Memory begins with the smell of rice cooking, the taste of it. The feel of my hand cupped around a bowl, a pair of chopsticks in the other hand. It is the first memory, before fruit-leather roll-ups, before mint-chocolate chip ice cream and smoked salmon and pâté from a tin spread on melba toast from a box. It goes back to the high-chair, watching the St. Louis Cardinals on the little tv in the kitchen, hearing the rice bubble away in the electric cooker, the lid doing a little jig as the steam builds up, filling the kitchen with the smell of cooking rice. Later, it would be one of my first kitchen tasks, scooping cupfuls of rice into the bowl of the rice cooker, filling it with water, swirling the white grains with my hands until the water turned milky with the starch that coated each grain, pouring it away, washing the rice again and again until the water ran clear.
At school rice managed to be fluffy and soggy and dry, all at the same time, a feat accomplished by the use of instant rice. That is not rice. Rice is Japanese medium-grain rice, not as sticky as sushi rice (which needs to be sticky so your nigiri and your sushi rolls don't fall apart as you eat them), but just sticky enough to hold together as you convey a mouthful from bowl to mouth with a pair of chopsticks without dropping it in your lap. At dinner it would be mounded into small bowls with a plastic or bamboo paddle; if you didn't finish it you would be told about all the starving children in China or that some horrible fate would befall you and your face would be covered in pock-marks, one for each grain of rice you failed to eat. (I have just one, barely visible, a faint reminder of the chicken-pox I had when I was three). Rice was inhaled as a sort of edible plate for stir-fried vegetables, for meats braised in sauces deeply flavored with wine and soy sauce and spiked with garlic or ginger or scallions (or all three). But I liked the taste of plain rice, fresh from the cooker, hot and fragrant with its own undefinable scent, untouched by dribbles of soy sauce or vegetable juices.
And then there are zhong zhi, triangular packets of glutinuous rice, filled with pork or peanuts or vegetables or red bean paste, wrapped in giant bamboo leaves and steamed. (My first year of college my mother would overnight frozen ones, homemade by her, which I would share with the one roomate - she was from Hong Kong - who was not repulsed by what the others considered weird food). The kind my mother makes are in the Shanghainese style, the rice seasoned with soy sauce, and filled with red-braised pork belly, and they are my favorite. But memory is all about white rice, the slightly-sticky rice that I ate nearly every single night for dinner from the time I was old enough to chew until I went to college. When my mother began rummaging through my cupboards as we began cooking dinner the other night I realized that I have not eaten rice since my father was here in November. It is time to go back again.