Comfort in a 50-Pound Bag

“What is that?” my grade school friends would ask me, gesturing to the white metal box sitting in the corner of my family’s kitchen that almost reached my hip.

“Oh, that? That’s our rice dispenser,” I would reply, as if every American family had a mini grain silo in its kitchen.

Slowly, they would examine the big push buttons for one, two, or three servings; the plastic drawer to catch the grain below, like a trough. “Jesus. How much rice does your family eat?”

You don’t want to know.

In southeast Texas, the only people I knew who owned rice dispensers were other Filipino families like ours, families who carted the 50-pound sacks of rice home from the Vietnamese grocery so they wouldn’t have to clean out the Safeway of its pathetic supply of one-pounders.

As a kid, I used to think our rice dispenser was a little unnecessary; it never seemed to keep out the bugs for very long, and it was never clear if it was supposed to measure out cups or serving sizes — it dispensed a bizarro, arbitrary amount regardless of which button you pushed. Couldn’t we have put an extra dining chair in that space, maybe a mini freezer stocked with Fudgesicles? Only as an adult have I come to realize that owning a rice dispenser was a membership badge, another part of the Fil-Am experience. We are the Ungodly-Amount-of-Rice Eaters.

In Filipino-American homes across the country, the Asian super-carb can show up at breakfast, lunch, and dinner — in the morning, fried up with salty Spam or a sweet longanisa sausage sprinkled with a lightly sour suka (palm vinegar); cuddled up next to some crispy, hot lumpia midday; absorbing the meaty sauce of a pork adobo, the juice from a few bagoong-soaked tomatoes, or a sour sinigang broth at dinner. These intense combinations of flavors call out for a mellower, noncompetitive accompaniment: a long-grain, well-milled white rice that cooks up soft and fluffy. Even between meals, Filipinos eat rice. From a single bag of glutinous rice or rice flour, how a hundred rice cakes may bloom: puto, bibingka, biko, suman, kutsinta.

“Rice is the core of Filipino meals,” the great Filipino food historian Doreen Fernandez wrote, “the steady, supportive background to all food. All other dishes are meant to be eaten with it, its mildness shaping the food, and allowing the Filipino to eat salty, sour, sweet, and even bitter food, because all are eased by the benevolence of rice.… If we did not have rice, our deepest comfort food, we would probably feel less Filipino.”

My family was actually only half-Filipino, but we still consumed enough rice to warrant the Not-Fucking-Around Dispenser. Most families who owned the Not-Fucking-Around Dispenser were also in possession of the Not-Fucking-Around Rice Cooker. We’re not talking the Zojirushi NP-HCC10XH Induction Heating System with the LCD control panel; the simpler Panasonic models were just fine, provided they turned out 10+ cups at a time, making them worthy of hauling to a Filipino potluck to feed the fluctuating crowds of friends, brothers, sisters, titas and titos, lolos and lolas, that second cousin whose name you kept forgetting.

It was a great point of pride with my mother that she prepared rice on the stove, as if cookers were superfluous modern appliances that removed us from the ancient whispering souls of our homeland. She liked to drive this point home by insisting that we measure out rice using the popular finger method — enough rice in the pot to reach just past the first joint, enough water to reach up past the second. After the rice began to boil, my mother would turn down the heat and walk away to let it simmer peacefully for another 20 minutes. Perfect fluffy rice every time, the kind the rest of us fools can achieve only with a rice cooker.

Never able to master her method, after boiling over the water and burning more than a few pots, I gave in and bought a mini rice cooker, sized for my single-person needs. It makes horrible rice. Lord only knows what my mini rice destroyer is doing for so long, bubbling and spitting water like a pissed-off teapot, the jarring click-off of the button announcing not a fresh pot of soft and airy rice but long-suffering grains that gave up a long time ago and emerge overcooked, hard, and fused to the bottom of a supposedly nonstick bowl. With the $19.99 Oster 3-cup, you get what you pay for.

One should not get so excited about plain white rice, but there was something soothing about scooping the freshly cooked grains out of a steaming cooker or my mother’s pot—rice that was never watery or mushy, grains that could individually hold up on their own but stayed together just enough to absorb whatever pork braise or broth was soon to be ladled over, whatever fried fish or vinegar would be mixed in. Rice is half of every Filipino dish; treat it as ancillary and you may as well not bother with the meal at all. In succumbing to low-carb diets, I have tried to eat less rice with my adobo, but, with nothing to cling to, the vinegary sauce runs across my plate, in search of the last few grains. It misses its friends.

I have seen vegan attempts to eliminate meat and fish from Filipino dishes — what up, soy-chicken adobo — but to remove or even reduce the presence of rice would be impossible, requiring an overhaul of the cuisine and an obliteration of a rice-adoring culture that goes back thousands of years, from the indigenous tribes who first carved the rice terraces into the Cordillera mountains by hand and performed rice rites to ensure a favorable harvest, to the country’s many rice-based proverbs, sayings, and songs (“There is no burnt rice to a hungry person”; “Without rice, you haven’t eaten”). The first nursery rhyme I learned wasn’t “London Bridge Is Falling Down”; it was “Planting Rice Is Never Fun.”

Funny thing is, in the case of the Philippines, the rice diet doesn’t even follow the land. The Philippines’ natural landscape — thousands of small islands, mountainous terrain — isn’t terribly conducive to rice farming, so the country imports heavily. Nothing must stand between Filipinos and their true love. The greatest testament to this national obsession is the preponderance of “unlimited rice” restaurants like Mang Inasal, which offer free rice refills with a dish of grilled chicken or bangus or barbecued pork.

Their rice dispensers must be magnificent.