The Ritual of Rice

pouring_rice by you.

Jasmine rice is the staple of my childhood 

As a little girl, one of my very first tasks in the kitchen was cooking rice.

Imitating my mum’s every move, I’d scoop 4 cups of rice into the steel rice bowl–purists may balk but when I was growing up, rice always came out of a rice cooker ringed in pink peonies–and place it in the sink. A couple of turns of the tap and whoosh, a steady stream of cold water rushed into the bowl. When the water reached halfway up the bowl, my tiny fingers swished and sloshed the rice grains until the crystal clear water graduated to cloudy white. Then I’d tilt the bowl over the sink to drain the water out, cupping my free hand along the container’s edge to prevent rice from falling out. After I repeated this procedure three or four more times, the water would run clear and only then was I done.

You would think that the measuring lines inside the rice bowl were there for a reason. Well, I guess my mum didn’t trust them. Following her lead, I’d stick my index finger into the bowl, its tip barely touching the surface of the rice, and fill the bowl with water until it reached the first joint of my finger. Once the lid of the rice cooker snapped shut, I’d wait about 20 minutes before opening it again to fragrant, perfectly steamed rice.

For many of us, rice washing is a ritual. It dates back to the good old days when it was essential to remove bits of debris, rice hulls, and, yes, bugs. Plus, rice used to be coated with talc and washing removed most traces of the powder. Some also believe that washing breaks down the starchy surface producing shiny, pearly grains of rice that is the fluffiest and tastiest when cooked.

I think it all boils down to the simple matter of preference.

As an adult, I’ve gotten somewhat lax in my rice washing regimen, only washing my rice once or twice. (My excuse, and it’s a good one: Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandate that all milled white rice be fortified with an enrichment coating, I don’t wash away all the good stuff!) While I may have reneged on this one little detail, I’ve learned another valuable lesson.

Traditional Japanese cooking relies heavily on quality ingredients and water is no exception. Japanese culinary instructor Hiroko Sugiyama uses only pure spring water to make her rice and dashi because she believes any ‘off’ odors or tastes in tap water will be transferred to the final dish. She follows this credo not just for special occasions but for everyday consumption. Several times a month, she makes the 30-mile trek to a wellspring that’s certified pure by the city of Lynnwood in Washington State, bringing home 10 two-gallon containers.

Not all of us are as fortunate to have a free, ready source of spring water, or are willing to go to such great lengths to obtain some. But there’s no harm in seeking out the best quality ingredients you can find, be it water or other foods. I’ve found that even just using Brita-filtered water improves the taste of my rice. It’s even more noticeable where I now live because of the hard, nasty-tasting water that comes straight from the tap.

hagamai5 by you.

Beige-colored, translucent haiga mai grains. Can you spot the brown germ at the tip of each rice kernel?

Hiroko also introduced me to haiga mai (which means “rice germ”), a specially milled Japanese short grain rice. This process removes all the bran from the rice kernel while retaining the nutrient laden rice germ rich in Vitamins E, B1 B2 and B6. Hence it’s just as nutritious and full of fiber as brown rice but is easier to chew and very tasty.

To introduce more fiber into our diets, I’ve always cooked half-and-half rice (half white and half brown). But it wasn’t always welcome on the dining table. With haiga mai, even my husband digs in with relish!  Cook it as you would white rice or use Hiroko’s clay pot method below. Tamaki, a brand from California, is Hiroko’s preferred brand.

Haiga mai may be padi fields away from the jasmine rice of my childhood–and much pricier– but just as my cooking has evolved, so have my rice-eating habits.

 What about you? Do you wash your rice? Do you care? What’s your favorite type/brand of rice? Do write a comment and we can compare.  

Japanese Rice Cooked in Clay Pot (Gohan)

perfect gohan by you.

Whenever Hiroko craves for rice with a slightly burned bottom (okoge), she uses a donabe or Japanese clay pot. This basic recipe is so easy. Unfortunately, once the rice cooker was introduced, most Japanese no longer cooked rice in this traditional manner. If you don’t have a donabe, cook the rice in a rice cooker using the same proportions. Do not use this method to cook rice in a regular pot on the stove. I tried and the bottom of my pot still bears the scars!

