The quiet click of the rice cooker is music to my ears. It is unassuming, almost unnoticeable unless, of course, you wait for the flip of the switch with steadfast anticipation, like I always do. The click heralds good news. It means the rice is ready. The meal can now commence. The meal is now complete.

I’ve owned two rice cookers in my adult life. My first was a welcome gift I received when I moved to California, a hand-me-down from one of the older graduate students in the university. It was sadly short-lived; it lasted only a few months before it stopped working. My second still sits on my kitchen counter now. It’s a four-cup rice cooker I bought at an Asian discount store. It has a glass lid with a small opening where the steam billows out and a single switch on its face that toggles between cooking and keeping cooked rice warm. My trusted rice cooker still works after all these years, dependably delivering comfort food to my table.

Back home, cooking rice isn’t as simple as a flip of a switch. Back home, cooking rice is a ritual. It begins with choosing and buying rice at the market — a full sack in times of plenty and a humble kilo when times are tough. My mom prefers Sinandomeng and the more fragrant but more expensive Dinorado. Sinandomeng swells up substantially when cooked and the cooked grains are tender. Cooked Dinorado is firmer than Sinandomeng but my mom likes how the Dinorado grains smell like bagong ani, or fresh harvest.

Bigas, or uncooked rice, can come with husks and dirt leftover after threshing palay, or unhusked rice just harvested from the palayan, or the rice fields. The husks and dirt are picked tediously by hand before bigas is measured, washed, and cooked. I have memories of sitting on our kitchen steps when I was little, with my mom sitting next to me holding a metal bowl of bigas. I remember watching her with curious fascination while she deftly tosses the grains upward with a brisk shake of the bowl, then gracefully combs through them with her fingers.

My mom measures rice using an empty tin milk can. A can filled to the brim with grains is isang gatang, or one measure, which is roughly equivalent to one cup. She pours the grains into a heavy metal pot and washes them thoroughly with running water. She washes the grains three times, tossing the water after each wash down the sink or reserving the starchy hugas bigas, or rice wash water, later for use in poaching whole fish for pesa or sinigang. After the grains are washed, she fills the pot with water and then dips her hand in the pot, fingers first and fingers straightened. She uses the folds of her middle finger as her guide to make sure she adds ample water. Too little leaves the grains parched. Too much makes the rice malata, or too mushy like the consistency of arroz caldo.

At times, my mom adds a knot of pandan to give kanin, or cooked rice, a subtle, sweet fragrance. She ties the long, narrow, blade-like leaves into a simple knot and buries a knot or two underneath the bed of rice. The scent of pandan in a pot of cooked rice is one of my earliest and fondest recollections of food as a child. Pandan is the fragrance of a home-cooked meal, the fragrance of home.

As soon as the water in the pot begins to boil, my mom calms the flame and lets the rice simmer slowly until the rice is inin, or fully cooked. If the flame is too strong, a scorched crust forms at the bottom of the pot called tutong, or burnt rice. A liberal douse of sarsa, or sauce, from a braise like caldereta or mechado fixes the flaw. For some, tutong is not even a flaw but the sought-after part of the entire meal.

Rice leftover from a meal is saved as lamig, or cold rice, stowed in the refrigerator or on the kitchen counter until it is consumed cold or fried with salt and garlic for breakfast the following morning. Sinangag, or fried rice, with fried eggs and fried fish or fried pork is Filipino breakfast bliss.

This is how my mom cooks rice, how she taught me to cook rice. The Filipino staple is ever present on our hapag kainan, on our table, in every meal. She often tells stories about the most trying of times when I was little, when rice was all my family had to eat, when cooked rice doused with water and salt was all my family had to make it through another meal. Doreen Fernandez writes that rice is the Filipinos’ deepest comfort food. Indeed, rice satisfies. Rice feeds the Filipino soul.

 

Rice
 

Three hundred posts. My winning essay about the Filipino staple is my 300th post. When I started writing my blog nearly five years ago me winning a Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award one day did not cross my mind. My blog lasting this long did not either. I have to admit juggling my blog with the demands of work and life has become more and more difficult through the years. A lot has changed after three hundred posts but there are things that remain the same, things that remind me why I blog — the memories of food and of home and the happiness these memories bring.

 

  • Arah Bahn

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story! It’s just been 4 months since my husband and I visited the Philippines and got to sample rice there in many ways, including as breakfast (yum!). I have not yet caved in to the temptation to buy a rice cooker, so I especially enjoyed reading about how your mom cooks rice on the stove.

  • pupulebarbi

    Jun – When we were kids we ate our rice with Spam, soy sauce and ketchup. To this day I still love my rice with fried Spam and soy sauce – heaven! And yes, I use my middle finger to measure the water for cooking.

    PupuleBarbi

  • Anonymous

    Ah, such a lovely story. Thank you for sharing this Jun. There is something wonderfully soothing for me about that first bite of freshly cooked rice eaten plain. Even in hard times with my Lola, we always had rice which we ate with sprinkles of sugar or with a ripe banana if we wanted dessert.

  • Antonio Aguado

    If the rice ever became scorched, half a peeled onion embedded in the rice would fix the problem.

  • Anonymous

    Love, love, love this post, kuya.

  • Row

    Beautiful story! This is also how I learned to cook rice… an important life skill passed down from generation to generation. I still goof up with the water level once in a while and end up with dry or mushy results (still learning!). I’m glad I’m not the only one who eagerly listens for the “rice cooker click”. :)

    Big congrats on your 300th blog post! Thank you so much for all you have written and shared with us. Here’s to many more blog posts! :)

  • Karuna Sky

    I have thoroughly enjoyed your sharing and offerings of wonderful recipes, which I have fun making for my family. We love and treasure the new memories your recipes have given us in eating the yummiest of foods. salamat very much!

  • Ruby

    Hi Jun, the way you described how rice was handled and cooked as a child brought me back to my childhood. You have a special gift of telling stories in your writings. I can feel and actually see what you are telling while reading it. Congratulations, keep on writing. By the way, your sis Dinna is a close friend from college. Small world :)