Though I've always been a passionate eater, I came late to cooking. In fact, when I arrived here in 1987 I couldn't boil the proverbial egg. This didn't bother me at the time because I had a job that allowed me to eat out often and extravagantly. As an events organizer for a global telecommunications company I was regularly wined and dined by hotels and restaurants angling for the company's business. I also had a generous expense account, and a harried boss, god bless her, who barely glanced at my expenses before signing them. This made it possible for me to live and travel like a rich person without actually being one.
Then I met Skunk. He lived in London; I lived in Brussels. Our daily long-distance calls and weekend commutes to be with each other eventually broke the bank (this was before cheap flights, internet or Skype) and we found ourselves having to eat in more often. I began to fret that our romance would not thrive for long on soups, sandwiches and omelettes. They were the only things I could make at the time, although, hey, I made them from scratch. Then came The Blow. Skunk casually mentioned one day that in his opinion no one made a Sunday roast as good as his mother's. He also said that his Last Serious Girlfriend, the one I was secretly jealous of, made a mean curry that he still missed.
Uh-oh. I didn't like the sound of that. At all. I have a Leo-sized ego and a ruthless competitive streak, and if there was anything I couldn't stand, it was not being top banana, at least in Skunk's world. I needed to do something about it. So I spent a fortune - okay, a month's salary - calling my mother in the Philippines and asking her to teach me how to cook rice.
"Buy a rice cooker," she told me. "It's easier. And it makes perfect rice."
"No, Ma. It has to be authentic rice," I insisted.
After reminding me that I really should have learned to cook while I still lived at home, she gave me the first of many tutorials on how to cook rice. I might add that apart from his occasional forays into Chinese and Indian restaurants, the only rice Skunk had ever eaten up to that point was the parboiled Uncle Ben's variety. Over my dead body would Uncle Ben darken my door.
It took me over a month, three pots, most of a 15-kilo bag of Thai jasmine rice, a great deal of swearing in the kitchen when the rice water overflowed, and many frantic phone calls to my mother before I could make a respectable pot of rice. My first two pots had to be thrown away. The rice was burned so badly to the bottom that no amount of soaking and scrubbing would get it unstuck.
Until I got the hang of cooking rice I'd swallow my pride, walk to the Chinese restaurant at the end of my street and ask the grouch in the ratty t-shirt at the take-out window for one order of plain white rice to go. Our exchanges usually went like this.
"What you want with lice," he demanded impatiently. "Today prat du jour beef bloccoli. You want?"
"Erm, just plain rice, thanks," I replied meekly.
"Madame, we are lestolant ha, we not sell only prain lice. You want prain lice, you cook yourself ha."
I stared at my shoes.
"Aaaiyee," he squawked with glee as the penny dropped, attracting stares from passersby. "You not know cook lice? Hahahahaha. You buy lice cooker ha."
I'm certain I made this wretched man's day, because he would then make a big production of scooping cooked white rice into a styrofoam box and bellowing to the cashier - and indeed to the entire restaurant - "One prain lice, lothing else!" I'd pay and scurry home to eat it with a practice pork chop. Never did like the taste of humble pie.
On my next business trip to Hong Kong I bought myself a rice cooker. Today I own three of them, ranging from small to enormous, and they're all in use.
But I can also make a perfect pot of rice over a flame, the old-fashioned way.