Venga aquí, said Elvia, waving me over to where she worked, smashing the cáscaras off of grains of rice.
She and I are the same age (twenty-two) and share a passion for teaching. She studied education in a university in David, Panama and is preparing for her own classroom of primary school children come next semester. These past months, I was offering EFL classes in her community of Soloy and living with her older sister, Nila, in the San Francisco barrio on the other side of the Rio Fonseca.
Elvia has been to Houston, Texas on a government-sponsored trip for university students to practice English. Now that I was in Panama’s Comarca region, we’d both seen a bit of one another’s country. But a few principles set us apart: Elvia wore a nahua, the dress that has since become something típica of Ngöbe culture, even if the women only started wearing it in the last half-century. She speaks Ngabere to her four-year-old son, who eagerly waits to start kindergarten next year. And whereas I’m often too lazy to cook a pot of rice on an empty stomach (it takes too long!), Elvia starts from scratch: the farm.
Arroz nuevo is practically a delicacy in the Comarca. People reach into a bag of recently harvested young rice and breath in its earthy aroma as if it were fresh bread out of the oven.
If you’ve never tried “new rice,” the concept is the same as new potatoes, which are small and still growing in the ground, but dug-up before they’ve reached full size. The flavor is unmatchable.
The rice is harvested from up the mountainside campos. Forget far-reaching, wide fields of rice you might find on an office desktop background. The Ngöbe people cultivate rice, plantains, and potatoes on cliff sides that can require an hour-long commute on foot, in knock-off Crocs.
Once it’s carried back to town in bags, the rice must be toasted, browning the husks over an open flame, until it looks like this:
Then, the toasted grains of rice are poured into a pilón, a waist-high, homemade wooden dish. The same idea is still found in Latina cooking with a mini version: the mortar and pestle. Using a wood-carved pole that narrows in the middle, the rice is mashed to break the husks into a fine dust. You have to strike the bowl directly in the center, or you’ll risk causing the grains to jump and spill over the edge.
I watched as Elvia’s mother began to separate the crushed husks from the meat of the rice. This remarkable woman is a grandmother to seven children, the majority of whom would chase me with corn cobs or sticks at any given time, scheming to play war.
In small batches, she spread the rice on a wide board. She tossed it in the air and caught it again with a swift movement of the forearms. This gives the grains a gentle, rhythmic flip to release the cáscara dust into the air. What remained of the toasted outer husks settled into the dirt, and the leftover rice sat clean on the wooden board.
She gave it a rinse at the tap and lit a fire to bring a potful to a simmer. The physical labor was done. Now we had only to wait, sipping sugary coffee while lounging in hamacas as breakfast took form.