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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