Clean Rice

Rice is life. I don’t say that as a joke or lightheartedly because back home it is. For most Afghans, having rice on the destarkhu, or 'tablecloth,' is the difference between starving and sleeping with a full stomach.

Enhanced with cumin, sugar or saffron, it sets the tone for most of our dishes — the smell dancing through the house, covering my clothes.

Fragrant. Fluffy. Delicious.

There’s a lot that goes into that rice. A lot of love, a lot of effort and a lot of family. It would bring us together. Rice in Afghanistan comes mixed with debris and we would often gather to clean it. One of my warmest memories is from cleaning rice at my Auntie’s home to the sound of deer-hide drums and folk songs.

I can still feel the heat of the sun on my dark hair and see the crinkle under my mother’s eyes. I remember trying not to move to the melody because when I did, the clean rice would get re-mixed with the pebbles. Seven-year-old Zohrah took her responsibility very seriously.

Today, rice is bittersweet. It never tastes as good here in Canada with a family of five as it did in Kabul in a party of hundreds. There just isn’t the same amount of love. Rice here comes pre-cleaned and you never get to make those memories. It’s starched and too pristine.

Perhaps that’s why there’s a disconnect between my own and my siblings’ relationship with rice. To them, we have it too often. “Why can’t Mum make Canadian food?” It’s not a luxury or a staple — it’s boring.

To me, rice is one of the few things I still have from home. Even though I’m Canadian, when someone asks where I’m from, the word Afghan spills out of my mouth like clean rice onto the floor.