In an interview with Seijun Suzuki about Branded to Kill, the director explains that the No. 3 Killer’s penchant for sniffing rice was merely a statement of his Japanese identity.  No subtext, no deeper meaning.  It would be odd, Suzuki says, to have him salivate over a T-bone steak.  But rice — that’s something every red-blooded Japanese man can get behind.

True enough, but having a rice fetish doesn’t necessarily indicate ‘Japanese.’  It could just as easily signify ‘Chinese’ or ‘Korean’ or ‘Vietnamese.’  Pick any Asian country, you’ll find rice.  If the sizzling heart of the American family is the barbeque grill, then the rice cooker is the steaming heart of the Asian family.

I didn’t learn many cooking skills from my parents.  Tips on defrosting and microwaving, mostly.  Acceptable additives to instant ramen noodles.  Most nights, my mother handled the meal preparation, so I never worried about having a hot meal.  (As to what I was eating, however, this remained a point of contention in my upbringing.)  My father taught me how to prepare a simple concoction of sautéed onions and hot dogs, with a sauce made from ketchup and a few shakes of Tabasco.  But this was for those rare times when I was left on my own – as uncommon as it was.

But making rice — this was something I mastered early, before I was tall enough to use the stove.  My parents bought rice in 50-pound increments, which we kept in the basement.  The bag sat on the floor like an abandoned throw pillow.  Once, I saw a kung-fu movie in which the hero strengthened his arm by thrusting into a bag of rice.  He practiced every day until he could thrust all the way down to his shoulder, and at the end of the movie, during the climactic fistfight, he punched straight through his opponent, his knuckles dripping with viscera on the other side.  I never achieved that level of strength, but I did manage to coat my hand with jasmine-scented dust.

I measured out rice with a dented tin cup — three scoops for the family — and I rinsed and drained it, using my hand as a sieve.  I picked out pebbles, the grains that hadn’t escaped their husks.  And, when I was ready, my sister taught me the secret to perfect rice:  the proper amount of water — one knuckle from the top of the rice.  Forget cup measurements and the markings on the side of the pot — an index finger was all you needed.

When the scent of rice drifted throughout the house, it was an olfactory announcement of dinner.  My father woke up from his nap; I turned off the television.  When I uncovered the rice, it sighed a plume of steam, and I stirred it with a bamboo paddle to prevent clumps.  And there in the kitchen, we ate dinner:  my father at the head of the table, my mother next to him, then my sister, and me at the far end, finishing every last grain.