“I hate rice.”
Spoken out loud to my camera, in a state of nervous exhaustion, my second day of rice duty.
I should have filmed the night before when I was actually crying. More dramatic. I don’t have the instincts for this Youtube thing. I would also like to have used a certain **** intensifier but I want to keep it classy. Also, my mum reads this blog. (Hi mum!)
Four days earlier, my senpai Sen had mused, “I wonder if it’s about time for Feli to start learning how to do rice? Usually people start learning after their first month. You’re picking up everything really quickly though, so we can probably start a little earlier. How about next week?”
Two days later, Sen was on her day off, when Momoka announced over breakfast, “Feli, I think you should start learning to do the rice. What do you think?”
Well… Sen had said I was ready.
“Sure, I guess.”
“Great, I’ve set up the morning already. You can help me in the afternoon.”
The rice bench is tucked away on the other half of the kitchen to where most of the moritsuke arrangement gets done. While two or three people usually occupy the table, speedily plating pickled tsukemono and other dishes, the rice is a one person job.
Some people, like Fuka, like the job for this reason. You have your own space, and time without others waiting on you to finish. On a rough day, it can be a nice retreat. But there’s a lot for one person alone to remember.
“So there are 45 guests today,” Momoka said flipping through a sheaf of papers pegged to a rack. “These numbers tell you how much rice we will need. Then we need to think how many people we have today. But we got a lot of rice come back from after breakfast, so if you think that is enough for us, then we don’t need it. Also the o-ima. They need to have fresh rice. Us and the obou-san monks can have returned rice, or the rice we didn’t use this morning.”
“Ok… So, how much rice do we need?”
“Have a quick look at the customers for today. See generally how many Japanese and gaijin there are. Gaijin don’t eat much rice, so you probably won’t need as much.”
“Ok… looks like about half half, so in that case…?”
“Weeell, we’re having curry for lunch today, so… “ She looks at two large tupperware tubs full of rice brought back from breakfast. “Do you think this will be enough for us? Us and the monks?”
I have literally no idea how much is enough.
“Hmmmm…” She flips through the papers again and chooses a number seemingly at random.
“Let’s make 4 shou.” **1 shou = 1.8 L worth of rice.
Momoka showed me where to find all the rice hitsu, large, red, plastic containers, made to look like the traditional lacquered receptacles, and count them out according to the number of guests needing rice. She showed me how she washes the rice, letting the water fill a huge bucket before dunking it in briefly for the first wash, and shaking the water out while filling for a second, third, fourth wash. We washed a large colander of rice to put in the main cooker for the guests, and a small portion of rice for the o-ima, and any guests who want o-kawari, or seconds.
“This is how I wash the rice, but you can find your own style and when you do, I’m sure it will be awesome!” She said. “Put all of your energy into it, and your power will connect with the guests. Ok, we leave this to dry for about 30 minutes.” We stored the rice under the bench.
“Now, you will need the o-ima’s rice before their lunch, so you should turn it on about 40 minutes before then. The other one we can do later.”
“Later? When is later?”
“And when do the o-ima eat?”
“Around 12pm. While you are doing nokori, the leftover jobs, you can heat up our rice little by little so that it is ready.” She started dishing rice from the tupperware into a small bowl. “Heat it, and quickly do some job, then come back, put it in the big warmer and repeat. I’ll come back from cleaning the hanare toilets, and help you.”
Nokori (the leftovers) is not so bad a job once you’re used to it. Left alone in the kitchen on the first morning of doing it was a sequence of stressed out “what nexts?” “Oh god, I forgot to do this, that, and all the other things!”
Heat rice, heat rice cooker, set bowls and cups for the monks’ lunch, respond to microwave ding to heat more rice, clean one outside toilet, heat more rice, wipe the floors, oh god it’s already time for the oima’s lunch set, clean the other outside toilet, forget to change the hand towels, remember while reheating more rice…
“Felicity, how do you say minutes in Japanese?”
Jack’s question makes me pause. It’s a difficult question to answer and I feel scattered from all the jobs I’m forgetting.
“Like, 5 minutes.” He adds.
This is easy.
“Ah, Go fu-n.” I sound out the word slowly for him, “Fuuu – nnnn.”
“Ah, go means five… fu-n minutes. Got it!” He wandered off, and I wondered what I had done.
