The rice cooker I own is a dinged-up workhorse, its aluminum insides browned from years of use. My family lugged it between the United States and Asia numerous times throughout my childhood. I still remember how my stomach growled as a kid, watching the curls of steam rise from a fresh batch of chubby white grains piled in a fluffy heap on my plate each night for dinner. It didn’t matter what was on the menu—we always had rice.
Thanks to my dad’s hotelier career, that rice cooker followed us into a string of hotels we called home; it was the one constant in every new en suite kitchen. What changed were the things we put on our rice: vinegary chicken adobo in the Philippines, sweet and smoky lap cheong sausage in Hong Kong, or spicy beef rendang in Singapore. Not every ingredient survived each move. During a stint in New York City, when my dad was managing director of the Plaza Hotel, I asked my Filipina amah (nanny) to top my rice with paksiw na isda, a bold-smelling fish I grew to love in Manila. It’s cooked whole in vinegar, ginger, and fish sauce. After we realized the aroma had wafted down the hotel’s chandeliered hallway, we never made it again.
The nightly rice tradition began with my Japanese American mother. When I was growing up, she was a hotelier’s wife who wore Hermès scarves and attended lavish parties, but she had spent her own childhood living off her carpenter father’s modest means in Honolulu, sharing a single bathroom with her family of six. The rice cooker that fed them was a small, heavy iron pot that had a permanent place on their stove. Ours, on the other hand, sat in lavish hotel suites. But the nightly duty of washing rice, one of my mom’s tasks as a little girl, became our own family ritual. She swore we would live a normal, non-spoiled existence inside these hotels, with chores and home-cooked meals, even though room service was just a phone call away. And between my dad’s business trips and our exotic school excursions to the Himalayas or the Great Barrier Reef, we prepared and ate dinner every night as a family.
When I went off to college in Northern California, my mom gave that rice cooker to me. She, my dad, and my younger brother lived in Singapore at the time, but I think she knew I needed it more than they did. She was right—it was a godsend to be able to make a hot meal in my dorm during late-night cram sessions. But more than that, it reminded me, just as it does today in my New York City kitchen, to be open to trying new flavors and to maintain my appetite for exploring the world, secure in the knowledge that every time I turn on my rice cooker, no matter where I am, I’ll be home.