“Filipinos smell like rice.” The way it was said didn’t sound like a compliment. Our foreign colleagues at a luxury resort in the Middle East found it unusual how we – Filipinas especially — brushed our teeth at break time (this damages the protective enamel, they say), washed our hair every day and wondered how we managed to look fresh all day. Those who became our friends knew that Filipinos had a penchant for baths – not quick showers – at least twice a day.
Exceptionally conscious about our bodily scent, many of us Pinoys like to poke fun at how others smelled a certain way. But back in that cosmopolitan desert, I quickly discovered that when I ate what the locals ate, I began to smell the way they did. You are what you eat, so the saying goes. I reckoned whatever we take into our bodies must somehow find its way into our bloodstream, providing a unique flavor that seeps through our skin in a combined form of odor and sweat.
While I began to smell gamey from all the mutton curries and exotic spices I curiously devoured, my nose detected how my less adventurous friends did in fact smell like rice. Not of uncooked grains, but distinctly of steamed rice, bubbling fresh in the pot and filling the room with its sweetish vapor. Not a bad thing, considering why we need so much rice to go with our predominantly rich cuisine.
Can you imagine eating adobo on its own? How do you appreciate all that savory, salty, sweet goodness of chicken, or gloriously greasy, sizzling pork sisig without rice to neutralize the heady flavors of these beloved Pinoy staples? How will you best enjoy the thick and salty, tangy-sweet sauce of bistek tagalog? You can wipe what’s left of it with your finger and lick ‘em, but nothing brings more satisfaction than mopping the inside of the bowl with a fistful of nicely sticky, fluffy white rice.
Do you know anyone who’s still on the Atkin’s diet? Has anyone managed to stick with his no-rice diet forever? Imagine the suffering of eating these with bread, or nothing at all — sour sinigang, savory bulalo, sweet longanisa, sautéed crab fat, overnight paksiw na bangus, salty tuyo and salted egg. You need something hearty that you could swallow along with every delicious dish. Our food is the way it is — rich, salty, at times bitter, sour and sweet – because we need rice to go with it.
Rice gives us more reason to chew and time to relish the sensory experience in the mouth. Rice stretches our creativity, allowing us to make so much out of it — from porridge, cakes to spring roll wrappers. Fried, freshly cooked or leftover, rice gives us strength to last through the day. Somehow, the humble fried eggplant or steamed okra seem less impoverished when paired with rice. Because rice is the greatest leveller. It is the ultimate symbol of Asian abundance. In fact when moving house, it’s one of the first items we carry into our new home. For Filipinos who simply love to eat, rice to us becomes the reason to eat even more (mas napapadami ang kain!). To feel full (busog) is a way of life.
Who cares if we smelled like steamed rice, it if makes life sweeter?