5 minutes = go fun. But 3 minutes would be san bun and 6 minutes would be roppun. The way the word for minute sounds changes depending on the number in from of it.
Counting is just not easy in Japanese.
You can’t just count 1, 2, 3 (ichi, ni, san). There needs to be a word that distinguishes that the thing you are counting is long (ippon, nihon, san bon), or flat like paper (ichi mai, ni mai, san mai) or that it’s a large mechanical object (ichi dai, ni dai, san dai) or a tiny animal, like a beetle or a cat (ippiki, ni hiki, san biki) but not as big as an elephant. That would necessitate a different word.
There are words for counting sushi (kan), yachts (sou), chopsticks (zen), and of course people.
But for some reason, in the kitchen, all counter words are rendered into the one used for people. As in: “ano ko shimatte.” = “Please put that kid away.”
“Obon chodai, hittori.” = “Get me a tray, one (person)”
“Zeiin tsukatte” = “Use everyone.”
“Anniki imasuka?” = “Is the older brother here?”
“Ie, anniki mou zenbun tsukatte, otouto dake imasu.” = “No, we used all the older brother, only the little brother is here.” – Older brother, and younger brother is how we describe older, or fresher ingredients.
Makes sense… right?
Kitchens have their own vocabulary, too.
“Makanai”, for example, means “us” or, maybe more correctly, “the staff”, especially when talking about our food. It sounds similar to the word makenai – can’t lose – which makes it confusing in a sentence like “makanai no ocha mottekitte” – which I thought was: “Get the tea that can’t lose.”
The toilet is referred to as Ichiban, because toilet I guess sounds too dirty around food.
We in the kitchen are Itaba, and the head chef is Itacho.
When we’re not speaking in kitchen-code, we’re more often than not using gion-go or onomatopoeia.
“Pass me the shu-shu.” shu-shu = the sound that alcohol spray makes.
“Put all the basha basha (the onomatapaea of splashy) items in this container.”
“Make the rice fuwa fuwa ” fuwa-fuwa = the sound of airy or fluffiness.
“wacha wacha!!” The sound of mess, loudness, clutter, confusion.
Momoka came back, but started washing the bathmats and chatting with Fuka. Hoku came back from her toilet cleaning and helped me, turning on the burners in the kitchen so that the food was warmed in time for the monks as they rush in and rush out like the tide.
By the time I sat down for out lunch, my insides were completely wacha wacha. I was trembling like I’d overdosed on caffeine and it was hard to feel calm. It took me only about 5 minutes to finish my lunch, sans chewing, and I went out to the inner garden with a cup of tea. It was early autumn and only the very tips of the top maple leaves had started blushing red. The pond reflected a gorgeous blue sky that I was unable to enjoy. Yuko joined me with a fleece blanket and her book.
“Momoka wasn’t with you?” She asked. “Hmmm. She should be next to you the whole time. But she’s very artistic, and she gets easily distracted. She sees some job and she goes off and does that.”
“I hate this.” I said, “I’m losing all the confidence I have in myself. I thought I had pretty much mastered everything, but then there’s this whole other aspect to the job that is like a good 50% worth of it, and there’s just so much to remember.”
“No, Feli, you’re very fast. You’ve already picked up so many things already. You’ll get the hang of this too.”
At 2pm, I took out the tsukemono plates like I always do.
“Feli,” Momoka said, “You’re over at the rice station, remember.”
Dammit, can’t get out of it.
Momoka showed me how to pour the pre-washed rice into a net, inside the large cooker, fill it with water. She explained the different sizes of the rice hitsu containers, and the different sized shamoji rice scoops.
“Everyone has their own way of doing rice, and when you find your own way, I’m sure it will be great!” She said in English.
Yeah, but how do I do it? I thought, becoming increasingly frustrated with her empty instructions, no matter how positively provided they were.
At 4:50pm we started making the rice for the oima‘s dinner.
“Make it like a hill.” She said, “Not flat. Fuwa soft and fluffy, like the oima. Don’t let it touch the sides. Beautifully.”
“More up.” She helped me shape the rice into a smooth hill shape.
At 5:05pm we started dishing out the rice into the hitsu together.
“A little more, a little more. Too much.”
Midway through, as the monks raced to place soup and meals on trays and rush them out the door, Miya, the boss’s wife, came up to the rice station with some obvious issue with the rice I had made for the oima.
“Did you do it for everyone? All the guests? Just the oima?” She demanded.
