On rice, knedliky and pivo

An interracial relationship comes with many learning moments. It’s in the moments of sharing takeaway Asian food that I am reminded of our different life experiences.

The styrofoam squeaks in the translucent plastic bag adorned with “Děkujeme” (Thank You). We set the dining table and prepare to feast. I open the first container, and seeing it’s not mine, pass the beef and green bean stir fry, and hot and sour soup to my wife. I break apart my chopsticks and rub them together in a ritualistic offering of incense to the unseen gods above. Saliva is well and truly coming.

Despite my self-confessed food snobbery, from time to time, I just can’t help but order a big plate of sweet and sour chicken with rice from my local Čínské Bistro. Far from authentic Asian fare, I am still comforted by its familiarity. There is a universality to Chinese takeaway food that cannot be matched. From the humble streets of rural Australia, to the endless fluorescent glare of American shopping malls, give me a bowl of rice and a steaming pile of greasy, battered chicken slathered in bright orange sauce, and I’m a happy camper.

But not all rice is created equal.

Living in an interracial relationship comes with many teaching and learning moments. It’s in these moments of sharing takeaway Asian food that I am reminded of the vast difference in experiences we have.

Photo: Kevin Loo
“What are you doing with your rice!?”

“What do you mean?”

“Ha ha ha, that’s not how you eat rice!”

“What’s wrong? This is how all Czechs eat their rice with soup! Who cares?”

“Heavens above!”

To my shock, she has begun scooping spoons of rice into her soup bowl. I laugh as I survey the scene. It’s then that I notice the absolutely different way in which her table place is set compared to mine.

Her beef and green bean stir fry is placed conspicuously in front of her, her bowl of rice is set to the side...which she is unceremoniously dumping into her soup by the spoonful. A travesty!

It’s a funhouse mirror reflection of my own table setting: rice directly in front of me, chopsticks neatly aligned parallel to the table edge, with my sweet and sour chicken placed at a 315 degree bearing from my compass north.

For my wife, rice is the side dish, with meat being the main. For me, rice is the main event.

Love of food is paramount in the Asian culture. As highlighted by Jiayang Fan in The New Yorker earlier this year:

“To be fed [is] to be loved, and to live [is] to taste the world. (In Chinese, the character for “life” contains the component word “tongue.”)”

On an even deeper level, the character for ‘food’ - shi2 ‘食’ is said to have derived from the ideograph of an open mouth over a bowl of hot rice. Rice and food are serious business.

It’s no wonder that my parents don’t always open conversations with, "How are you?", but a genuinely inquisitive "Have you eaten yet?" Who cares how your day was? Just come and have some of this sweet and sour chicken!

Which made me ponder...what do Czechs hold in the same esteem as I do rice? Dumping rice into soup, adding coconut oil into a pot of boiling rice, putting rice to the side of the table...what acts of culinary barbarism could I inflict on my Czech counterparts?

Perhaps knedliky? The way my father-in-law took offense at the tourists in Lokal who ordered spinach as the side to their goulash? (He still brings it up in conversation more than five years later). Maybe the meal that shouldn’t exist as a main menu item, as a vegetarian option no less, smažený syr?

There can only be one answer...beer.

Photo: Lenka Žižková,  Radio Prague International

Linguists generally agree that the root of the word ‘pivo’ comes from old church Slavonic/proto-Slavic meaning ‘drink’, the modern verb being the simple ‘pít’. You’d think that water, or ‘voda’ would be the basis from which the verb of drinking would come from, but no...of course it had to be beer!

It reminded me of the time I brought a group of European friends to a craft brewery in Vinohrady. Proudly touting new flavours and styles beyond a Pilsner or dark Kozel, my Czech and German friends were far from impressed. The sour ales, chocolate stouts and cherry lagers were an affront to their taste buds.

“This is no beer,” they decried as they twisted their faces in disgust. They finally opted for the 35kc bottles from the potraviny across the street.

In the popular Czech family drama film Pelíšky, there is a famous scene where the patriarch of the family has a major conflict with his daughter on the definitions of gnocchi and knedliky. It’s a scene that reads as a comical family disagreement, but played to wonderfully dramatic effect, rich with political and social subtexts.

Because while food and drink can be just a source of nutrition and sustenance, it is also deeply symbolic and deeply personal. However, it is also wise to choose our battles. It is simply not necessary to cause a scene like the cantankerous father Kraus, simply because of the way someone chooses to define or enjoy their food or drink.

We scoop up the last dregs of the sauces in our styrofoam plates. My wife, using her spoon, and me bringing the plate to my mouth and shoveling it in with my chopsticks. We let out a satisfied breath of air the way only a full stomach can and we laugh at the way my plate is completely clean, and hers still has a few grains of rice scattered across it. What a waste of rice!

Oh well. Maybe we’ll just order pasta next time.

Author: Kevin Loo
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