February 14, 2014

Home is where the rice is

The way to a student’s heart is through her stomach.

Eleanor Hyun / The Chicago Maroon

The Lunar New Year–themed fourth meal last week was the peak of my four and a half quarters of UChicago dining hall experience for one reason and one reason only—those sesame balls from Chinatown. I hope you had a chance to experience them, and if you didn’t, I have to sincerely apologize, not in that impersonal “I’m sorry for your misfortune” way but in the very personal “I’m sorry that it probably had something to do with my friends and me immediately grabbing as many as we could pile onto a plate, eating three of the baseball-sized balls each, and then gingerly wrapping a couple in paper napkins as we left the dining hall” way.

That night my friends and I were running around Bartlett checking each station, like it was some kind of Easter egg hunt. Completely undercooked pad thai from Noodles for which I waited in a 15–minute–long line? Hell yeah. Fried potstickers with a sweet and sour sauce that’s really more like really really sweet sauce? Give me that shit.  White rice?

OK. Bartlett, we need to have a serious talk about your rice. I used to eat rice at home every day with almost every meal, and for a while I dutifully searched out the rice from your assorted stations until I felt that I had gathered enough data points to extrapolate that it would consistently be undercooked and taste like cardboard for the rest of the foreseeable future. And the Mongolian grill option in South doesn’t seem to fare much better. I don’t know how it’s possible to mess up something like rice this badly this consistently, but I suppose I’m not one to talk, seeing as I’ve never cooked rice for thousands of students on a stove or in a pan before. You see, the amount of rice my family of six ingests on a daily basis means that it saves us significant time and effort to invest in a rice cooker, which makes perfect, glutinous rice every time with about two minutes of prep and industrial-sized variants of which can be found at every Asian buffet ever. I can imagine it now: fresh, plump, white rice emerging steaming from a cooker stationed either by the soups or by that neglected garden water corner that could seriously use a bit more business.

One of the things which surprised me the most about my first year of college was how jarring the transition from eating every meal with rice and Korean sides to eating without them was. Before I got to college, I never thought I’d be homesick, but ever since coming here I’ve had a constant yearning for my home’s food—the kind of yearning that prompts post-midnight ogling of images of the Asian food that I have such limited access to here in Hyde Park (don’t even get me started on Crapè Corea), long sighs over dolsot bibimbap and tteok mandu guk with friends, and an ongoing search for the best Asian restaurants around.

I think it goes without saying that food matters. My family always eats together, and eating has become an act of comfort for me, where the end is signaled not by a feeling of fullness, but one of satisfaction. I have always been fascinated by the way my dad, a man strong and stoic as a rock and expert at deferring pleasure for work, eats—noisily and unrestrained, equally full-mouthed and full-hearted. For the first 13 years of my life, I couldn’t fathom the odd taste of pickled cabbage—the Korean staple, kimchi—but, watching my dad’s obvious enjoyment always somehow convinced me that it must be delicious, and maybe I’d understand if I tried it one more time. Recently, when eating noodles with friends, one of them commented on how delicious I made mine look. Somewhere along the line I have inherited my dad’s ability to find simple yet profound joy not only in kimchi, but in good Asian food.

I’m urging Bartlett and the other dining halls to get, at the very least, a rice cooker. And I’m also encouraging them to supply a few cheap but invaluable accessories—kimchi, sesame oil (which I saw at the salad bar last week, much to my excitement), soy sauce, and miso soup, to name some very simple options. It’s a small investment that will make the meals of many students infinitely more enjoyable and comforting. Considering that 28 percent of the class of 2017 and 17 percent of the entire college are Asian, the potential gains are significant—and by no means is appreciation for a good bowl of rice limited to Asian students.

The moment I bit into that sesame ball, a treat my family picks up from Chinatown every time we visit, Bartlett’s Lunar New Year fourth meal changed from a novelty event with sparse decorations to an offer of inclusivity and comfort.

It’s already hard enough to help students feel at home in college, what with them having been ripped from almost all the existing social supports they’ve known for their whole lives and all. But if we want to try, I believe food, more specifically a rice cooker, is a powerful place to start.

Eleanor Hyun is a second-year in the college majoring in English.