Not having a clue what I had done, I could only apologise.
“Hmm, don’t do it. Okay?” She left.
Momoka had gone to helped Hoku with the soup. I wasn’t sure what to do. Yoshida, finished pouring soup, swaggered out from the kitchen and flung a small plastic container down onto the table before me, turned and left. I stared at it for a moment, then turned back to filling rice hitsu promptly forgetting it.
As I filled the sink with water to soak the rice cooker, Momoka came back.
“What was Miya upset about?” I asked.
“The rice was too round, like a hill. It looked artificial. But you know, it depends on the person. The old oima, the grandma, she likes it that style. She said it looks like a hill of snow. But Miya doesn’t like it. Just be careful ok.”
But that was the way you showed me…
Yoshida strode up, looking for the container he had tossed at me earlier, expecting it to be full of rice, and instead finding it empty and ignored. He was so shocked, he was speechless, and turned and went back into the kitchen. Momoka raced to deliver it properly to him.
After the cleanup that night, Aya filled some tea for me, Yuko and Hamu. Hamu stole Yuko’s tea.
“Hamu, that’s sexual harrassment.” Aya said.
Hamu stole Aya’s tea, and then went to make Yuko another cup, turning the tea tap on the cooler and filling cups continuously while drinking to make her laugh. Eventually he lost against the tea and it spilled across the floor. I tossed him a cloth. As he bent to wipe, his body suddenly contorted into a weird pose. I froze, thinking he was making fun of me.
“Do you know this, Feli? It’s from an anime. Whenever the main character does a job, he has to do a cool pose first.”
“Like this.” The boys start doing different poses, each more ridiculous that the last. It felt good to laugh after such a stressful evening.
Momoka came in to say goodbye.
“You did great Feli! Tomorrow you can be rice tanto all day.”
Walking through the temple gives me peace.
Dark, wooden floors, polished by time, feet and a very Japanese daily cleaning ritual whereby you put both hands on a wet towel stretched out on the floor, then, pushing it before you, run along the floor hoping your feet don’t slip out beneath you on the slick wood.
There are dim, dark corridors with squeaking boards, perfect for ninja practice. There are places where the walls give way to glass doors, looking out on the tangled forest garden. The light was particularly beautiful that day, soft and blueish, like a feeling of meditation. Like a colour filter over reality. The air seemed more solid, like a gauze. All I wanted to do was grab my camera, but there were toilets to clean.
“Don’t you think the light is beautiful today?” I asked Bolta. He was sitting on the floor emptying bins as I returned from the now sparkling Ichiban.
“Today?” He laughed.
“Look.” We both looked out on the garden. Bolta staring more or less directly into the sun rather than at the soft shadows it was casting on the floor.
“Look over there, where the shadows are. They aren’t hard like usual, right? More soft, yasashi… kind.”
“Oh yeah, it would be a good spot to meditate in.” He said.
“Do you think you will?”
“Oh no,” He laughed, “I almost never meditate. Only with the guests.”
The next day Sen was back at work.
“You’ve started doing rice already?”
“Yeah, from yesterday, with Momoka.”
Miya had suddenly taken much more interest in me, and my work, and wandered through the kitchen at random moments during the day to adjust my rice technique.
“You don’t need to wash the rice so thoroughly, it’s good to have a little bit of colour in the water. It adds umami. ” **umami is a flavour sensation like salty, sweet, sour.
“Don’t scrape the shamoji on the side of the hitsu, ever.”
While I tried to find a way to make the rice appear fuwa fuwa, and delicious, that would make the customers feel anshin and at ease when they opened their containers.
Meanwhile, rice spreads like crazy. Without seeming to touch, it sticks to the outside of the rice hitsu, to my fingers, my arms. Yuko picked some off my apron.
“Emergency rations? Oops, there’s more of it.”
That night, I was only halfway through dishing out rice when the evening dashimasu started, and the monks trailed in to take soup, tea and rice to the customers.
“Sen, can you help me?” I called. She came over, but Momoka, overhearing, had come over too and Sen went back to where she had been working.
Unfortunately, so then did Momoka. Things were going wrong with the evening dashimasu. The wrong amount of soups, and tea were being put on the trays. The numbers of rice hitsu had been miscounted and some were missing. The order was getting confused, and monks were coming back from the rooms that had already had their meals delivered.
I dropped a hitsu and sticky rice coated the floor.
