Sense Memory: The Heart And Soul Of Rice In A Bowl

Denise Sakaki digs into how memories of a bowl of rice can accompany you from childhood and throughout life.
Text And Photo by Denise Sakaki

Rice. So simple and basic, it’s nearly invisible in comparison to the variety and richness of ingredients available. Rice is the flavor-magnet buried beneath a rich and spicy curry or stew. It’s the stuff left to harden in that leftover box of Chinese takeout because everyone else wanted the chow mein. And yet it remains one of the top staple grains produced worldwide for human consumption. Its history can be traced back as far as 1400 BC throughout Asia. The processing and trade of rice has been illustrated in the 19th century woodblock prints of iconic Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Rice, in all its unassuming peacefulness of sitting in a little bowl, has within its concentrated little grain, the potential to build nations and nourish cultures for many lifetimes. And it’s something we don’t think about until it becomes vitally important, for both mind and body.

I didn’t grow up eating mashed potatoes, it was always steamed white rice with every meal. My mother would prepare it first, rinsing the grains until the water ran clear, measuring everything out and letting the rice cooker take care of the rest. Rice was not an accompaniment, merely a permanent resident on every plate and an easy chaser if I was being finicky on pork chop night. But it wasn’t until I left home when I realized the true presence of rice. I moved to a strange new place with nothing feeling like home yet. One of the first appliances I owned was a rice cooker, and being the unemployed college graduate I was, rice was an easy, inexpensive staple. I would prepare it in the same way my mother did so many times before, and upon the removal of the cover of a batch of freshly-steamed rice, there it was. I was home again. It was in that first waft of heat made fragrant with the nutty smell of cooked grains, now plumped with a rich, starchy cream. The loneliness of being away from family could dissipate in that first bite, where the flavor of the polished grain was rendered sweet and pure, and the sense memory of so many meals at home was summoned. That sublime nature of taste and recollection is the comfort that reminds us that our greatest happiness can always be rediscovered in a single, simple bite.

Whether you’ve been raised on it your whole life or discovered in your own way its ability to craft a sense of home, rice has a universal quality that binds itself to the human condition. These are sweetly genuine memories of those whose lives have been influenced by such a simple grain:

– The smell of cooked rice reminds me of: childhood, my grandmother making sushi, everyone waiting for the “pop” of the rice cooker button to tell us dinner was ready… The smell was a sign that Dad would be home from work soon. The smell of rice cooking in the middle of the day meant it was a special occasion… Safety — mom was in the kitchen, [and] even when it was raining out, we would have something hot for dinner.
Lisa Nakamura, chef and owner of Allium Restaurant and specialty shop Lily on Orcas Island, WA

There are many days when I come home completely exhausted and needing something to calm my mind and soothe my soul. More often than not I end up making a batch of sticky rice in my rice cooker and topping it with salmon sashimi, radish sprouts, a poached egg and a sprinkle of furikake. The smell that wafts through the apartment as the rice steams away is wonderful. For me, rice embodies the simple comfort found in Japanese cuisine.
Rachael White, writer and photographer at TokyoTerrace.com

– The scent of a steaming batch of rice means home and everything about my Japanese heritage growing up in Hawaii. Of Spam musubi for fishing trips with my mom and dad as a little kid. Of my mom’s hand-rolled sushi for special events, happy and sad. It is inhaling an aroma filled with stories and memories.
Sharon Hisae Nishihara, artist and teacher

-A few minutes before the chime goes off on my rice cooker I can smell the wholesome comfort of the rice steaming inside. I feel the warmth even before I take that first bite.
Shirley Karasawa, Japanese food blogger at LovelyLanvin.com
– My mom would repeatedly remind me of a Chinese saying, “Every grain of rice requires hard work.” That saying instilled in me proper work ethics and a grateful heart for everything that I have. It’s not an overstatement for me to say that the Chinese culture was built upon such tireless work ethics and the countless grains of rice. The humble grain holds a subtle sweetness and a floral aroma that changes according to the crop and time of harvest. Remember to finish every last morsel in appreciation.
Melody Fury, founder of VancouverFoodTour.com and food writer at GourmetFury.com

– The sound of the bubbling lid of the rice pot as a kid and the nutty smell of the steaming rice is mixed with the warm afternoon sun in Kaneohe and the darkening green of the Ko’olaus turning to violet as evening and dinner time approached. People think rice is odorless and tasteless, but I could eat fresh steamed rice just by itself when it had been stirred up to bring forth its fluffy sticky texture. The best rice for me, is of course Japanese sticky rice — the steam rising above a bowl and the first mouthful when you bite down and feel the kernels’ chewy center.
Dawn Yoshimura, artist at  dyoshimura.com

These shared words beautifully illustrate a collective affection towards the humble bowl of rice, and a reminder that for many, such a simple comfort is now a luxury. As the world continues to support the ongoing relief efforts of the tsunami and earthquake-damaged nation of Japan, it remains a daily struggle for the survivors to put together basic resources like clean, potable water, to be able to cook something as simple as rice. Please keep these lovingly bestowed memories in your heart as you continue to help bring Japan closer towards being able to share in that familiar comfort of a bowl of rice once again.

These are just some of the organizations involved in the relief efforts for Japan, along with other nations in need – please feel free to add more in the comments section:

AmericanRedCross.org – Domestic and international emergency response organization providing relief and developmental programs.

DoctorsWithoutBorders.org – International medical humanitarian organization providing care and advocacy for those in crisis zones.

GlobalGiving.org– A network of over a thousand pre-screened grassroots international efforts, connecting donors with specific charity projects.

SaveTheChildren.org – Global organization focused on the health, education and longterm recovery programs for children in need.

ShelterBox.org – International disaster relief delivering boxes that contain emergency shelter and lifesaving supplies.

Denise Sakaki

Denise Sakaki

Denise Sakaki is a freelance food writer and photographer who is always searching for the connections between food and personal experience. She is the creator of the food blog Wasabi Prime and contributor to Serious Eats, 425 Magazine and Drink Me Magazine.

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1 Comment
  1. Rice is such a wonderful food stuff and so underrated. I try to use it with as many dishes as possible, or as a simple dish on it’s own. Great post, thanks for sharing.

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