How to make fried rice
18 February 2022
FICTION - It was 2018 and I was in my third year at Divine Word University in Madang when I was terminated from further studies on disciplinary grounds.
I planned on running away, to where I didn’t know, but the thought had formed in my crafty mind as I awaited the decision of the university’s disciplinary council on what to do with me.
I was scared of going home and felt it was in my best interests not to tell my parents of this unpleasant news. I feared it would break my mother’s fragile heart and send my dad into a rage.
So I hung around the campus for a while until an opportunity popped up on my Facebook page.
In the newsfeed was an item from the YWAM medical ship, which was on its sixth outreach to Finschhafen and was calling for volunteers.
I applied without hesitation and was told to board the ship, which would be docking at Lae. I packed my bag and took the road from Madang, feeling like a drifter.
Just a piece of wood floating on the vast ocean called life, going wherever the currents and waves carried me. Anyway, right now the tide was favourable and so I found myself in a 25-seater bound for Papua New Guinea’s industrial hub.
It was about six hours later and late when I arrived in Lae and asked the driver to drop me off at the port. I found a YWAM worker who took me on board the ship where I thought I would be spending the next two weeks.
After that, well, I’d find another place, somewhere very far away from home.
On board the ship, I met people of different nationalities and from various parts of PNG.
Early the next morning, the ship left the wharf and sailed east towards Finschhafen.
At first we anchored in Langema Bay off Butaweng where we would serve villages and communities as far north as Sattelberg
I was assigned to work with the optometry team and spent the first week patrolling to rural areas conducting eye tests and handing out glasses to people.
For the second week, we dropped anchor at Dregerhafen and I was put to work in the galley to prepare food for the volunteers. I really enjoyed this, and decided to spend much time eating every type of food I laid eyes on.
It was in the middle of the week that one of the team leaders approached me and said we were going on a patrol to a remote village, Makini, perched high up in the mountains of Finschhafen.
I packed my bag and went ashore with the team to Dregerhafen secondary school field where a helicopter owned by Manolos Aviation was waiting on the sports field.
Wow, I thought, as we were airlifted to Makini, this was developing into a real adventure.
We landed at Makini on a small airstrip built for single engine aircraft. Nearby was the aid post that served the entire population of the region.
Or it had, because it had been closed for almost two years. The medical workers left one day and never came back.
As the helicopter took off on its next mission, a small group gathered and gave us a warm welcome.
It was just as well, as this place was cold. I’ve spent a lot of time in the New Guinea Highlands and I can tell you Makini was colder.
There were no roads around here. I’d seen only one as we flew from the coast, but it wasn’t near Makini.
It seems it was constructed for a logging company to move logs down to the coast.
There were eight of us in the patrol team, three nationals and five expatriates, all volunteers. We had a guy from Canada, a lady from Switzerland, an American lady, two Australians and three locals - one from Finschhafen, one from Kabwum and me from Central.
We were shown to the house where would sleep. It was a traditional house with walls of woven bamboo, a sago leaf roof and a floor made from palm trunks.
Most of the expatriates had never slept in a traditional hut before and inspected it to see if it was safe, being particularly surprised to see a fireplace in the middle of the hut.
I explained that it was needed to keep the hut warm and quite safe. The American lady joked, “It’s just like our heating systems back in US, how cool is that?” I nodded in agreement. You got that right.
It was already afternoon by the time we had settled in, so I started a fire in the fireplace in the middle of the hut without any difficulties.
From the expressions on the faces of the expats it was like I’d performed a magic trick.
The Swiss lady, startled at the speed with which the fire started said, “Wow Duncan, you’re an expert in starting fires, how did you do that?”
In my mind, a voice said ‘like really?’, but I understood that most of them had probably never started a fire in their lives.
Coming from first world countries, they had no experience in collecting wood or starting fires. So I didn’t say a thing.
They were here to serve my people and had patrolled to a remote rural area. They were experiencing new cultures.
I felt that, as a native, I had to make sure they enjoyed the experience.