“It’s ok Feli,” Sen called, “Don’t worry.”
Yuko came over with a fresh hitsu, and Sen came over to collect the last containers.
“It’s all my fault.” I said, starting out at the chaos of misdirected trays and exasperated monks. “I’m so sorry.
“It’s not your fault, you should never have been left alone. Why don’t you go set our table for dinner.”
I escaped to our room, but it was too late to stop the tears. I felt overwhelmed, and utterly guilty for having caused so much confusion.
Sen came in, and saw my red eyes.
“Why don’t you go up to your room for a bit?” She suggested, “I’ll take care of dinner.”
I think she was the only one who noticed. Hoku called me for dinner, and after swallowing the sobs, I joined them. Momoka was in a fine mood, chatting brightly with Fuka across the table, while I sat at her right elbow, silent and fixated on my meal.
“She wanted to teach you while I wasn’t here.” Sen fumed later, “She knew that I had planned to start teaching you next week.”
“Why would she do that?” Yuko asked. The three of us sat at the table after work, with three cans of Asashi beer.
“She thinks I’m the reason Yama was fired. Or maybe she thinks she can teach better than me. I don’t know. That’s why I couldn’t come help you Feli, did you see how she rushed over when I came to help. Anyway, just hold on another few days, and then she’ll go back to working nights at the bar, and I’ll teach you.”
“Sen’s teaching method is really easy to understand.” Yuko said, filling my glass with more beer.
“Hora, I’m from Yamagata, the place of delicious rice, so it’s in my blood.”
I’ve been doing rice for almost 2 months now, and like the other jobs my muscle memory has kicked in and everything goes a lot more smoothly now.
There are still moments of panic, like, after washing the inner seal of the small rice-cookers, I forgot to replace it. I didn’t realise until 8 minutes (happun) before it finished cooking.
“Do you think it will be ok?” I asked Hoku.
“I don’t know… no one’s ever done it before.”
So Sen and I stood waiting for the rice to finish – me anxiously, Sen laughingly interested in the result.
I held my breath as Hoku chewed a spoonful.
“It’s ok.” She announced, “I like it this way – a little hard.”
Relating the story to Yuko the next day, she replied, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that before.”
Everyone has different ways of doing the rice.
Momoka holds the rice out of the water until the last moment, then dunks it in, shuffles it around, then flips it to release the water.
Sen leaves the rice in the bucket while it fills, rushes about doing other jobs, then, angling her hand diagonally, scoops the rice from the bottom of the net, while swivelling the bucket.
Sen takes note of the age of the rice in order to judge the amount of water to put in. With Shinmai – new rice, and also a metaphorical term for newbie – the amount of water should be just on the line or else the texture will be too soft, and betcha betcha. There is nothing worse than betcha betcha rice. With older rice, you can afford to put in one or two milimetres of water extra, above the line. It is hard to please every palate however. One day I was praised by the Okusan because my rice was so soft. Whereas Hoku, and Yuko like their rice hard. Foreigners will leave their rice almost untouched, which can be dispiriting, as you wonder if the rice wasn’t tasty enough, but then once a group of 19 Taiwanese wanted refills of rice twice!
We always disagree on the amount of rice to cook. The numbers chart makes more sense to me now, along with all the crazy variables like curry vs soba for lunch. (For some reason, when we have a fish dish, we consume a lot of rice), but more often than not if it’s a number like 3.7 shou of rice, I will round up to 4 even though it means we get an extra 5 people’s worth of rice. We always eat it.
Sen uses a shamoji to seperate the rice from the side of the hitsu, leaving a clear space all around the edge. Traumatised by Miya’s chatisement, I do not do this preferring Yuko’s method of ladling a shamoji full of rice into the hitsu and leaving it to seperate naturally. Apparently this looks both natural, and delicious. It’s also easy, and fast.
Sen puts the washed rice into water as soon as possible and leaves it to soak, openly appalled that Momoka leaves it out to become kapi kapi – dried out. She whispers, “oishi kunare – be delicious” to the rice as she switches on the heat. I sometimes give the cooker an encouraging pat before switching on the gas.
I stack all of the hitsu into towers, which is something no one else does. I guess I found my own style.
I scooped some rice out of my father-in-law’s rice cooker.
Wow, this rice is hard. I thought, as my shamoji formed it into a little mountain, I wonder how much water he put in…