- 2020 Volume 15
My grandma’s rice is better than yours
Featured in every Easter brunch and Christmas Eve dinner or special family gatherings for as long as I can remember, this dish consistently brings a smile to my face. When I was a kid, I looked forward to these holidays because I knew that I would get to eat my favorite dish, “Arroz Estica e Puxa” or “Sticky Rice.” However, this is not the ordinary sticky rice you’re most likely thinking of, but I’ll get into that later. To this day, I’m amazed at how my grandma managed to combine such simple ingredients into such a tasty and beautifully crafted dish. My mom has tried to recreate it, as well as my other grandma, but I promise you, no one can make it as perfectly as Vovo Dulce.
The dish is made in a large pan, and assembled carefully but in a messy way, if that makes any sense. Rice, ham, cheese, olives, and peas are all one needs to make this dish. At this point, you might be wondering why I love this dish so much if its so simple. The way the cheese gets pulled and the little pieces of ham that become hidden in the rice and the colorful appearance of the dish when it has just come out of the oven and the cheese on top is yellow and browning at the edges and the green of the peas scattered around the pan, was and still is very magical to me.
Last December, I went back home to Brazil and on Christmas Eve we visited my great-grandmother’s (on my dad’s side) house for lunch, and I knew that my grandma was going to do some of the cooking in order to help my 94 year old great grandma. I secretly crossed my fingers and hoped that my favorite dish would be the main attraction, as I hadn’t eaten it since our last visit the previous year. So when I opened the door to help my grandma bring in presents and food into my great-grandmother’s house, and saw two pans of my favorite rice, I became ecstatic. (I remember being sad because I knew that I still had to wait for it to be put in the oven, instead of digging in right away.) It was a Christmas present all on its own. It had been at least a year since I got to experience this culinary masterpiece à la Dulce. Yes, I had asked my mom to make it, but her version doesn’t even come close to my grandma’s iconic cheesy rice.
The only thing I could think about was digging into the soft, warm, cheesy rice that was sitting right in front of me, the aroma taking over my sense of smell, as I watched my family sit down around the familiar table, that we had eaten meals at many times during my childhood (and we still do, just with less frequency). The two pans of rice had just come out of the oven and we could all hear and smell the sizzling cheese. I watched as other members of the family got spoonfuls of rice and had to cut the cheese with their hands because of how perfectly baked it was. My mouth watered at the sight.
When I finally got to spoon my first bite of the rice into my mouth, an interesting turn of events occurred. 1. I burnt my mouth because it had just come out of the oven. 2. When my tongue had recovered I finally could taste all of the familiar flavors. 3. I couldn’t stop eating it.
As we sat around the table talking and catching up on life, the hours passed and I continued to eat the rice. I think at one point it got cold, but I didn’t care. The different flavors reminded me of my childhood, when I would crawl under the large, dining room table in my grandparent’s apartment and sit there entertaining myself with small spoons and bowls. Or when I would stand on my tiptoes, wearing an apron and my hair pulled back, and attempt to reach the sink so I could help with the dishwashing after a meal. Or walking around the mall with my grandma. Or going to bakeries and buying fresh bread with my grandpa. Or one specific occasion when I left my shoes in their apartment and my grandpa wrote a beautiful poem about the small black flats I had forgotten.
It’s interesting to me how a taste, or a scent, or a texture can open floodgates in your mind that remind you of things that you had completely forgotten. This rice is nothing special, when I was a kid I liked it because of the flavors and the experience of the stretchy cheese. However, now I see the dish in a new light. When I moved from Sao Paulo, Brazil to the United States about 7 years ago, everything changed. As any other 8 year old that has to leave the only home they ever knew, I was hesitant. I miss my country very much, but I’ve learned to appreciate this new one as well. I don’t see my family as much, big family dinners have become rare occurrences. I had to quickly become accustomed to eating different, and unfamiliar foods. And I had to learn an entirely new language in less than one year; perhaps the most significant change. In terms of my favorite rice dish, I only have it when we go back to visit every other year but I have learned that the rarity of it is what makes it extra special, in my heart and my memories. Since the move I see the dish as a way of being transported, to simpler times, to my childhood, back to Brazil.
Photo by Garrett Glasgow