When I want comfort, I lean into rice. Congee, fried rice, or a bowl of white or brown rice and a sweet-savory lap cheong cooked on the surface of the rice grains. A plate of steaming hot rice with a fried egg on top.
On this day in March, early on in the pandemic shutdown in California, I woke up worried about a family conflict that I had no ability to control, especially now. I also woke up knowing that I wanted breakfast before heading out for a walk. I decided to focus on breakfast.
I microwaved some cold leftover rice in a little bowl. A rice bowl’s worth of food is really all the sustenance we need, I once read. I thought about how to season it. Furikake? The seaweed-y, sesame Japanese seasoning is something I just learned to use. Some of the spicy long beans with ground pork left over in the fridge? I had that for breakfast yesterday with a bowl of rice and topped with a sunny side up egg, edges all crisped up and lacy brown.
Today, my breakfast is inspired by a memory of something I discovered as a child outside of my family’s home. In after school care, a San Francisco Unified School District program where I also went for summer day camp, ladies prepared food in a kitchen that would be served to us at lunch. Here, and at my regular school cafeteria, I learned about foods I never encountered at home, like roast chicken or meatloaf. I remember tasting white rice with butter on it for the first time at lunch on a pale green plastic plate. It was a revelation. We never had rice like that at home, grains covered in salty fatty goodness. We rarely used butter at all really. Occasionally, my mother would butter a piece of toast thickly and sprinkle granulated sugar over the top. It was good! Like cinnamon toast without the cinnamon.
Pandemic brain wandering reminds me that I also had my first celery with peanut butter back in my elementary school days. Neither my grandmother nor my father served anything like that as snacks at home. At home, we sometimes had a kind of watery rice gruel that my grandmother would make with the little last bit of rice at the bottom of the pot. Or we’d have little biscuits that came individually wrapped in shiny cellophane packs, variations on water crackers with a richer crumb and sandwich filling. My favorites were filled with a light and sweet lemon cream. Sometimes, after he picked us up from school, my dad would swing us by a Chinese bakery where we’d get tall jee bow dan goh, their smooth brown tops covering a rich, feather-light sponge wrapped with thin white paper.
Today, inspired by memory, I microwaved the leftover rice in a small bowl, and topped it with a thick pat of salted butter. I watched hungrily as the butter began melting into the hot rice grains. And then, impatient, I helped the process along by stirring the grains. I tasted it and added soy sauce. Tasted. Added a little more soy, and then a little sesame oil. Then, I added some chili oil. Finally, I topped it with chopped scallions. I was reminded of another dish, a favorite of mine as a child that was homey, soft, simple, direct. The version I had as a kid involved being served a mound of steaming hot rice, creating a well in the middle, cracking a whole raw egg into it, and then sprinkling soy sauce and sesame oil in the well before mixing the whole thing up with a set of chopsticks. The most seasoning we added was a bunch of ground black pepper. So simple, so delicious. It is what I need in these times—a little bit of comfort, food acting as a portal back to childhood, to a time when we all were still together—Mom, Dad, my brother, and me.
Shirley is a Chinese-American writer of poetry and prose based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a two-time alum of the VONA/Voices workshop and a 2018 fellow in Kearny Street Workshop’s Interdisciplinary Writers Lab. Follow her on IG @shirligig and Twitter @shirlstyle.
Cover photo credit: Shirley Huey