My Red Rice Failures Are Lessons in Gratitude
The first time I can remember hearing the word “pocha” was in high school. My girlfriend explained that it was a word used to describe Americanized Mexicans who don’t speak Spanish. I wrote the word on the side of my Converse All Stars — something to think on while staring into space during math class.
Pocha (or pocho) is often used disparagingly; it’s not the sort of label you would proudly claim. I’m still unsure if the word even applies to me. My mother is a white woman whose family came from the South, and my father is an immigrant from Mexico with an extended mixed-status family. Either way, I spent a large part of my young adulthood embarrassingly deep in my bicultural feelings. Am I Mexican enough? Am I Mexican if my Spanish is basically non-existent? What does it mean to be a Latina?
As an adult, I learned that when you come from two wildly disparate cultures, grappling with your identity in this way is very normal. After years of struggling to sort this out, it was learning to cook that really helped me process my feelings — a common experience for the children of immigrants and others who grow up in multicultural homes.
In my early 20s, I dropped out of college and moved to Arizona to help raise my two young nieces. I was all of a sudden in charge of two ravenous toddlers, so I taught myself to cook. Soon, I could expertly make a casserole or plan a decent dinner using the Crock-Pot. While these were certainly the kind of meals my mom’s family made when I was growing up, it wasn’t cooking that spoke to me. After about a year, I moved back to California and brought these new skills with me.
When I was growing up, my dad and I had a contentious relationship, but when I returned home from Arizona at age 23 that began to change. The healing started in the kitchen, where we cooked alongside each other, recreating his family recipes. I understood that he was passing down something precious. Once I felt comfortable with some basic Mexican dishes, cooking became a creative outlet for my bicultural identity.
At 36, I am confident in who I am, but there is one thing that makes all of this surety feel fragile: rice, specifically Mexican rice, otherwise known as red rice or Spanish rice. This is not a variety of rice, but rather a way of cooking rice with tomato sauce. Growing up in a low-income home, there were days when all we ate for dinner was red rice. The dish played a pivotal role in my home and it is a pillar of Mexican food in the United States.
I am an accomplished home cook who is excited by complicated, multi-step dishes that take hours or even days to prepare. Still, I have never successfully made Mexican rice. I’ve developed workarounds for other kinds of rice — like making basmati in the microwave or brown rice in the oven — but Mexican rice continues to elude me. Even though I understand water-to-rice ratios, my red rice either comes out mushy or hard or crisp on the bottom like tahdig — but not in a good way.
There was a moment when I thought I learned the secret. My mother had just died and all of the women on my father’s side of the family came to our home with groceries from the local Mexican market, including a 10-pound bag of rice. In an attempt to get my mind off of things, my cousin Goretty started talking to me about cooking. I confessed to her that I didn’t know how to make Mexican rice, so we set out to make it together. She taught me how to toast the raw rice in vegetable oil for much longer than it seemed reasonable. This would help make the rice fluffy, she explained. Some people add blended fresh tomatoes to their rice red; others use canned tomato sauce. I grew up eating red rice that had frozen carrots, green beans, and peas mixed into it, but Goretty explained that chopped onions and garlic were more than enough.
Goretty’s rice was perfect and the time we spent in the kitchen that day provided a brief reprieve from my earth-shattering grief. I thought her tip about frying the rice would crack the code for me, but more than a decade later I still haven’t successfully made a pot of Mexican rice (although I recently made risotto in the oven that accidentally mimicked its flavor).
I’ve mostly made peace with my predicament, and my inability to make Mexican rice helps me to appreciate it in a different way: Because I can’t master this dish and don’t eat out much, I mostly have it when I’m back home in Los Angeles, where I devour it in all of my favorite forms. I love it in my dad’s arroz con pollo, and eaten straight out of the fat styrofoam cups purchased by the pound at the Northgate Gonzalez Market on Telegraph Road where the rice smells like chicken stock and comes studded with peas. If I’m really lucky my aunt Lupe will deliver a homemade batch, heavy on the garlic.
There is this pervasive idea that Mexican food is fast, cheap, and easy — a misconception that offends me deeply. I know how complicated it is to make even the most basic dishes sold in Mexican restaurants, including the rice served on the side that most people treat as an afterthought. I know the work it takes to make fluffy and flavorful Mexican rice because I’ve tried and failed dozens of times. Every time I eat Mexican rice, I think of the hands that made it; the measurements and techniques and seasonings the cook must know in their bones. Eating this deceptively simple dish has become an exercise in gratitude — a gift I’m happy to have in exchange for the ability to make it myself.