Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Raised on rice

WHEN the price of rice shot up, I felt the pinch more keenly than the weekly stings of oil price adjustments.

As a commuter in Metro Manila, I’m still cocooned by the steady rate of fares. The rice-and-vegetable set was the usual P35 at the Kapampangan-run canteen where I ate breakfast at UP Diliman the other day.

Yet I’m anticipating the expected when we return to the market this weekend. Regular milled rice increased by P2 per kilo in Cebu and Metro Manila, reported Elias O. Baquero in Sun.Star Cebu last July 16, 2013.

The authorities say the price fluctuations are typical of the lean season from July to September. They will go after those who hoard and profit.

If I am sensitive to the current uncertainty, it is because rice is my comfort food.
I like my rice “pughad,” soft but dry, each grain standing out from, not merging with its neighbor. I can put away leftovers of unknown vintage and dubious provenance for as long as I have rice.

For nine months, my merienda was “dukot,” the grains that harden into the shape of the bottom of the pot when the rice has been left to cook a little too long.

This crust of hardened rice is fed usually to the family aspin (“asong Pinoy”). Boiled in water and sugar, “dukot” becomes “tinughong,” a hot, sweet drink to break the interlude between lunch and dinner.

But I preferred to drench my “dukot” in the “una (broth)” of the “inun-unan,” fish cooked in vinegar and reheated so many times, the soup becomes murky from fish juice and fish brains. This afternoon snack was my shortcut to the C-section delivery of a 10-pounder son.

When I went around the uplands in Central Visayas, I realized that I’ve always eaten like a peasant: shoveling down mounds of milled corn with pinches of viand for flavor.

Eating more carbohydrates means not going hungry for a longer time, a necessity among those who cannot afford to eat light and eat frequently.

In the uplands, for the first time, I discovered the novelty of rice as “pusô (cooked
in a packet made from woven coconut fronds)” eaten with corn grits as a treat, usually when one went to the weekly “tabo (market)“.

The countryside taught me never to take rice for granted. To leave a clean plate was a reminder I did not need. One did not pick at one’s food because people were starving in China or India. People are starving here.

So every grain of rice is precious. Rice that accidentally ends on the floor is swept and thrown outdoors for birds or chickens to peck. One does not step on rice to avoid “gaba (misfortune)”.

When one eats with one’s hands, one spreads the fingers like a claw, taps the plate once or twice to loosen the rice stuck between fingers, and scoops to finish the remaining grains. Nothing is wasted.

By contrast, in the dining courts of malls, a lot of rice is left on plates. In the surfeit of food and drinks, one cup of rice is too much to finish. Or people feel they are truly on a diet when they just poke at their rice.

During fiesta in May, my yaya’s family makes a thousand “pusô.” Each “binaki (frog-like)” and “kasing-kasing (heart-like)” packet of rice is bigger and more solid than a grown man’s fist. One “pusô” can take down a man-sized appetite.

According to Yaya, cooking rice for feasts is tricky. The “pusô” does not just prevent the overcooking of rice into “dukot” that cannot be served to guests. “Pusô” is also dandy as “bring-house” provisions with which to send off your guests, many of whom walked a long distance to join your fiesta.

Plain and bland, rice is the palette that sets off to perfection all flavors but one. I once thought rice taken with anything sweet could only be for desert.

My uncle, Bicol-born, said that his grandparents subsisted by pouring “dalisay,” the first strain of pure “gata (coconut milk)” squeezed from grated coconut, no water added, on newly cooked rice. Rock salt completed the meal.

Recently, this uncle, a capable cook, served a platter of sirloin steaks for lunch. After putting away the slabs, my uncle, an Australian immigrant, leaned back and sighed for mashed potato.

I wished for the usual half cup. Nothing can be more “dalisay” than this.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 21, 2013 issue of the editorial page Sunday column, “Matamata”

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