The Taste of Rice, Salted Fish, and Growing Up

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Nga chauk (‘nga’ meaning fish in Burmese and ‘chauk’ meaning dried, and hence, dried fish) can be the hardest food in the world, especially if undercooked or raw. And inversely, the softest food in the world, nay the Universe, is overcooked rice; it is runny, it is gooey and it is just a hot, hot mess. These two, by some ugly twist of gastronomical fate, happened to be my dinner this evening.

So, as my parents were engaged in other matters that did not involve dinner, it was just a matter of time before my sister, just over a year younger than me, decided to cook the both of us another dinner, that is, fried rice with whatever ingredients we can salvage from the fridge. To give you some background, she had just taken an interest in cooking and is currently in her ‘experimental’ phase or as I’d like to call it, the ‘burning ingredients’ phase.

So, she raids the fridge for some squid’s legs, sausages and frozen meatballs. Getting some ginger and garlic into a paste, she threw them into the oiled frying pan. The heat is just right, the oil smells nice and, all the ingredients are nicely chopped up and prepared. Then, she took the bowl of overcooked rice and chucked the contents into the pan. That’s where I couldn’t help myself and intervened.

We have some ground rules for frying rice the Burmese way, according to my mother. First, we always use cooked rice that has been resting for a day (yesterday’s leftover rice is today’s breakfast). Second, always, and I mean ALWAYS, fry the meat first before you do your rice. Third, because cooked rice clumps together, crush the clumps before you throw the rice on the pan.

There is wisdom in these rules of thumb. I too, in my tender years, failing to see reason in them, decided to deviate from the norm and have also created my own fiasco of a dish. I learned my lessons. I remembered. I remembered to fry the meat first and I remembered to crush the rice first before frying because I have, painstakingly and stubbornly if I might add, eaten my own plate of burned rice and raw meat.

I did not want that for my sister. You see, she might be just over a year younger than me but she is still my little sister. I’m the one who has to be there to scare off her would-be boyfriends, skip ‘the scenes’ when we watch Game of Thrones. I’m her big brother.

When I intervened as she threw the clumps of rice into the pan, I couldn’t help but impart those rules of thumb to her and mention the fact that she had broken all three of them. In short, I started backseat cooking which, I admit, can be very annoying. So, I was spouting the put-that-theres and don’t-do-thats like a machine gun. I hadn’t realized that I went overboard until my sister snapped back at me.

Briefly, very briefly, I was hurt. Then I realized that’s what being a parent is like; I started to understand, if not completely, how my very loving mother felt during all those moments when she warned me and scolded me. She just wanted what was best for me. All I wanted was to help my sister make a plate of decent fried rice. I wanted to teach her but I forgot that a part of growing up is making your own mistakes and learning from them.The fried rice turned out to be half decent and edible but my sister decided not to eat at the table with me today. She took her all the fried rice with her and headed for the couch in the den. I was very tempted to point out that she was being very rude but I’m not a child anymore and we’re not fighting over toys. I let her have her space. I let her breathe. I finished my dinner.I made a mistake. I learned. I grew. I had rice and salted fish for dinner.

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