Rice, Rome, and Sisterhood

Rice is the one thing in my chosen food groups that I can’t seem to go without. I can give up bread, sugar, chocolate, cheese, and even alcohol for short periods of time, but rice is the one thing that I ache for when I go on my “once in a blue moon” low-carb diet. It is a need I am incapable of evading, and I’m pretty sure my attachment to the grain is rooted in the Filipino culture in which I was born. I grew up eating rice with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There were also times when our snacks were made from rice. I lived in a world where rice was the staple item that built my nation’s economy. As long as we had rice, we wouldn’t go hungry. It was definitely a starch-heavy upbringing, and it’s a wonder that in all my childhood and teenage years I was so thin. Rice is my first choice for carbs with most of my proteins… even steak! I love rice in all forms: simply steamed; stir-fried with egg and cured sausage; puffed and sugared; balled and rolled; deep-fried; dried like paper; mushed in porridge; topped with raw fish or spam; baked as cakes; crisped as chips…all of it is great in my opinion.

It’s no surprise that on my first trip to Rome, risotto was on the must-eat-foods list. In the 18 years of my life in the kitchen, risotto has been a mainstay on my menus. Risotto is simple and complicated at the same time. Simply stated, it’s brothy rice. But it takes time and attention to execute perfectly. I would typically make a version done up with whatever vegetables were in season. My personal favorite is a spring risotto with asparagus, sweet peas, and morels, with a just a touch of pecorino.

Before my trip to Rome, an Italian friend of mine insisted that I have a “true” risotto in her homeland. So on our second day in the city, my two sisters and I strolled down Fontana di Trevi, took a shameful number of selfies, and then had lunch at Ristorante Angelina, which had been recommended to us. My mom stayed at the hotel to rest up after a full day of walking the Vatican. Among the tableful of items we ordered was a seafood risotto, which came in a bowl big enough for a newborn baby to bathe in. This enormous dish was full of rice in a creamy seafood broth with fresh herbs. There was no seafood visible in the mixture, but the flavor was bursting out of it. The texture of the rice was just right: toothy and tender at the same time. It satiated hunger in my stomach and my soul. In the few days, we spent in Rome, this was one of the instances I felt submerged in the moment…I was in Rome with family, having the best risotto in my life, and recognizing how lucky I was to be here, with them, doing this.

A couple of weeks ago I watched Big Night, a movie about two Italian immigrant brothers who open a restaurant in the US. I have a great love for this film but hadn’t seen in over ten years. There’s a great scene in which a woman unfamiliar with Italian food orders the chef’s signature risotto at the brothers’ restaurant, Paradise. She is disappointed in her order once it is in front of her because she doesn’t “see” any seafood. Watching this scene, I got frustrated with her and wanted her to just drop her expectations and enjoy. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t care to learn. She doesn’t want to “submerge.”

Instead, she orders a side of spaghetti to go with the risotto. She also wants meatballs with the spaghetti and is shocked to find out that the spaghetti doesn’t come with meatballs. According to the restaurant’s manager, “Sometimes the spaghetti wants to be alone.” The chef is enraged to hear this request, as it is not one, or two, but three insults to his simple-but-complicated masterpiece. He says, “What? Why? It is starch and starch. Maybe I should put mashed potatoes on the other side.” It’s a perfect scene in a terrific movie, and it compelled me to put a risotto on the menu at Rotunda last week. It also partly inspired this piece.

The risotto I made for the restaurant is not quite the classic I would have found in Rome. When crafting the idea I really wanted to do a hybrid of congee (an Asian rice porridge) and risotto. The recipe uses Arborio rice and is prepared in the traditional Italian way, but it is cooked with kombu, ginger, miso, and white wine. It is a vegan dish with snap peas, shiitake and enoki mushrooms, and scallions finished with a drizzle of pure sesame oil. The texture is just right and loaded with flavor. Romans will frown on my latest version of risotto but it is just right for me and to our guests who have ordered it.

The risotto I had at Ristorante Angelina will remain the best classic risotto I’ve had. But there’s no doubt that the dish’s flavor was improved from fantastic to sublime by sharing it with my sisters in a place as magical as Rome. It was a meal as a testament to exploring a city, reconnecting with loved ones, weaving new memories made only for us, and finding some of our old selves from the time long ago before we all decided to grow up. This trip also showed me that the truest best friends I will have in this lifetime are these two women. My confidants, my true fans, my heroes, my constants.

I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I have! Happy cooking.

-Chef Mayet

Click HERE to download my recipe for Wild Mushroom and Miso Risotto – enjoy!