To make rice in a pot, as opposed to the trustworthy rice cooker, is difficult; but not impossible. As my father once taught me: stick a finger down to the bottom of the pot, and, ensuring that the rice is level, measure the height of the rice on the finger to determine how much water you need. In the middle of the pandemic, I find myself cooking rice for one. As the pot begins to steam, filling my apartment with that familiar sweet and buttery aroma, I am reminded of a warmer, more vibrant time. A whistle echoes deep in my mind, interrupting the normal chatter, just for a moment. It is my lolo, calling everyone to gather: the rice is done and it is time to eat.
Rice is generally thought of as the simplest, and often plainest, element of any meal in which it is included. It is ubiquitous as a staple food in cuisines around the world, and its versatility as a grain allows it to take many forms: risotto in Italy, cooked richly with stock, butter and parmesan cheese; or paella in Spain, cooked aromatically in a gigantic paellera, in batches large enough for a village. You can find it rolled in one’s hands, pressed against Tsukiji market’s freshest slice of red tuna, delicately wrapped like a gift with a strip of seaweed; or slow-cooked in a fragrant stock with curry and tomato as a jollof in West Africa.
In the Philippines, rice is a very serious matter. Any Filipino gathering that fails to present a large pot of steamed rice is ludicrous, even shameful. Every Filipino dish imaginable must be accompanied by rice, which occupies three-quarters of every plate. It is the reason why so many Filipino dishes, called ulam, are hyper savoury. The cook, as part of his or her process, must consider how the dinuguan (a rich pork blood stew) or sinigang (a puckeringly tart tamarind soup) will stretch in a spoonful of rice. Rice not only complements Filipino dishes, it is the primary and most necessary vehicle for that sweet, sour, salty, and sometimes bitter symphony of flavours. Like many Asians, Filipinos enjoy fried rice. More common however, is the silog, a cup of steamed rice topped with a fried egg, yolk glistening and runny, with crunchy whites that add a layer of texture to each bite. Alongside it, a few pieces of longganisa (sweet cured sausage), tocino (sweet cured pork), bangus (fried milkfish), or the most popular tapsi (cured beef with onions). The silog poses as a breakfast item but is usually eaten at any time of the day
History has found that Filipino households can survive for months, even years on end, so long as there is rice. Due to its low price and its presence in the corner stores of any small, obscure barangay, it is a godsend for struggling homes. For only forty-five pesos (less than $2 CAD), one can acquire a kilo of rice which is enough to feed a family: perhaps accompanied by canned sardines cold or warmed, fried corned beef with a generous amount of onions, or if available, a can of SPAM thickly sliced and fried with sunny-side eggs. Perfectly filling a hungry stomach, it can even be eaten with a simple seasoning of soy sauce, or patis, for those who are truly in a pinch.
In times of celebration, huge mounds of rice are placed atop a long table lined with banana leaves, along with an array of fried and grilled meats and fruit. This military style of eating is called a boodle fight. When groups of family or friends (which are often large in number, and even larger in appetite) dine out, the low price of rice is a decisive factor in choosing where to eat. Restaurants often market rice as a selling point. The chain Mang Inasal, for example, offers “unli-rice”—a deal that means exactly what it sounds like—with their signature skewered, charred chicken leg.
Anyone who calls themself a Filipino shows love and care by scooping a disproportionate amount of rice on a plate for a guest, a family member, or the odd stranger that walks through the front door. My family is not exempt when it comes to this deeply cultural sentiment regarding rice. I know how to eat rice like I know how to walk – with a fork and spoon, or my preferred method: with my bare hands. Taking the rice and ulam with four fingers, I use my thumb to push the contents into my hungry mouth. My mom and dad, and their parents before them, were raised on rice in abundance – the same way they have raised me. Rice is so pervasive at my family’s meals that we even eat it with sweet Filipino spaghetti.
My lolo, in his seventy-two years of life, was exceptionally adept at ensuring that the rice cooker was always full. Keeper of rice twenty-four seven, he often fried what little was left in a pot so he could swiftly replace it with a full steaming pot. My lolo taught my mom that the best part of the rice is found at the bottom of the pot, called the tutong. Encrusted and dried out from the high heat, still stuck to the soft, sticky bit of regular rice, it adds another dimension of texture and flavour when it is eaten with a stewy or savoury ulam.
Lolo’s fried rice hails mighty as the fried rice in the household of twelve. Maintaining the perfect balance of garlic fried to the edge of burnt, eggs, soy sauce and patis, it is the garlic fried rice of everyone’s dreams and leaves not a hint of greasy residue on the lips. He perfected the art of rice so well that after his sudden death in February of 2019, we pestered my younger cousin Vincent on end for the recipe. Having grown up watching my lolo cook, Vincent is the sole keeper of the secret to Kaka’s fried rice—a secret to which I am not, and may never be, privy.
Kaka’s fried rice carries on its legacy today for fifteen pesos in Vincent’s binalot stand in Imus: The Big Boy’s Kitchen. He serves silogs in banana leaf, tied neatly with a bow for lunch or merienda (a snack, and indeed, Filipinos have rather large snacks). Its compact and portable nature help the business flourish during the pandemic due to its form as a very viable takeout food. The small and inconspicuous stand is now a local favourite, where many return for the value and flavour. Rice, a main source of sustenance, now provides subsistence for my family.
The meaning of rice on the dining table is not dissimilar across families, or even nations. Rice is loved ones gathering; comfort and warmth. Rice is survival to some, and a celebration of abundance to others. It achieves the dual sentiment of commonality and difference. Rice may be common, and there may not be much to say about it that has not been said before. But it is often in the particulars that one finds a novel way to perceive the overlooked; and the overlooked tends to be what you miss the most when it is no longer there. My lolo’s inheritance, though unspoken, is abundant in Vincent’s binalot stand. It is there where the whole neighbourhood is welcome to taste his fried rice. It is savoured whenever my mom claims the tutong for her plate. It is with me each time I take rice in my bare hands, four fingers and a thumb into the mouth, never failing to keep me full.
Lyn Medina is a first generation immigrant from Imus, Cavite. Cooking in order to pay rent, she writes about memories of her childhood in her free time.
Katya Roxas is a Communications and Design Strategist at the University of British Columbia. Katya has experience with branding, content creation and social media and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Multimedia Arts, specializing in graphic design and illustration, and a Diploma in Digital Marketing and Communications. Born and raised in the Philippines, Katya is well-versed with the sacrifices and opportunities that come with being an immigrant. Through her experiences, she strives to break the barriers of cultural misrepresentation by creating honest and inclusive visual expressions.