I grew up eating rice and all things rice-based. It’s the staple of where I live and it isn’t uncommon for people to eat it three times a day. Except that it made me sick—not in the literal sense, but because I’ve eaten so much of rice already, I can no longer stand the thought of mashing up the soft grains between my fingers, mixing it up in spicy gravy before wholfing it down like a starved dog.
After doing that for more than fifteen years, I got bored. And just when I thought nothing rice-based could surprise me, I had sushi.
I was out for lunch with friends when I saw sushi for the first time without through a camera lens. In a large platter were tiny, delicate, rice rolls, wrapped in a black parchment paper-like, yet edible, material. Some of the rolls had the wrapper, some didn’t. Some had mild pink salmon peeking out, some had cucumber slices while some others had the tail of a fried shrimp jutting out of the top. My eyes popped at the shrimp tail and I reached out for one (okay, five). The waiters had left tongs nearby so we could serve ourselves and save ourselves an embarrassing encounter with chopsticks.
However, I had to take a pair of chopsticks back to the table with me because it would be silly to eat sushi with my hands or—the horror—a spoon. Along with the sushi rolls, the waiters also put a tiny bowl of soy sauce and a plate with green paste and picked ginger, all the while staring in apprehension at this weird woman who preferred to eat sushi without knowing how.
Back at the table, I eyed my sushi rolls wondering if they would fill me up. Five seemed too few. I spilt my chopsticks and one of my friends adept with the tool taught me how to hold it. I had thought rolling up rice between my fingers was funny enough, but chopsticks took it to a whole new level. When I managed to grip the chopsticks and grab a roll, I felt like a champion. The Japanese have a divine approach to food—healthy, colourful, and so damn hard to get hold of.
I picked up a non-wrapped, cucumber-peeping roll, and before it could fall off my chopsticks, I put it in my mouth. A burst of flavour met my unsuspecting tongue. Soy sauce and wasabi were a weird combination. I love spice so the wasabi wasn’t too spicy—but its flavour surprised me nonetheless. It was hard to imagine something so green, so pleasing to the eye, could be ruthless to some palates. And then there was the ginger, pickled ginger that stung my tastebuds making me reach out for more even without me realising it. Every bite I took unravelled the packed rice and the cucumber within, while the flavours of the soy sauce, wasabi, and the pickled ginger seeped through exploding in a nonsensical, yet wonderful, sensation in my mouth. I kept chewing, trying to get through to all the different tastes that the tiny sushi roll had dropped in my mouth.
I next went for a shrimp roll. It was the same thing all over again, but with the crunch of a shattering shrimp tail and chewiness of salty sea weed.
Despite its tininess, I couldn’t eat more than three because the rolls had a handsome portion of rice with a lot packed within.
At the end of the day, though, I had developed a new kind of love for rice—rice to me is no longer just boiled grains soaked in steaming, tangy, gravy as I had eaten all my life, but rice is also a delicacy and a supple bundle of surprise that’s small on the outside and big on the inside.