By Wayne Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
We just came back from a three-week vacation in Italy! You know what I was looking forward to the most?
Ok, settle down. Don’t let your calzone collapse—we had pizza and pasta up the wazoo.
The last time I was in Italy was 1991. My wife Maya and I were recently married, and we decided to head off for Italy for our honeymoon.
Now here’s the thing about what it’s like for me when I travel somewhere – I’m pretty flexible when it comes to food. I’ll happily eat and enjoy the local cuisine no matter where I am. As they say, “When in Rome…”, and since we were actually in Rome, I was happy to chow down on pizza, pasta, cheese, cured meats, whatever – with one caveat.
I have an inner voice, and this voice stays with me, provides guidance, feedback, and critique, especially at mealtime. He provides a running commentary during and after each meal. It goes something like this:
1st meal of pizza or pasta – This is a fantastic meal, nearly as good as Chinese food!
2nd meal of pizza or pasta – Chinese food would be better, but this is a great meal!
3rd meal of pizza or pasta – Look, I’m reasonable, this is do-able, but let’s go for Chinese next time.
4th meal of pizza or pasta – I thought I’d made myself clear. When are we getting Chinese?
5th meal of pizza or pasta – So that’s how you’re going to play this? I hope you’re a fan of indigestion!
6th meal of pizza or pasta – Four letters! G-O-U-T! Understand me now?
So, listening to my inner voice, at some point during the trip, we found a Chinese restaurant. And since there was no internet (hence, no Yelp), we went to the first Chinese restaurant we passed by. This one was in the center or Rome, which meant it would be expensive.
I don’t remember everything we ordered, but I do remember the fried rice. It cost the equivalent of $25 U.S. One bowl of fried rice cost $25…in 1991. If I recall, in 1991 $25 could buy you a used Honda Accord. In 1991, for $25, Tony Bennett would serenade you while you were dining under candlelight.
Of course, I’m exaggerating. But for $25, that better be the best fried rice on earth.
Here’s the thing – it was the best fried rice on earth. It was amazing.
What was even more amazing – every time we went to another Chinese restaurant in Italy, the fried rice was incredible. I’d never had anything like it here at home or in Asia for that matter.
It was something about the rice. Each kernel of rice was round and luminescent – almost like a pearl. Each bite of rice was chewy, unlike rice I’d ever had. It was absolutely delicious. I just couldn’t get enough of it.
In fact, after the third or fourth Chinese restaurant in Italy, I would ask the waitress to ask their kitchen where they bought their rice. One way or another, I was going to bring some of this rice home. She looked at me as if I had asked the oddest question – and I guess I was.
Besides, it wouldn’t have happened. After I mentioned to my beautiful, talented, and newly wedded wife that I would love nothing more than to bring a few bags of this wondrous rice back home with us, I believe her response was, “Forget it. We are not lugging around bags of rice throughout Italy. It’s probably just Arborio rice anyways.”
Ahh, wedded bliss.
For the next 23 years, every time we’ve gone out for Chinese and ordered fried rice, I’ve reminisced about that rice in Italy and how our rice pales in comparison. Perfectly round, luminescent, chewy goodness – it wasn’t Arborio rice! I know my rice and that wasn’t Arborio!
Fast forward 23 years and Maya and I, along with our three kids, are in Rome. I’ve regaled our children the tales of the magical rice I had long ago, and of the dastardly woman who deprived me of bringing some of it home decades ago. They were with me – now that we were back in Rome, nothing would stop us on this sacred search of glorious gluttony goodness. We would be eating Chinese food in Rome.
Our first stop was a Chinese restaurant near the center of Rome. With inflation being what it is, I figured a bowl of fried rice at today’s prices would require me to first call our credit card company to raise my credit limit. To my surprise, the price was reasonable.
The waitress walked toward us with our order. This was the moment I had been waiting for for 23 years. As the waitress carefully lowered the steaming bowl of fried rice on the table, our three kids and I sat around the table constantly dabbing drool from the corners of our mouths while Maya looked on in disgust from our collective gluttony.
The upshot? It was the same rice that we have back home. The same for the next Chinese restaurant we went to, and the one after that. The dream was over. The kids and I huddled together and mourned over what was not to be. Tears were shed.
OK, maybe tears weren’t shed. But now that we’re back home, I’m going to a Whole Foods market and I’m going to start testing out some of their gourmet rice.
Maybe it was Arborio. (end)
Wayne Chan can be reached at email@example.com.