Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How to cook rice the Asian way - moist and fluffy (ご飯の炊き方)

I remember how surprised I was to taste fluffy unsalted rice served at my Japanese teacher's place. It was almost two decades ago and then I only knew the traditional Russian way of making an uninspired and not very popular side dish of it: by cooking it into salty semi-gruel.

Seeing my appreciative amazement, Che Cheun Suni-sensei (she was, well, still is, of Korean descent) was kind enough to teach me the secrets of real Asian rice. Later I learnt many more from my Thai, Chinese and Japanese friends. I will share this unwritten Asian wisdom with you.

First of all, you need to find the right kind of rice. There are three main types of rice used in Asian cuisines:

1) short-grained Japonica;
2) long-grained Indica;
3) glutinous or sticky rice.

Japonica and Indica are cooked the same way, except Japonica, which because of its higher protein content benefits from soaking for half an hour beforehand. Sticky rice is altogether another kettle of fish, I will deal with it separately.

Finding good quality rice can be a doozy. It all looks white and grainy and how the heck do you know the difference? There are so many producers and varieties out there. Some brands and types are pretty actually pretty bad and best be avoided. Your supermarket shelving boys will, in all likelihood, just stare blankly if you ask them what rice is the best, so you be better off going straight to
people actually who deal in it - ethnic grocery shopkeepers. I did my rice research in Brixton and I am very happy with the results. I advise that you do the same.

O
nce you have found the right kind, it is time to get down to cooking. This is how you do it:
  1. Normally, about 160 ml dry rice (a small cup) is enough for one good helping for one person. Multiply that by the number of expected diners.
  2. Rinse the rice 7 times in running cold water until it runs clear. This is to remove the starch and ensure that cooked grains do not stick together. There are also other opinions about why we need to do that.
  3. Cover there ice with cold water. The old-fashioned Korean way is to stick your finger upright in the rice and fill as much water as there is rice using your finger at the yardstick.
  4. If you use a rice-cooker, use the measure cup and follow the notches on the inside the cooking bowl. You will need to make adjustments though depending on the altitude and humidity. For example, in the humid maritime climate of Amsterdam my house sits 3 metres below sea level, therefore I fill the rice-cooker with water a couple of millimetres below the designated notch.
  5. If you use short-grained Japonica, let the rice soak for half an hour. If you use long-grained Indica, proceed to cooking.
  6. If you use a rice-cooker, just choose the desired cooking mode. Sit back and watch some crap on TV, your job is done. Otherwise proceed to Step 7.
  7. Put the pot with rice and water on high fire and bring to boil. Turn the heat to low. If you use an electric stove, turn the heat to low BEFORE it starts boiling.
  8. Let the rice to gently simmer and steam away. Now it is your chance to learn to bridle your curiosity as, under no circumstances, you are to open the lid and see what is going on. The rice is steaming now and letting the steam out will interfere with the process.
  9. Depending on the amount of rice, humidity, altitude and such, it takes about 15-20 minutes for the rice to get steamed. The rice-cooker will switch off automatically but if you cook rice in a pot you will know it is ready by the dryish, nutty smell of rice starting to get seared where it touches the pot. The trick is to stop the cooking process right there before it get actually burned. If you use an electric stove you will need to turn the heat off a few minutes earlier or completely remove the pot from the stove.
  10. After you've turned the heat off, let the rice to sit about 10 more minutes. This is yet another opportunity to learn how to keep your curiosity in check.
  11. When you open the lid you will see what the Japanese call the kani no ana, crab holes, in the rice, because the look exactly like the holes that sea crabs makes in the beach sand. It's the first sign of a correctly cooked rice. It means that you did not put too much water and turned it into mashy gruel.
  12. Now, gently fluff the rice with a wooden spatula. The rice grains will not be sticking (too much) to each other.
  13. If at the bottom of the pot you find an aromatic brownish rice crust, feel free to come and collect your prize at the Ricecookers Hall of Fame! This crust, called koge in Japanese and tahdeeg in Farsi, is a sought-after delicacy in a number of cultures. Iranians are even known to serve it separately as a dish in its own right.

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