I confess.. I have never properly learned to cook Costa Rican food. I’ve never written down a recipe or even helped my parents beyond chopping cebolla or chile dulce. I’ve been spoiled with delicious food made by loving aunts and grandparents without any curiosity beyond, “When can we eat?” Yet, I’ve never hesitated in my thinking, that I know how to do it.
Right now, I live half way around the world, in a country that thinks cilantro smells odd and only sells white rice in its grocery stores. The onions I chop are slightly green near the head, so my eyes are teary. I have to go to the bathroom to wipe my eyes every few minutes and I notice how red and puffy they are when I look up into the mirror. I can’t completely blame the onions. I’ve been up all week preparing for my first solo hosted birthday party.
My phone keeps flashing last minute RSVPs that push the guest list well past my expected numbers. As I swirl the chopped veggies in some olive oil, I have to remind myself that this party isn’t something to wish was over. This is going to be fun.
My mom’s voice from our Skype call lays over my shoulders like a warm fleece blanket. I wanted her to tell me how to make her rice, but as she says, she doesn’t have a recipe but a process. I wish I was there to help you.
I wish she was here too. After a week of preparations, I now better understand the effort and love of my parents. I’m exhausted and anxious as I add the rice to the fry pan. I wonder if this is how my mother felt baking my favorite cherry cake. The magical birthdays I grew up on: they are the extra wrinkles around my mom’s eyes and the thinning hair on my dad’s head.
My parents really were present in my childhood. Even now in my adulthood. How many times did I stand next to my mom, as she cooked the same meal I was cooking now, to talk about school, friends, boyfriends, her work, my dreams. How often did I hear my dad say, que dicha he made his eggs last, cause they turned out the best.
The cilantro goes in and my anxiety begins to take on the shape of joy. It looks almost the same. My feet are sore from standing so long, but I can’t stop smiling. The rice tastes like my mom’s. This is the closest thing to home I’ve had in the two years I’ve been living in Japan.
Having grown up in America, my legitimacy as a Costa Rican has always been challenged. Annual trips, speaking Spanish, even dual citizenship can’t mimic the experiences of my cousins born and bred there. As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed the differences between us. I’ve also had those moments of doubt. But today I found it. I found that special thing, that legacy. I could taste it in my rice.