A Mother, a Pandemic and Scorched Rice

“I’m sending you money to buy rice,” my mom texted me in early March. She had gone to the West Coast to help my sister with her new baby and stayed when it became too risky to fly. As news of the coronavirus intensified, so did her fretting.

“I don’t need money,” I texted back. “Also, I have plenty of rice.”

“No, you have an American amount of rice,” she replied. “Go get the biggest bag you can find.”

I live in New York City and can’t just drive to the supermarket to load up on groceries. Every item has to be carried home, which I don’t mind. The hunting and gathering of city life energizes me, from the stooped butchers at Ottomanelli Brothers, to the East Village pasta maker who throws in an extra handful of gnocchi with your order, to vendors who show up at the farmer’s market, rain or shine.

When I first visited the Big Apple, as a 15-year old, a forgotten bell rang. By then my family was living in American suburbia, but deep in my brain, the echo of another city, the one I’d been born in, sounded. In Saigon, one of my earliest memories was going to the market on a moped with my aunt, sitting on her long, traditional ao dai to keep it from flying in the air, my 3-year-old hands white-knuckling her waist as we zipped through traffic. Even though it was war time, I never felt more alive.

“Please be careful,” my mother texted when the Bay area issued a stay-at-home order, adding, “Let me know when you’ve gotten the rice.” OK, Mom. In the week before New York followed with its own shutdown, I went to the Asian supermarket that sits between an upscale bagel shop and Pakistani-run stationers and grabbed a 15-pounder, cursing my lack of upper body strength as I made my way home.

As I placed the hulking bag on the kitchen floor, I noticed that in my haste I’d gotten new crop rice, which comes from the season’s first harvest. New crop creates a fluffy “pillow” on which to serve vegetables, tofu, shrimp and meat, but newer isn’t always better. Saucier dishes like curry and stew stand up to the firmer texture of older rice. Another downside of new crop, its more delicate constitution makes it trickier to get a good com chay, translated as scorched rice. Americans often ignore the crust that forms at the bottom of the rice pot, but many cultures consider it a delicacy. In Spain, diners vie for the soccarat in the paella pan. Iranians honor guests in their home with tahdig. In Japan, okoge has a place in cherished tea ceremonies. To me, rice without a crispy layer is like carrot cake without buttercream frosting. Why bother?

Electric rice cookers have a setting to create this essential underbelly, but I do it on the stove by trial and error. To make com chay, the most important ingredient is patience. Cook the rice longer than you normally do on the lowest possible setting to coax the desired caramel shell.

When my mother is here, she announces the state of the com chay before serving dinner, like a meteorologist on the morning news.

“Don’t expect too much crunch.”

“Watch for a few spotty areas.”

“Today there’s plenty of goodness for everyone!”

My hunting-and-gathering now on hold, I had to get creative making meals for my daughter Lucy and me, with ingredients on hand. One night, I sautéed fresh curly kale with a dash of oyster sauce and red pepper flakes, sprinkled with a handful of roasted chickpeas and served on a bed of soft and crusty rice.

My hamburger-loving teenager nodded and smiled as she bit into bitter kale complemented by the chickpeas’ silkiness. “Plot twist, I like this and so would Kate,” she said, referring to her health-conscious older sister who is sheltering in Los Angeles and with whom she’d long clashed over what to eat for dinner.

What I like to eat more than anything with com chay is dried pork, shredded with a mortar and pestle and seasoned to a perfect umami flavor. When I found a stash in the back of the freezer, my daughter heard such a yelp that she ran to the kitchen in time to see me pumping my fist with the Ziploc like Boog Joon Ho with his Oscars.

Salted protein is an Asian staple. My mother used to tell us a cautionary story of a family so poor that the parents hung a salted fish over the dinner table and instructed the children to imagine eating it with their plain rice. “Only look at the fish once per bite,” the parents told their hungry brood. “Don’t be greedy.”

“Don’t be greedy” is a lesson reinforced by my time in shelter. That sack of rice has helped me make food stretch, reuse leftovers and complement whatever produce I happen to get. I’ve tried to consume less, not only because deliveries are uncertain but also because I worry about people risking their health to serve my needs. After seeing recent photos of food bank lines, I wonder how many American families have salted fish on their ceiling.

Something else about New York City reminds me of Vietnam. In one of the few photos of me there, I’m with my mother on what looks like a casual stroll, her flat smile betraying the chaos in our lives. There’s no mistaking the tightness behind my eyes. Children, like dogs, can sense insecurity in the air. Yet, we continue to laugh and play, eat and love. Part of us may be scorched but we survive.

Lynn Jones Johnston moved from Vietnam to the United States in third grade. She works as a literary agent in New York City.

*To make scorched rice: You can get a crust by cooking your rice as you normally do, and then leaving it on the very lowest temperature for 10 to 15 minutes longer to crisp the bottom. My mother prefers the parboil method: Rinse a cup of rice until the water runs clear (10 times). Add water to cover rice with a little overage in a pot (about one-and-a-half cups). Bring pot to a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer and keep uncovered. Cook for five minutes until the rice is soft on the outside and hard in the middle. Cover and cook on the lowest setting. After 30 minutes, start checking on the crust. When desired crust forms, turn off heat and wait five minutes. Scrape the crust from the pan and serve.

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