I remember, as a child, eating dark, sweet,and fragrant cake/pudding so sticky it got plastered to my teeth. Made of rice, it was the only kind of cake I ate until my mother learned to bake. She didn’t bake those rice cakes. Generous aunts usually brought them. Or, we bought them from street vendors, and at my grandma’s little town, from hawkers chanting their wares as they passed every house on her street.
My memory of this dark mysterious treat began past midnight on Christmas day, standing in front of a 400-year old church, remnant of Spanish domination more than a century ago. What, you might ask, was a three-year-old doing out at midnight?
Those long-ago days, in an obscure town of the Catholic country of my early years, midnight mass was the first ritual of Christmas for old and young. It lasted nine midnights. For me, the ritual ended with a treat after sitting half asleep, leaning on my grandmother, indifferent to words only a few probably understood. The mass was in Latin.
Outside the church, a line of vendors hawked midnight snacks. I pulled my grandmother’s hand, and stopped at the vendor offering hot-dog-sized rolls of sticky purplish black rice. Imagining the taste and feel of those dark, mysterious things on my tongue.
At a nod from Grandma, I cupped my palms, thrust them toward the lady vendor before she could coax those black rolls out of bamboo tubes on an earthen brazier glowing red from burning coals. She placed them on a square of banana leaf. Sprinkled them with freshly-grated coconut and brown sugar.
Nothing, but nothing, could ever duplicate the anticipation, nor the sensation of sinking my teeth into one of those still hot rolls of black rice. The musky-sweet scent of jasmine complementing the cool creamy nuttiness of fresh coconut. The heat of the rolls releasing the herbal fragrance of the banana leaf, infusing every bite with it.
Deep in those dark rolls of rice were secrets about life I still had to discover. Secrets revealed to me only after I left that town of magical memories to navigate a much wider world. Memories reawakened decades later by a bag of glutinous black rice glaring at me from the top shelf at an Asian market in nearby Richmond. It dared me to pick it up.
I kept the bag of black rice in my pantry, mostly out of nostalgia. Rarely using it. Cooking it for a simple bowl of steamed rice took too much time. But then, days later, a server at an Indonesian restaurant enticed me with a bowl of Indonesian black rice pudding.
It was a sweet surprise. Unlike the rolls of black rice, this pudding was softer, served in a large parfait glass through which you could see a thick layer of purplish black pudding and a thin creamy layer of coconut milk. Out of the glass, wafted the irresistible melange of fragrance from jasmine and nutty coconut.
Despite differences in texture, the black rice pudding tasted and smelled much like the black rice rolls of my childhood. Memories of these native delicacies have stayed with me, become part of me. They’ve inspired me to explore food and eating in places I’ve traveled. To discover the mood changing, sometimes transformative, effects of food (as in the film Babette’s Feast, based on a short story by Isak Dinesen). To write food and eating scenes in my fiction (Sugar and Spice and All Those Lies, in particular)—scenes hinting at essential truths about characters, places, and events.
They say there are many ways to skin a cat. Well, there are different ways to resurrect an experience you cherish. And enrich your life with new memories.