Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rice is nice!

On a long haul flight recently from Europe to Asia, I was contemplating my options for meals. Airline food generally sucks, but after weeks of dining out on European cuisine, no matter how delicious, I was dying for something that spoke of home. I was intrigued to find out that rice was on the breakfast menu, in the form of chicken congee. That, to me, spells comfort food. Something to soothe and savor when I'm feeling poorly. But wait a minute. Congee on a western airline, from a western destination, prepared in a western airport kitchen? How authentic could it be?

I could hear some of the passengers (undoubtedly Caucacian) asking the flight attendant what was chicken congee. She was equally nonplussed. "I believe it's made with rice and chicken, with some mushrooms and scallions", she responded valiantly, leaving the passengers still in the dark. When I looked over, and saw that the congee was served in the ubiquitous foil-covered plastic container that all airline meals come in (in cattle class), it certainly didn't raise my hopes. I sighed and opted for the Western breakfast, which I knew would be at least recognizable and reasonably edible.

I love trying new foods, especially in places where I know the produce will be good, like in Spain and Portugal where I recently went. But my palate is unambiguously Asian. Give me a choice between Western and Asian cuisine and I will always choose the latter. And central to any Asian meal, whether Chinese, Malay, Thai or Indian, is rice. Served freshly boiled, pristinely white, in a steaming heap.

Unlike Western meals, where the standard bread roll or potatoes are presented as a side dish, rice is the focal point of an Asian meal. At home, we scoop out rice onto our plates, and then help ourselves to dishes of meat and vegetables. I've heard stories of friends and elders who grew up poor, where there was often no meat, maybe just some vegetables and a sliver of fish or egg. But no matter what, there would always be rice.

How, my Western friends ask, can plain white rice be palatable? The Caucasian husbands of two of my Chinese friends would scratch their heads when they asked their wives what they wanted for dinner and the wives answered, "Rice!"

"What do you mean, rice?", they asked in bewilderment. "We can't just eat rice."

Instinctively I understood what my Chinese friends meant. When we say rice, we simply mean we want something Asian, like stir-fried vegetables or a stewed meat or tofu, even a curry. All we want is rice, whether on a plate or in a bowl, front and center before us, not as a side. Not jambalaya or paella, no matter how delicious they taste, or, God forbid, rice pudding. It's our taste of home, our link with family, our memories of meals in the past.

Now back to the congee. For our first meal on board the flight home, I was offered a choice of the usual steak or stir-fried prawns and vegetables with rice. They had me at rice and I opted for the prawns. It wasn't bad, to be honest. The prawns were very fresh and the rice was nicely prepared. It just tasted vaguely Chinese, with a gooey sauce made with a lot of cornstarch. Despite the rice, the meal was underwhelming. That was why I decided not to have the chicken congee during the second meal service. Surprisingly, when my fellow passenger opened up the dish, it didn't look half bad, and smelt pretty authentic too. I buckled down and attacked my sausages and hash browns, but guess what my first meal was when I got home?

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