Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Food Connections-Respect the Rice

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With our current crazy world, we all need comfort food. Mine is mochi. 

A perfect bowl of white rice with a red pickled plum in the center.

Mochi is a rice-based cake, pounded into the consistency of play dough or a wad of chewing gum. At least that’s how my husband describes it. He’s not a fan. Neither was my father. But, like my Japanese mother, I crave mochi. So do my kids, especially my daughter. Maybe you need a few Japanese genes to appreciate the wonder of mochi. Soon after my father died, I needed comfort and asked my mother to make me mochi. She did, though it was the last time she made them. (https://kasmauski.wordpress.com/2010/04/ )

I grill the cakes on a hot skillet until they puff up. The crusty outer layer of each finished cake shelters a warm chewy center. Using a fork, I mash my cakes in a mix of raw sugar and soy sauce, rewarding me with a satisfying blend of sweet and salty flavors.

My mother making Mochis for me after my father passed away.

Rice is my mother’s comfort food. Growing up, rice was a consistent presence in our home. I remember when she returned from a visit to Japan with a rice cooker packed in her luggage. She didn’t cook a lot of rice–just a dish with her lunch each day. 

As an adult, photographing stories for National Geographic, I began comparing how different cultural groups consumed rice. In Hawaii, I found that Hawaiians of Japanese ancestry ate way more than Japanese living in Japan. Rice was served with nearly every meal, including breakfast. A typical working person’s lunch plate had two scopes of white rice, potato salad, macaroni salad and a meat like chicken, fish, or pork. In Bangladesh I sat down to meals where rice, mounded in a heap, was the main course, with vegetables and meats served on the side. But no matter the location, for so many people rice sustains life, providing strength for work. I always felt guilty when I didn’t finish the rice on my plate.  

When I was young, the quality of rice my mother could find was mixed. In Michigan, the local grocery stores only sold instant rice, like Uncle Bens. I’ll never forget the name or the texture. Even as a child I could barely stomach it. 

I seldom remember having rice at dinner. The family usually ate traditional Western meals.

I was nine years old when my mother flew to Japan by herself leaving my father alone with four children. I remember weeping quietly as I stood by a chain link fence at the airport, watching with my brother, sister, and father, who held my infant brother. As her plane rose into the sky I wondered if she was leaving us?  Only later she told me she had an ecotopic pregnancy. It had to be terminated in Japan as it would have been regarded as an illegal abortion at that time in the US. She also got her tubes tied. The last thing my mother needed was more children. 

When my mother returned two months later, she brought along a rice cooker. The instructions were in Japanese. A few years earlier, Toshiba had developed the first automatic rice cooker, making it easier for Japanese housewives to provide this daily staple. Luckily the voltage for Japanese appliances is similar to those of U.S. devices, so plugging it in didn’t burn down our house. With this miraculous device, my mother made rice every day. She had brought back as many bags of Japanese rice as she could cram into her luggage. I remember the wonderful taste—a world away from the awful instant rice we’d had up to that time.

My mother’s mochi cooker. When she gave it to me she added English translations for the important settings, as I don’t read Japanese.

After her imported supply was gone, she got my father to take her to a small Japanese store in downtown Chicago where she restocked with good (aka Japanese) rice. She also bought pickled plums there—another reminder of Japan. The Japanese love to put those bright red balls of tartness in the center of their bowls of white rice, symbolizing the rising—or maybe setting—sun of the Japanese flag.

Maybe the years of eating Uncle Bens rice had radicalized her, but my mother insisted on using only Japanese grown rice for her new cooker. Nothing else would do. She especially didn’t want Korean rice. Years later, when she’d come to visit me, she refused to go to sushi bars run by Koreans, which limited the places I could take her. “Not same!” she would declare when I’d ask her what’s the difference. I’m not sure if she really believed that or if it was just a remnant from her youth. My mother had grown up in post-war Japan, a time when Korean families living in Japan for generations were still considered Koreans, and not accepted as Japanese. Some of that attitude still lingered, even in the early 1990’s, when I did a National Geographic story on Japan’s then-dominant economy, I found Koreans were still treated as outsiders in Japan. In the often-chaotic household of my youth, keeping that sense of Japanese culture with her rice was a small piece of her life that my mother could control.

After the rice cooker became part of our kitchen, my mother usually ate a bowl at noon when my father was at work. She’d often fry up a small fish or vegetables in soy sauce. I’m not sure where she got the fish.  My father refused to eat them, and I could swear they were rancid.  The smell was so pungent that for years I couldn’t stomach the thought of eating fish. 

