Have You Eaten Rice Today?

It’s a ubiquitous phrase you’ll hear all over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and whenever the Cantonese side of my family gets together. Have you eaten rice today? Of course, that’s not a real question. It’s a greeting couched like a question that requires no answer. Just like in the United States where how are you is anything but a request for details on someone’s health issues.

In fact, you’ll hear some version of the phrase throughout Asia, wherever rice is the primary foodstuff.

in Burmese (sa: pi: bi: la:?), Chiuchow (jia bung meh ?), Khmer (nham bay howie nov ?), Korean (bap meogeosseoyo ?), Malay (sudah makan ?), Malayalam (cho¯rrun . t. o¯?), Putonghua (ch I ¯ fàn le ma?), Sinhalese (bath kavatha?), Tagalog (kumain ka na ba?), Taiwanese (jia˘ bà bua¯i?), Thai (thaan khâo láew re¯u yang?), Vietnamese (a˘n co m chu a?).

Lisa Lim, “Why ‘have you eaten?’ means ‘how are you?’ in Hong Kong” in South China Morning Post, 23 Oct 2016 (retrieved 29 Apr 2019)

So what’s the big deal about rice?

A Staple Food

rice plant
Rice (genus Oryza sativa). Image source: FAO

First, it’s a staple food for over half the world population. In Asia alone, 60-70% of the calories consumed come from rice and related products. It is a remarkably tolerant plant that can survive in desert, flooded or cool conditions. Of the 23 species of Oryza, only 2 are cultivated: Oryza sativa in humid Asia and Oryza glaberrimafrom West Africa.

China is the world’s largest producer, cultivating three separate strains of O. sativa: indica, japonica and javanica. The growing season is different in each part of China. In the north, the season is limited to May/June and August/September. In the south, rice is grown continuously from March through September.

The other major producing countries are, in order of yield, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Philippines, Brazil, and Japan.

However, rice production is facing serious constraints including a declining rate of growth in yields, depletion of natural resources, labour shortages, gender-based conflicts, institutional limitations and environmental pollution.

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, “Rice Is Life”, International Year of Rice 2004 (retrieved 29 Apr 2019)

White, Red, Brown, and Black

Polished white rice was once thought to be the only kind of grain refined enough for the belly of a Japanese emperor. It’s the kind I ate as a child 365 days of the year. My mother taught me to rinse my rice in cold running water until the water drains perfectly clear. Put my hand in the pot, palm down, to measure the cooking water so that it comes no farther than the second fold of my wrist.

rice diversity
Rice diversity. Photo credit: IRRI Images [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

My son insists on rinsing, too. He says it removes the starch from the kernels, delivering looser, individual grains when cooked. He will flavor his rice with salt and maybe a handful of cardamom pods. Me? I use a rice cooker, no rinsing, and a slapdash measure so that I can get on with the main act.

But the days of polished white rice will soon be over. We now know that polishing removes the husk, bran, and germ, i.e. most of the nutrients. Brown, red, and black are all to be preferred to white for their extra fiber, nutrition, and taste. My mother won’t eat white rice anymore. When in season, she prefers to steam a purple Japanese sweet potato for the starch in her evening meal.

American Rice

By now, it must be clear that my idea of rice is a Chinese-American one. Chinese in the sense that my mother made the rice in what I presume to be the “Chinese way”. But American, too, because she had to use whatever was available at Lucky’s Supermarket.

Image source: RiceARoni.com

My friends had different ideas of rice. Japanese rice, sticky and sweet. Armenian pilaf, fragrant with butter, nuts, and herbs. Italian risotto, creamy and rich. All of us abhorred what we termed “American rice”. I’m talking about Rice-a-Roni, Uncle Ben’s, anything that came portioned in a microwave container.

Dr. Fu Manchu film poster
Film poster for “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu”. Image source: Wikipedia

White-people style rice is the way Marie Myung-Ok Lee describes the starch served at Lucky Lee’s. You know the place. It opened last month in Brooklyn, New York, claiming to offer clean American Chinese food. The backlash was faster than you can say General Tso’s chicken. From ignorance to cultural appropriation to outright racism, proprietors Arielle and Lee Haspel got it in the teeth.

Sorry, but I have to ask. What is American Chinese food? Is the inversion a sign of patriotism akin to a flag in the lawn and one on the lapel pin? Maybe it’s a signal that the food you’re about to eat is an American conception of the Chinese kitchen. Food that Alexander Portnoy would have known and loved. And about as Chinese as having Peter Sellers play Dr. Fu Manchu.

Culture Wars

Now that we can add rice to the long list of ammunition in America’s culture wars, it’s useful to recall the days when food was a real weapon in wartime. Food rationing is a measure common during wars. It was supposed to make things more fair.

The Japanese rationed food during their occupation of Shanghai. Imagine the scene. A truck rolls down the street, bearing bags of rice and two soldiers. Each soldier wields a long leather whip. Boys and young men chase the truck, thrusting their sharp knives at the bags until they split open and rice spills into the street. Meanwhile, the whips of the soldiers lash heads, necks, and shoulders.

The small boys were assigned to hang on to the bags, where they were cut open, [to] allow the stream of rice to fall into their shirts. When they could not carry any more, they just allowed themselves to fall off, like a leach, full of blood, and were quickly replaced by others.

Paul Berg (formerly Wagenberg) of Victoria, Australia, “Rice”, originally retrieved from rickshaw.org/rice (3 Feb 2013)

Mao Zedong used collectivization as his means for limiting grain distribution. The practice began in 1953 and led quickly to hoarding and black market price hikes. For those who could not afford those prices, famine soon followed. In Mao’s day, asking someone whether he had eaten rice that day or any day of the week was no idle question.

My novel in progress, Peace Court, takes place in Shanghai 1953. Qian Zhong is a police officer and a true believer in the Communist cause. When he enters the room, he won’t ask whether you’ve eaten rice. He’ll bellow instead, long live Chairman Mao!

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