There is a dish from my childhood that sings my name when I feel sad. It wraps me up in its warmth when I fall sick. I have likely slurped hundreds of bowls of this magic elixir through seasonal sniffles, coughing fits, and heartbreak.
Have a fever? Here is a bowl. Failed a test? Put spoon to mouth. The wrong boy asked you to the dance? Drown your sorrows here.
It is a bowl of rice porridge with a beautiful name: Moi (pronounced muh-oy), ubiquitous in Asian cultures as the chicken soup of the East. There are many iterations of the same recipe by any other name: jook or congee. But in our Chinese home, with first and second-generation Americans, it was called Moi, and it always showed up wordlessly in times of need to fill the cracks of the soul.
So let me be the first person to tell you: it’s crap.
Moi, at the least our family’s version, is like prison food made by felons and sloshed into bowls with a blatant disregard for rice to water ratio. In one heaping cup of water, there seems to be less than ten grains of rice to just cloud the water. It tastes like a dish sponge that has stayed damp for too long. There are no umami bombs. Just rice and water force-fed into your mouth long enough to create a psychological scar so deep it triggers a yearning whenever life gets hard.
It’s no wonder during this time of quarantine to slow the spread of COVID-19, I feel the need to make Moi for myself, which essentially makes me a felon making prison food, right?
To make Moi, my mom told me to get a measuring bowl.
“You know the bowl you eat rice with?” my mom said over the phone, prompting me to quietly put the Betty Crocker measuring cup back in the cupboard. “Fill that halfway with rice.”
A lot of old-world cooking is like this: lacking in precision and heavily reliant on the feeling of weight in the hand, the sound of grains tinkling in a porcelain bowl, and visual measurements. It’s enough to drive a daughter mad. I follow Ina Garten on social media, and she measures the crap out of everything.
Then add a lot of water in a small pot. Exactly how much?
“Put your hand in the water. When the water comes up to your wrist, that’s enough.”
My mom lives one city away in our childhood home, so I can picture her in the kitchen with marble countertops covered with bowls and chopsticks air-drying in neon strainers bought from a 99 cents only store. We cannot FaceTime because she proudly uses a flip phone.
Before the governor of our home state announced stay-at-home orders, my mom—a survivor of war and famine in her home country of Vietnam—went to her nearby Asian grocery store and stocked up all the essentials. This translates to over 10 bags of rice, the jasmine variety, 25 pounds each. With a continuous supply of water, she could make Moi for a decade.
Moi was the food of her childhood in Soc Trang, an impoverished town in Vietnam ravaged by war. It was the cuisine of necessity that traveled with her through time and over oceans to a new land in the suburbs of Los Angeles.
Water from my kitchen faucet streams into the pot. I immerse my hand and pat the submerged grains flat. They are hard pellets that will absorb the water, and with heat, soften and release its starch.
I put the pot on the stove and listen for the clicks to ignite the gas. It is the soundtrack of our quarantine: the sound of the stove starting the next meal or the next snack.
My mom is part of a generation most vulnerable to the Coronavirus—70 years old with a list of pre-existing conditions. She is part of an age group now shut in their homes because it is too dangerous to shop at grocery stores or go to the gym to sit in the sauna for hours, which she did before the city shut down.
“We need to protect her like she’s a panda,” my sister-in-law said to me in a text message in March.
The water in the pot comes to a rapid boil. Bubbles fill the surface and pop, pop, pop. I turn the burner down to a simmer.
The messaging from this pandemic is loud and clear to me: find connections with people. In a time of isolation, we should bridge the physical distance with loving connection through phone calls, FaceTime, texts, or e-mails.
But remember the flip phone?
“Is the water becoming cloudy?” my mom asks piercing the silence. The Moi water is indeed murky and thick.
It is becoming what I remember.
My relationship with my mom was never like what I read about in books or watched in movies. It was a reality I mourned in waves. I did not go to her for advice or to bury my head in her chest when my heart was broken. In normal times, when too much time had passed between us without a connection, she would bring me a bowl of noodles, which would always be eaten with no conversation.
Something about the pandemic makes me want to create a false narrative about our relationship and make connections that weren’t there when life was normal. Maybe it’s the days and nights that blur together with no end. Maybe it’s the message of finding emotional connection in the face of physical isolation.
Maybe I hope for change—that rice porridge would become a gourmet experience. That with the distance of a quarantine, our relationship would grow outside of what it actually is.
“You can eat it plain or you can add fish sauce,” she said as I ladled some steaming Moi into a bowl. “You can add some ground pork. Finish with some green onions.”
I decide to eat it as is, one spoonful at a time. And let me tell you, it is as unspectacular as ever.
Rice porridge is rice porridge, even in a pandemic. Once I let go of the romantic notion of what it could be, I can accept it for what it is.
“Is it good?” my mom asks, but she doesn’t expect an answer. She knows the response that comes: Yes, thank you.
Then we hang up the phone in hope for the next bowl of noodles eaten together in silence before too much time passes.