My mother eating a bowl of rice at lunch.

We lived in two different kitchen routines—one my mother cooked in for herself and the other where meals for the rest of us were made. Sometimes my mother would serve us kids a bowl of rice, in addition to whatever else was made for our lunch. We’d pour on the soy sauce throwing my mother into an angry tirade, “You ruined the rice, no respect for the rice.” We kept on pouring.

As an adult, I had a mixed relationship with rice. Unlike my mother, I didn’t make it every day. I ate plenty of rice on assignments to South Asia and Africa. Often it was one of the few foods I could safely eat in the rural areas where I worked. I didn’t miss it when I got back home and never thought to cook it. I usually only ate the rice that came with Chinese, or Thai take out or in sushi. When I had children, rice was on the menu again. Rice is a perfect child’s food, soft, bland, and white served with butter, soy sauce, chopped chicken, salmon or vegetables. My children liked rice so much, my mother eventually bought a rice cooker not for me but rather for my daughter when she was still a toddler. Later, when she left our home for her own apartment, she took that old rice cooker with her.

With today’s carb-obsessed culture, where phrases like “Keto” or “Paleo” diet slip into casual conversation, rice has now joined the outcast gang of foods we are told to limit if not avoid all together. We should all eat less bread, cereal, pasta, and rice.  As I got older, and found it harder to shed extra pounds, I started seeing rice as one of the “bad” foods I needed to steer away from. But it’s hard to live life with that much control.

My daughter Katie carries on the tradition of enjoying rice Mochis.

The large quantities of leftover rice from takeout Asian food orders became a moral dilemma. What to do with it?  Often, I’d freeze it, but that just postponed the problem. Sometimes I’d mix it in with food for our dog, Leo. Eventually I’d throw some of it away, but that always brought pangs of guilt for wasting food—especially rice, my mother’s sacred dish. I felt like a traitor both to the planet for wasting and to my heritage for disrespecting the rice.  

Recently, I discovered salvation. It came in the form of recipes for Rice Cakes. This was so simple and obvious, that I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.  All I needed to do was disguise the rice, deluding myself that it’s a completely different dish.

Despite my mother’s disapproval of Korean rice, I love Korean food. My favorite is Bibimbap, rice, meat and vegetables cooked in a very hot stone bowl, with a layer of crispy rice at the bottom.  I don’t have stone bowls that can heat high enough to crisp the rice, but I can fry the rice cakes, and come close to imitating the crispy rice. The fried rice is transformed into a sort of sandwich bread.  Topped with egg, tuna salad or a dressing of avocado and yogurt, it becomes a tasty breakfast or lunch, and a new way to keep respecting the rice.

Rice always has a place–along with tofu, pickled vegetables and bacon and eggs– in a classic west meets east eclectic breakfast.

Karen’s adapted Rice Cake Recipe   

This recipe is based on several versions, and I’ve added and subtracted ingredients to match my taste.

Kind of Crispy Rice Paddy:

2 cups of leftover rice at room temperature. If I have more rice, I increase the other ingredients.

2 eggs, beaten. If I have four cups of rice, I add another egg.

1/3 or more cups of chopped green onion

1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese (I’ve made it without cheese too)

1 cup of cooked spinach. Drain dry after cooking. I love spinach so I often put in more. (You can substitute finely chopped zucchini or a similar sturdy squash.)

3-4 tablespoons of chopped mint.  (Other herbs can be substituted)  

1 teaspoon salt or more to taste

½ teaspoon black pepper or more to taste

Butter to fry the cakes. (Olive oil can be substituted, though I’ve never tried it.)

  • Add about 2 tablespoons of butter to a non-stick pan. Place over medium heat until the butter is shimmering.
  • Place a scoop of the rice mix in the pan and press down with a spatula to form a patty about a half an inch thick. 
  • Cook 4 minutes, or until golden and crispy, then flip the patty. 
  • Fry another 3 or 4 minutes until crispy and golden.

Eat happily and without a guilty conscience. If you have leftovers, reheat the paddies on a dry (no fat) pan, flipping once, until the paddy is hot to the touch. (Do not microwave!)

Written by kasmauski

August 22, 2021 at 9:08 pm

One Response

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  1. Really enjoyed this one Karen. Have a happy day.


    August 23, 2021 at 11:48 am

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