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

2 1/4 cups Japanese short grain rice
2 and slightly less than 2/3 cups spring or filtered water
Japanese clay pot (donabe)

In a large bowl, wash the rice in 3 to 4 changes of water until the water runs clear. Drain the rice in a colander for 1 hour.

Put the rice and water in a clay pot and cover tightly with the lid. Set the pot on the stove over high heat. As soon as you see steam escaping from the hole in the lid, set your timer for 3 minutes (don’t reduce the heat). When the time is up, remove the pot from the stove.

Let the rice stand for 5 to 10 minutes. Lift off the lid carefully. Stir the rice gently with a Japanese rice paddle (shamoji) and transfer it to a wooden rice container (ohitsu) if you have one, or lay a cotton cloth (fukin) over the rice and cover with the lid.


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11 thoughts on “The Ritual of Rice

  1. I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
    Did you make this website yourself or did you
    hire someone to do it for you? Plz respond as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. thanks

  2. I have a cheap rice cooker that does not have a non-stick finish. If I forget to spray the pan with vegetable spray the rice always sticks and developes a lightly browned crust. I learned that if I unplug the cooker after if finishes cooking (I let it stand a few minutes on warm before unplugging) then by the time I am ready to serve, the rice has loosened itself from the bottom of the pan – mostly anyway – and I can scoop out the crusty bottom. If I use the spray it is easier to remove but I still unplug anyway.

    I just bought a Chinese style clay pot – or sand pot – that is glazed only on the inside. Will this pot work for cooking this style of rice?

    Thanks for a beautiful blog.

    1. Hello! Isn’t it great how we adapt to our equipment to make them work for us? I hear the crusty bottom is the best part and someone suggested making congee out of it. And yes, you can use your claypot (the inside glazing is all you need) to make gohan rice. And you are most welcome. It gives me pleasure to know that readers like you enjoy reading my blog.

  3. hello antoi, it’s wonderful to meet someone who’s as passionate about rice as i am! i must admit that i’m not familiar with the chamorro culture but now am going to learn more.

  4. Hi,
    I just discovered your blog via tuttiefoodie. I am loving it, and will subscribe toute suite! After reading this post, I realized how fortunate I am to live near a great Japanese grocery store (Nijiya Market), as they have their own name brand organic rices, and you can buy brown rice at 30%, 50% and 70% polished. I was stumped the first time I came across this, as I never realized these grades of polishing existed. My biggest resistance to going full-force brown rice, was trying to find the right type of rice to accompany fried fish (this is where white rice rules). Thankfully, I discovered the 30% polished did the job nicely, and still maintained a brown rice “tooth” and flavor.

    I grew up in the Western Pacific (Guam, Saipan and Oahu), and my specific culture, Chamorro, is a rice eating diet that was passed on from the Japanese when they occupied us. I grew up eating medium grain, Calrose style, sticky rice every single day. I was taught to wash the rice 3-4 times till the water ran clear. I believe this method is suitable for the type of rice we ate, but don’t think over zealous washing extends to all types of rices. I’m now eating a brown jasmine rice (which I’m in love with btw), and only wash it once, just to remove any dust or impurities that may have settled during packaging.

    Anyhoos, I’m so glad you also posted on the clay pot cooking method, which I will be trying right away! I grew up with cooking rice in the rice cooker, or sometimes in a metal pot on the stove, and never knew the luxuries of the browned, crispy rice bottom. My aunts would sometimes talk about how they used to ask for the browned bottom, and then eat it with milk and some sugar. I never knew this delicacy till I finally asked about it in my adulthood. Sorry this is so long, but your post really has me nostalgic for my rice experiences. Thanks for a great article! 🙂

  5. Hi, Pat!
    Thanks for your interesting post. I use to eat a lot of rice when I was staying in India for few years. There, rice is the main meal, as in Japan. But what interests me a lot in this topic is… what is the effect of washing rice (besides cleaning it from dust)? Some people in India told me that I should not wash rice, because even by washing it, a lot of wholesome particles or vitamins leave rice at that moment. Even they suggested eating unwashed rice for people who couldn’t get weight. Do you know something about it from Japanese tradition?

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