The rice grains scattered rhythmically onto the floor of my aluminum pot with each flick of my wrist and the metal cup. I placed my pot into the sink and let the faucet fill it with water. Plunging my hands into the bed of heavy wet grains, I worked my fingers around the bottom, loosening the white starch and clouding the water. Swish, drain, rinse, swish, drain, rinse, and repeat. With my hands in the pot, I watched out my window, a small finch perched on the laundry lines of my neighbors.
I have been on a quest to decode the perfect pot of Tanzanian rice for a long time now. Whenever I try to make rice, it always turns out mushy and bland. The grains stick together and have no body in the mouth. However, perfect rice seems to consistently and effortlessly appear under the pot lids of every Tanzanian woman who has ever cooked for me. I know that their effortless, rice-cooking grace is hard won since girlhood, but maybe I could get in on the secret? The problem is, rice cooking is so natural to most women here that they don’t even know how to begin to tell me how. Little things like “rinse the rice until the water runs clear,” which my teammate Sarah clued me in on, must have seemed too common sense for my friend Mariam to mention during my cooking lessons.
When I arrived in Tanzania, I did not even really care for rice. Rice was a white, tasteless extra starch, a lot of calorie with no taste. I would have much rather substituted rice for another starch more flavorful if I had the chance, and I avoided reaching for it at the church potlucks. My idea of rice was the stuff that comes packaged so that it cooks in the microwave in five-minutes. Also, a long time ago, I learned from the back of the Walmart discount brand rice package that I should cook the stuff at a 2:1, water to rice, ratio, and I stuck to this religiously. Open package, dump contents in pot, wait for the boil, cover, cook on low heat until “done” (whatever that was), then “fluff” with a fork (however you do that). So accustomed was I to machine-cleaned, ready-to-cook rice that took me almost a year of living in Tanzania and a few chipped molars to realize that I should be picking out the rocks and sorting the rice before I even cooked it. When I first came here, a Tanzanian missionary who grew up in Tailand told me, “I love rice. I could eat it at every meal.” I was appalled. “What kind of pallid diet does she have that she prefers rice to all other foods?” I thought.
Now I know that the perfect pot of Tanzanian rice is eaten in the cool of the new evening in a mud hut, steaming hot. Rice is a special treat like pizza or dessert would be for American families—most Tanzanian families don’t get to eat it every day. They pile it into a cloudy white mountain on a metal tray, and the whole family sits around the plate, plunging their right hands into the steaming stuff. First you take a handful of rice in the finger-part of your hand. Then, you squeeze it against your palm, squishing the grains into sort of a ball, and then rolling it loosely back to the tips of your fingers, you tip your head back ever so slightly and flick the morsel in. Each bite is barely nutty and toasted, with a hint of wood smoke from the fire; each grain is separate and slightly chewy, with tinge of salt and an aftertaste of soothing coconut. I have grown to love this stuff more than bread, and stuff my mouth with it by the handfuls. Rice like this tastes like no other rice I have ever had in the world because it is freshly hand-gathered from the field, sundried, hand-pounded (to remove the hull), hand-sorted, hand-washed, and finally cooked in a family-sized portion over an open wood fire.
“What kind of rice do you want?” They asked me pointing to five different waist, tall rice-filled bags on display on the warehouse cement floor the last time I went to the ghala ya nafaka (grain warehouse) to buy in bulk. To my untrained eye, each type of rice in each bag looked the same. I strained to make out differences as I peered at each pile. Maybe one type was smaller and had more broken grains than the others? Finally, I gave up.
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“Give her the good rice, rice from around here.” An older lady said, gesturing to a half-filled bag of glossy, long grains in the corner like a secret stash. I picked up a handful and somehow knew that this was the good stuff.
I filled the pot with a final portion of water and put it over the flame on my gas stove. I scattered two generous pinches of salt over the mixture and poured in a few tablespoons of oil. I am very much a novice at making rice, and there is still a world of cultural and culinary knowledge have yet to gather, but at the same time, the soothing, tactile acts of cleaning, pouring, washing, and setting a pot on a flame in the quiet of the afternoon links me, I know, with my Tanzanian women friends and a world of other women spanning into the East with whom I long to be joined. At times, I feel that there is so much cultural distance and so many differences between us that simple acts like these grow increasingly sacred to me. In this respect, we are the same: the rice still needs to be cooked.