When the fire was up, I poured three cups of rice into a pot, measured out some water and poured it in water and set the pot on top of the fire, which was now burning like the furnace because the Canadian guy kept feeding it with dried twigs.
I told him to stop with the wood and save some as we’d need it during the night to keep the fire going. Not that we would have run out because the villagers were kind enough to bring us more.
My two PNG friends were outside while I was in the hut with the foreigners making sure the fire was burning (and also to make sure the Canadian guy didn’t push any more in).
When I saw the rice boiling, I minimised the fire and told them to keep an eye on the pot and remove it from the fire when the rice was cooked. Or if they couldn’t, just let the fire die down.
When I was sure they understood my instructions, I went outside to join my wantoks in a smoke.
The sun was setting on the horizon, the scene was so beautiful that my wantoks and I stood silently looking at the sunset and the magnificent jungle below us while we enjoyed the tobacco the locals had given us.
We were laughing at Kande’s jokes when he poked me and said, “Muna, go na lukim rais ya, mi smelim em paia stap ya”.
I turned around and sniffed the air. Indeed, the air smelled of burning rice.
I rushed into the hut and was hit by the overpowering smell of overcooked rice.
I picked up the scorching pot with my bare hands, dropped it on to the palm floor and took off the lid.
The searing smoke coming out of the pot burned my hands and face.
I was very angry and wanted to swear but somehow kept my cool.
I asked the expats why they didn’t remove the pot from the fire and the American lady replied, “We didn’t know if the rice was cooked or not”.
My anger evaporated when I remembered they had never cooked rice on a fire before and so this was totally new to them.
I explained how cooking on the fire worked and then asked why the fire was burning so furiously when I had instructed them not to feed it with any more wood.
Just as I feared, when I left the hut the Canadian guy was back feeding the fire with wood until the flames blanketed the rice pot, the pot which was now as black as a starless night and the rice the same.
I inspected the rice and found that most of the rice was black and hard and shrivelled and totally useless for eating.
Some rice that was on top looked properly cooked but the rest was burned beyond recognition.
The American lady, a concerned look on her face, asked about my hands but I told her they would be fine.
I then went on to explain that the burned rice had to be thrown away and some more cooked.
Then, to my amazement, one of them said, “It’s okay, we’ll just eat it”.
I looked around in disbelief, replying in my best English, “No, no, this rice is unfit for consumption”.
The American responded, “It’s fried rice,” saying something about how good fried rice was to eat, her four associates nodding their heads in agreement.
“This is not fried rice,” I said. “There’s a difference between fried rice and burnt rice.”
“But it will still taste like fried rice won’t it?’’
By this time I was about to lose my mind and kick the rice pot out of the hut and down the hill.
Instead I stood up and went out of the hut to inform my two wantoks about the disaster.
I asked one of them and make some soup while I stood outside for a while and got some cool air before returning to the hut.
The foreigners were watching soup being prepared and were surprised when we dumped everything into the one pot.
I told them that this is how we cook in PNG and one said, “Now I wanna try that PNG soup, yeah, everything into one pot”.
Everyone found the comment hilarious and laughed while my Kabwum wantok tasted the soup like any chef would do.
When the soup was ready, we served the small portion of rice which was properly cooked and kept the burned rice for ourselves.
During dinner, we watched as they enjoyed their meal and complimented our cooking.
Meanwhile we sat quietly in a corner of the hut and tried our best to swallow the burned fried rice.
I once had a flat mate who was assisting in the kitchen and gave her some fresh asparagus to prepare. and the tips ended up in the insinkerator.
More recently at an oil and gas construction camp an adolescent redneck fitter decided to wash his work overalls in a designated laundry block after finishing the day shift.
He placed the dirty clothing in a machine, added a scoop of washing powder, pressed the start button and retreated to the wet mess.
About two hours later he returned to retrieve his washing. It was still dry and dirty but stunk of scorched washing powder.
He promptly registered a complaint with the camp management that the washing machines were malfunctioning.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 19 February 2022 at 12:57 PM