So, today I’d like to tell you about my love-hate relationship with Reunion’s favourite food: rice. Growing up in Australia, with a huge variety of Asian foods, I ate a lot of Vietnamese, Malaysian and Japanese foods. Dinner out with friends nearly always meant green curry with rice, or a delicious pineapple and cashew fried rice at the local Thai restaurant.
So, when I learnt that I’d be coming to an island whose staple food is rice, I thought it would seem familiar. But nothing could prepare me for the deep and passionate love affair that Créoles have with this little grain. There’s just so much of it and it’s taken very seriously.
I quickly learnt that rice has very special rituals and rules attached to it. For example, ask any local which brand of rice they buy, or whether they prefer basmati to jasmine and you can bet you’ll be discussing it for the next 20 minutes. And don’t even think of buying that little 1kg bag. You need a proper big rice jar to store 20 kilos at a time in case guests come round unexpected. But that’s not the end of the matter. You must wash it properly, scrubbing it between your hands for what feels like hours until the water is perfectly clear. Then add just the right amount of water so it cooks until tender but not mushy. For the initiated, that means using your index finger to measure the water up until the first joint.
The first few years here, when eating at a friend’s house or restaurant I’d serve myself a tiny portion of rice, and normal amounts of curry, beans and vegetables. But at home, I’d eat my curry totally rice-free, much to the shock and amusement of my Créole husband and in-laws. You see, even though I’m used to rice, I’ve always eaten it flavoured with spices or vegetables. Plain white rice just tastes like water by comparison.
Today, I’m able to blend in a bit better by eating white rice with my meal but I don’t think I’ll ever embrace the local way of filling up my plate completely with mountains of the stuff. Let alone eat rice 3 times a day like some people I’ve met.
The funny thing about this rice obsession is that we don’t even grow it here. This is embrassing to admit, but being a naïve city girl, when I arrived on the island I assumed the sugar cane plantations were rice fields. I can’t think of many other world cuisines where the main food is imported. So while I appreciate a scoop of rice when I’m eating out, at home I prefer a wider variety of starches. I’m not a huge fan of cassava or corn but give me taro, breadfruit or sweet potatoes any day. At least I don’t have to worry about which brand to buy!
staple food – aliment de base
deep – profond
brand – marque
scrubbing – frotter
mushy – détrempé
in-laws – beaux-parents
blend – mélange
stuff – truc
grow – cultiver
cassava – manioc
corn – maïs
sweet potatoes – patates douces