A Love Letter to Rice


A Love Letter to Rice

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

Hello, Paddy. It’s been a while. I’ve ignored you over the last week because my love for you was beginning to show. I’ve soared from an XS to an L, and decided you were mostly to blame. It took me a flowery frayed album that housed my childhood photographs to realise that I couldn’t possibly be more wrong.

As I tried to recognise my tiny, elfin-self sailing from one photo to the other, I landed on a picture of my grandmother feeding me rice. I soon realised my love for you developed alongside my cognitive abilities. We’ve grown up together.

It has been a long, tiring journey. I have doting memories of my mother, aunts, and grandmother feeding me rice with fish, egg, chicken, mutton, xaak, and dal. Curries changed, but you never left my plate. The taste of almost every dish is still etched on my tongue.

Meals are always about you back home in Assam. There, if you want to ask someone if they’ve eaten yet, just ask them if they have eaten rice.

When I moved to Delhi, I missed you. Rotis, bhaturas, and paranthas replaced you. Of course, you would show up in long basmati grains every now and then, soaked in kadhi or rajma. But I couldn’t wrap my head around dipping rotis in dal and putting the soggy, wrinkled piece in my mouth. I missed you with maasor tenga. I missed you with dal and aloo pitika. I often thought of you, cloaked in a leafy vegetable, smothered by dal, accompanied by crunchy fish, and bamboo shoot pickle.

I remember when grandma cooked me dum aloo and jeera rice. After, she wanted to read a poem she wrote to me.

When I finally moved to a flat with its own kitchen, I gathered the few varieties of rice Delhi had to offer. But I couldn’t find the fragrant joha I grew up eating. Yet, with rice by my side, I started missing home a little less every day. Whenever I missed the family, I would recreate a recipe that reminded me of them. In no time, I could conjure up a bowl of steaming rice, mix it with mustard oil, salt, chillies, and a fried egg.

In Delhi, I made friends from all over the country. A few of them yearned for you as well. We exchanged recipes; I visited their kitchens or invited them over. But soon, I lost touch with most of them. (I am lazy like that.) You share a part of the blame here. Now when I try those recipes, the flavours remind me of those people – the way they treated their knives, the way they brought you to boil. It’s as if I still carry a part of them with me. They are with me every time I stir up a tahiri or Hyderabadi biryani or tamarind rice: A hidden, tucked away memory will spring to life. What could be a better gift than this?

I remember when grandma cooked me dum aloo and jeera rice. After, she wanted to read a poem she wrote to me. But she was shy so she wanted desperately to ensure I don’t tell anyone about it. To be absolutely sure, she bribed me with you. She still does.

And even now, she is the only one who gets it right. She puts you in that huge pressure cooker and you behave so well with her. You come out flawless and discipline yourself in perfectly cooked grains. All she has to do is touch you, and your aroma suffuses the air. Wonder when I will get the trick right.

But of late, loving you has not been easy. I have had people asking me to cut down on you. Too much of love is unhealthy, you see. But you remind me of people, of love, of long-suppressed memories. Distance, time, and confusion struggled to tear me away from those memories and you brought those walls down.

So as I say this, I order a plate of fried rice from a cheap Chinese corner. You come dressed in real love and real sweat, a classic signature drill from the profusely oozy Thapa bhaiya who tries his darnedest to make you taste like a slice of heaven. People may come and go, jobs may disappoint, and onions may steal your money, but whenever I need a sniff of paradise, I know I can turn a bad day around with you.

Love, after all, is a stomach full of rice.