(by Tatiana Gallardo)
Rice is a universal good. Across countries, cultures, continents, and cuisines, rice
shines as a cheap and simple accompaniment. Stew? Chicken? Curry? Beef? Lentils?
Just add rice. It’s an easy win for everyone. Unless we’re talking about the fibrous
brown variety, rice is fast. Rice is flexible. Rice is forever. But rice can also be pretty
damn flavorless—except my mom’s.
I like to think that Mom learned to make next-level rice out of necessity. She immigrated
from Havana, Cuba, where food rations meant people had to get inventive with their
flavor. Rice is cheap. So are garlic, onion, and salt. When you mix them all together, you
get something a little more magical, without a lot more money. Now in the United States,
my mom has shined as a home gourmet cook, preparing meals for local families and
impressing her own family every day.
She’s a gourmet giver. Food is her love language. When I was a kid, she’d save the
best part of the pan for me: la raspa. The crispy bottom bits of the rice that stick to the
bottom and taste like heaven. In my town, everyone knows that Mrs. Gallardo’s rice isn’t
just a side dish. It’s the star of the show.
That’s because my mom doesn’t opt for the simple 1-2-3 shuffle: water, rice, salt.
Instead, she takes the flavor just further enough where her rice packs an unexpected
punch, but it’s still effortless and can be made with her eyes closed and in 20
minutes—tops. Her secret? A sauté.
Before adding salt, before adding water, before even adding the rice itself, my mom
drizzles in some olive oil. A tablespoon or so. Enough to dance across the bottom of a
sauté pan and sizzle the incoming secret weapon: garlic and onions. Into the sauté pan,
my mom swirls in two minced garlic cloves and half of a diced onion. They purr across
the pan, turning translucent.
Next comes the essential, always-measured master move: two teaspoons of kosher
salt. There is no other way around this. If mom believed in tattoos, she’d probably have
this daily practice plastered across her forearm: one teaspoon of salt for every cup of
white rice. Without this, the rice would be bland. Without this, no one would voluntarily
choose to eat a second portion of just the white rice—which happens every time we
have guests over for dinner. Adding salt isn’t a revelation, but this specific amount—coupled with the garlic and onions—reveals the inner potential of the rice. The possibility of tasty greatness that tends to be stifled.
She stirs. The fragrant oil, onion, garlic, salt assembly stands at the top of my favorite
smells on earth list. My mom delicately adds in the rice: two cups of washed white
jasmine rice—the standard portion for our family of four. “You want to coat every rice in
flavor,” she tells me each time I watch her rev up the rice. You have to stir it into the
sauté, covering every little silver.
Then she adds the boiled water. Never measured, just known. It’s about a half inch over
the top line of the rice, and it bubbles in the pan over medium heat. But when do you
cover the rice? You might ask. How will it cook!? When it begins to look like art. My
mom lets the water soak in until little pockets of perfection appear on the top.
Once there are craters of absorption, she adds the pan cover, lowers the heat to a soft
simmer, and walks away. This isn’t just rice-in-the-making. This is a ritual. An act of
devotion. Twenty minutes later—no timer needed, it’s innate—she returns to find
perfectly fluffy, flavorful, not-too-soft, not-too-dry rice. Glistening onions and garlic shine
on the top.
The likelihood of leftovers is slim. But if there is, you might catch me microwaving a
bowl for an afternoon snack. Or you might find my dad, hunched over the stove and
spooning out room-temperature bites of rice mid-morning.
My mom will serve the rice with everything. Picadillo, chicken cutlets, roasted beets,
teriyaki salmon—or if she’s feeling really rushed, she’ll plop a crispy fried egg on top
with her homemade hot sauce and call it Tonight’s Dinner. And even then, this rice
wows. It’s seasoned as it should be. It’s got little gifts of aromatic flavor sprinkled
throughout. It’s “the best rice I’ve ever had,” as my friend Shivani—who eats basmati
rice every night with her Indian family—declared back in high school.
Now as an adult, alone in my adult apartment, I make white rice Mom’s way because it’s
the only way. Never as “just” a side. Never as “just” a carb-heavy filler. Mom’s rice is
magic, so I serve it as the spotlight and carve out the raspa in her honor.
Tatiana Gallardo is a writer and illustrator who lives in New York City. She can be found
1 T. light oil such as avocado, grapeseed, or canola
1/4 yellow onion, diced tiny