It is just before lunch time. I walk up to a colleague’s cube to ask a question. As I ask my question my eyes take in a transparent Pyrex container sitting at her desk. It is her lunch. She and I come from the same part of the world so our foods are very similar.
My heart jumps as I can see long-grained basmati rice sticking to the walls of the container. I immediately know it is Pulao rice. The long grain is distinct and proud in its length, cooked to perfection, each grain separate yet succulent. It is not a mushy, sticky, messy goop. Hey, I’ll take goop if it is made of rice.
I will take any form of rice. Long-grain, short-grain, fat, thin, brown, white, yellow, wild, Spanish, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, steamed, fried, soupy, Pulao, Risotto -phew – I need to breathe. You get the point!
My eyes keep darting to the Pyrex container as my colleague answers my question. When she is not looking, I stare longingly at the rice and sigh inwardly. Come lunch time and I pick up a grill-chicken salad and bring it to my desk to stab at it without much enthusiasm.
My colleague calls me to her desk to eat lunch with her.
I don’t want to. I am afraid if I sit with her and see her eating the rice, I might scratch her eyes out and snatch the rice from her hands. She insists I come and eat with her. We are fairly new colleagues and she is not yet familiar with my idiosyncrasies.
I drag my feet to her cube, hauling the dull salad with me. She has heated up the rice and is holding the steaming container in her hands diligently mixing some curry into it.
Come, she says as if inviting me into her home. Try this.
She puts the container in front of me with a tantalizing spoon.
I shake my head.
No, thank you.
Why? You don’t like rice? She asks.
That probably is the understatement of the year.
I like rice, I say. I just can’t process it well.
It is kind of like I am allergic to rice.
Wow! Never heard of that before, she says.
I sit with her and eat my salad all the while keeping my eyes on the salad. I don’t want to ogle when she eats her rice.
Any South Indian will tell you what rice means to us. It is our staple diet. It is a given that it holds a special place in our hearts. But as a confused South Indian, it seems hold an even more special place in my heart than the others. It is also the bane of my existence.
From time to time I cut rice out of my life. I have to. People ask me why I need to cut it out completely. Couldn’t I just cut the portions? Nope. Not happening. Because with rice, I have no concept of portion control. If anything my appetite seems to increase by leaps and bounds until I become this monster with a bottomless pit for a stomach that keeps eating and eating and eating. The part of the brain, that is supposed to tell the body it is full, just switches off because everything just tastes oh-so-good with rice!
My grandmother used to say that once a tiger gets the taste of human blood, it can never eat anything else. It just becomes a man-eater. Something along those lines happens to me when I eat rice. I have a sweet tooth but I can exhibit self-control with sweets. I love donuts but I can not even look at them. I can control eating all other carbolicious delicacies when I am cutting carbs. But rice!
During the initial days of giving it up I constantly fantasize about it. Whatever I cook, I imagine how good it’d taste with rice. I count the days that I haven’t eaten rice and marvel at myself. At parties, when people offer me a drink, I tell myself that rather than ingesting wasteful carbs via the alcoholic beverage or soda, I would rather eat some rice. Even pickle rice – considered a poor man’s diet in India. Sometimes I call home and ask my mother what she has made for dinner. Rice is staple. So she will tell me the curries or chutneys she made that day. I like to hear it. I like to picture in my head my mother’s cooking and eating the rice with it.
I think if someone started a phone line where people talked sensuously about eating rice, I would be the first caller!
It does get better with time. After a while the craving diminishes. The counting, the fantasizing all come down. I do reach a point when I don’t think of it anymore. But that is after a while. After a long while. Provided I am not tempted. Provided I avoid all the places where the devil resides in the form of rice.
What happens when you eat rice? Asks my colleague. Do you break into hives or something?
Not really. Just a kind of intolerance. That’s all.
Oh, come on. Not even a spoon? She pushes the container toward me.
I look at her and at the container. The rice sits there looking back at me. Challenging me. Tantalizing me. It has not been very long since I have given it up this time around. My defenses are weak. I am in a very strong rice-withdrawal phase right now. I really need to eat that rice.
Here, she hands me a clean spoon.
I cave. I pick up the spoon and carefully scoop out a spoonful of hot, steaming rice mixed with curry. I close my eyes and bring it to my mouth. I can smell the spices mixed with the basmati rice. It is a heavenly smell. Inside my mouth, it is spicy and buttery and everything I had imagined it to be. I want to make a sound that is not quite appropriate for a workplace.
You like it? Asks my colleague pleased. I thought you might. I knew you liked spicy food. I added a little extra spice to the curry with you in mind.
She thinks I like the curry!
I love it, I say.
Have another spoon?
I think I will eat the rest of my lunch at my desk, I say and snap the lid shut on my salad.
I just remembered I needed to send out an urgent email. Enjoy the rest of your lunch.
I get up and walk away. The tiger in me, the rice-eater, is awake and growling. By the time I reach my desk it has turned into a lion and is roaring!