admittedly, white rice is perfect for making kimpap - seaweed rolls - and it's a good accompaniment to soup. For soothing the tongue after the assault of kimchi - a fermented pickle made from Chinese cabbage, garlic, and red pepper - it's rice, not water, that will effectively ease that searing sensation. But there isn't much flavor to it, and the stickiness has always put me off, especially after I saw a post-office clerk in Seoul glue a stamp to my letter using bits of rice from his lunch.

Most Koreans find it inconceivable that anyone of Korean descent could possibly live without Korean-style rice. When I moved out of my parents' home, my mother gave me an automatic rice cooker. I think she considered it to be her maternal duty, even though she knew my preference for potatoes.

"Well, you never know when you'll have to entertain people," she said. "And you're not that good at cooking rice on the stove."

That was true, although my mother had high and somewhat mysterious standards for cooking rice. She never measured how much rice or water she put into the pot. So when my eighth-grade science teacher asked me how I made rice, I failed to give her a satisfying answer.

"I put some rice in a pot," I said. "Then I add water until it's about an inch over the rice."

My science teacher had been hoping I'd give her a ratio: two cups of water to one cup of rice. I couldn't help her, since Koreans didn't use measuring cups. But I was also an American, and I secretly wished that my mother had a formula for measuring the rice and water.

My problem was that I hadn't mastered the Korean method of cooking rice. Sometimes I used too much water, resulting in soft, mushy rice. But usually, I didn't put enough water in the pot, and was forced to add more while the rice simmered to avoid scorching it. My mother regarded the addition of water during cooking as the mark of an amateur. And somehow, she always knew when I had added water, even if I had done so surreptitiously.

"Not enough flavor," she would say. "Haven't you figured out how much water to start with?"

I couldn't taste the difference. To my palate, the rice never had flavor, and it always formed clumps, whether water was added during the cooking or not.

Although my mother had become an American chauvinist by then ("Canadian baseball teams shouldn't be allowed to play in the World Series - only Americans should play"), I think she was still enough of a traditional Korean woman to feel that my inability to cook rice reflected badly on her. The automatic rice cooker was the perfect solution, since any fool could plug it in, measure the rice and the water, and push the button.

I'm not sure whom my mother thought I'd be cooking for. Most of my friends were Americans, and although I occasionally cooked Korean food for them, they weren't any more discriminating about Korean-style rice than I was. On the rare occasions that I had Korean dinner guests, I cooked Western food because I was better at it. I suspect she felt that as long as there was the smallest possibility I could meet a Korean man, I should be prepared for matrimony.

I believe that my taste in rice - or lack of it - practically eliminated my chances of staying in a relationship with a Korean-born man for more than three or four meals.

The only blind date I ever endured was with a Korean-born doctor, who took me to an expensive Indian restaurant. The food was delicious, and I especially liked the rice, which was flavored with spices and vegetables. I ate more than usual that evening, partly to savor the meal, and partly to keep from making rude comments to my date as he criticized, among other failings, my inability to speak Korean and my lack of desire to live in Seoul.

"Look at the time," I said during dessert. "I don't think I'll be able to go to that movie after all." My date seemed puzzled.

"I'm sorry about dinner," he finally said. "The rice was terrible."

True Koreans are purists when it comes to rice. White rice is considered polished and elegant. Flavor enhancement is unnecessary; other kinds of rice are crude. Recently, my sister Esther tried to persuade our mother to eat brown rice.

"It's healthier for you than white rice," said Esther.

"Who cares?" said my mother. "I hate brown rice. I want to enjoy my life."

She had eaten plenty of brown rice during the hard days of World War II, when Korea was still ruled by Japan. She is very happy with her white rice, thank you.

Although my mother hasn't passed on her love of white rice to me, I now appreciate something she did give me.

About once a week, I cook beef and broccoli, my family's favorite meal. And the perfect accompaniment is sticky white rice, which I make in my foolproof, 15-year-old, automatic rice cooker.

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