My Mexican red rice is a translation of heritage through cooking

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I’m no stranger to translation. My mother tongue is not my dad’s, and my grandma and I communicate on the shaky ground of Spanglish, neither of us having ever arrived at the comfort of fluency. Many Latines (my family included!) might call me a “no sabo kid” – a young Latine that grew up speaking rudimentary Spanish, if any at all. Years of Spanish classes aided me a bit, but I’ve always relied on my dad to play interpreter.

I’ve grappled with the consequences of not being fluent in my family’s language for many years. Some are tangible: Sitting across from my grandma and waiting for my dad to translate each side of our conversation; blushing when people notice my last name and try to switch languages; getting teased by one of my uncles when my British boyfriend somehow speaks clearer Spanish than I do. Others are felt, a combination of embarrassment, regret and humor. I’m accustomed to stumbling over words, the sharp vowels and double r’s cutting a tongue that has dulled over time.

What has shocked me, though, is my lack of dexterity when cooking Mexican recipes – family recipes. Outside of my grandma’s kitchen and away from my dad’s cooking, dishes as common as rice and beans stumped me, never tasting like they did in my memory.

Get the recipe: Arroz Rojo (Mexican Red Rice)

The first time I attempted arroz rojo, or Mexican red rice, I lifted the lid of the pot to find a pale yellow, over-salted pile of mush. There’s this notion that’s perpetuated in both popular media and dominant discourses that Latinas carry their culture in their fingertips, embodying sensuality in all arenas of their lives, the kitchen included. Tasting my rice, I thought I might be a defective model. The failure felt like another veil placed between me and my family and my heritage.

But even in the best, monolingual circumstances, I’ve learned that translating the taste of a dish is not a straightforward process. In the culinary epic “Small Fires,” Rebecca May Johnson uses classical reception studies to unpack how written recipes are translated “from the medium of language into the spattering physicality of ingredients.” Just as those who translate and adapt Homer’s “Odyssey” bring their own context to the source text, cooks also approach a singular dish or recipe in an infinite number of ways.

When I began developing this recipe for arroz rojo, I realized that the challenge was not reading recipes in Spanish or asking my dad to translate my aunt or grandma’s advice – it was translating a recipe across generations, cultures and skill sets.

Using a potent combination of memory and research, I began experimenting. I tried versions on both the stovetop and in the oven – my dad would seemingly choose his method at random. I noted a Reddit user’s advice passed down from their own grandmother to rinse the rice well, also known as enjuagar or “batir el arroz,” removing extra starch from the rice. I remembered my dad using caldo de pollo bouillon from a neon yellow box, a spoonful giving a dish salt and depth. I attempted a fresh tomato sauce, though I had seen the canned version in both recipes online and my family’s kitchen. And I did my best to avoid the spicy Russian roulette my dad played with his own rice when he added a whole jalapeño, seeds and pith included, to the blended sauce.

My recipe is a translation of the concept of the dish arroz rojo, and a translation of all the versions of the dish that I’ve had the pleasure of tasting. The rice is both soaked and toasted, and the sauce of fresh tomato, garlic and onion gets an unconventional boost from vegetable bouillon and tomato paste. Instead of finely chopping a chile pepper or leaving it whole, I cut it in half, adding a suggestion of spice as the rice cooks. While mixing in frozen corn, carrots and peas is traditional in Mexican American kitchens, I sometimes add in red bell pepper and lima beans.

I don’t know if my dad, grandma or aunt and uncles would recognize this recipe on paper. But I know that when I fluffed the final version, mixing in the thin red layer of sauce and unleashing the savory steam from the bottom, the scent was familiar. It tasted like fluency.

A couple months ago, my dad visited me in Washington, D.C., giving me an excellent opportunity to pick his brain about Mexican cooking. I took him to the “¡Presente!” exhibit at the National Museum of American History, a chronicle of Latine history in the United States and its territories. In the middle of the exhibit, we sat in a small theater and watched a short film about what it means to be Latine. A woman around my age shared that because of language barriers, she and her grandmother had never had a full conversation of more than a few sentences. Hearing my own reality out loud presented an unexpectedly heartbreaking perspective that I’d never considered before.

But as the day went on, we picked out a new Mexican cookbook for him to take home to Minnesota, and I showed him one of my favorite local Latin supermarkets. I thought of this recipe, and remembered that the act of translation isn’t always verbal. Sometimes it’s cooking a pot of rice. Sometimes it’s standing next to someone you love at the stove, filling each other’s plate, smiling in silence.

Get the recipe: Arroz Rojo (Mexican Red Rice)

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