A Japanese friend once told me that if you want to know how good a restaurant is, first just order a bowl of plain rice, because if they can’t make a good bowl of rice, everything else will be carelessly made, too.
The first year I was teaching a university course in Vietnam, I was prepping students on how to approach their homework, and stressing the importance of rewarding yourself after the homework was completed. I asked the class what their mom gave them as a reward for doing chores and was met with total silence.
“Didn’t your mom try to bribe you with a little treat for doing stuff you didn’t like doing?” I asked.
Everyone nodded, everyone was absolutely quiet. I suddenly thought: is this one of those total cultural gulf moments? Are all kids really that obedient here? “Come on, guys! I can’t believe you’re all complete angels.There must be something that your mom used as motivation!”
After a long, uncomfortable pause, a lanky guy of 20 stood up at the back of the class and said, “A second bowl of rice”.
It took me a few more years to understand that this answer didn’t reflect poverty. Indeed, right after the war, rice was quite scare. People had to eat boiled manioc or cassava instead. Extra rice is a reward because rice is wonderful.
Growing up, I only knew about two kinds of rice: Uncle Ben’s and Bomba, which is the short-grain rice used to make paella. In my 20s, I met Basmati rice at Indian restaurants and Jasmine rice from Chinese take-aways. Rice was okay. But it was always a base for something better. It wasn’t until I moved to Vietnam that I began to understand how important rice was, how perfect it could be, and how many kinds of rice there are.
I’m not going to write a post on all the types of rice in the world, because there are thousands of varieties. The rice types I cook most often are Jasmine (the type most often served in a bowl with Chinese and Southeast Asian meals), Japonica (the type used to make sushi and also served on the side for most Japanese dishes), and Glutinous rice – also called ‘sticky rice’ – which is used in a lot of sweet dishes including Thai Mango and Sticky rice dessert and ground into flour to make Japanese mochi.
I am unaware of any type of rice that does not benefit from a really thorough wash, which I’ve never see done in western cooking. But I promise you, it makes far fluffier, lighter rice. Recipes often say ‘wash the rice until the water runs clean’. It usually takes three or four washes to get it even close to that stage and it’s dependent on how old the rice is and how it has been stored. Using a sieve is not helpful because you don’t get to see how milky the water is getting with each wash.
Measure the amount of rice you are going to use, put it in a bowl that isn’t white, and fill the bowl up about half-way with cold tap water. Make a claw with your hand and stir the rice around in the water. Don’t be so rough that you break the rice grains, but definitely work the grains around until the water turns milky. Pour out the water, add clean water, and repeat the process. The water doesn’t need to be totally clear, but get it as close as possible. Four washes are always enough for me. After this, if. you are going to cook. your rice in a pot on the stove, you’ll need to sieve it to get as much water out as possible. If you’re using a rice cooker, you don’t have to worry so much as the measuring process is different.
I have yet to find any rice that doesn’t benefit from 30 minutes of soaking. Once you’ve washed your rice, just put it in the pot or the rice cooker with the prerequisite amount of water and leave it for 30 minutes. The soaking time allows water to seep into the rice grain, priming it to ‘steam’ itself rather than boil in the water. The rice comes out more evenly cooked, with less scorching on the bottom, and the cooking time is shortened.
Cooking Rice – Jasmine or Japonica
I am ashamed to say that I’ve never cooked rice in a pot on the stove with any success. It either burns on the bottom, cooks unevenly, boils over or worse. I’ll link to a few sites below that have good instructions for cooking Jasmine, Japonica and Sticky Rice on the stovetop.
I use a rice cooker. While there are insanely expensive rice cookers out there that employ ‘fuzzy logic’ or ‘AI’, you can purchase a perfectly good one for under $20. A little more will get you one with an automatic keep warm function and a steaming basket, which is useful for making sticky rice.
Rice cookers come with a measuring cup for measuring the rice. Once you’ve washed the measured rice, you just pop it in the rice cooker and pour water in to the number mark on the side of the pot. This is because the amount of water you need will depend on how tight the seal is on the rice cooker and how much gets lost through evaporation. The tighter the seal, the less water you will need.
While following the rice-cooker instructions will give you a good result, you’ll notice as you gain more experience that Jasmine rice takes a little more water than Japonica. But we’re talking a difference of a few tablespoons.
If your rice cooker is Japanese, the ‘white rice’ instructions are for Japanese (Japonica) white rice. If your rice cooker is made in the US, China or Southeast Asia, ‘white rice’ means Jasmine or long-grain rice. And their ratios of rice to water are slightly different. But hey, don’t let it this overwhelm you. If you just follow the rice cooker’s instructions, it’s going to be a nice bowl of rice.
Fluffing and Resting
When the rice cooker stops or kicks over onto the warming cycle, you want to open it and fluff up the rice gently to get some air into it. Either with a fork or the rice paddle, just give the settled rice a few turns and put the lid back on. Wait another 10 minutes. This will give you the most delicious bowl of rice.
If you have grown up in the West, chances are you’ve never eaten rice plain. The closest Americans ever get to this is ‘buttered rice’. But the Japanese have a whole culinary culture surrounding things on a bowl of plain white rice. They sprinkle seasonings (Furikake), wrap it in seaweed or in an omelet, or even just a single preserved plum. But they also have their own version of “butter rice”.
Rice on the Stovetop
Here are some links to reputable recipes for making stovetop rice:
Japanese (Japonica) Rice by Japan Centre
Jasmine (Long Grain) How to Cook Perfect Rice without a Rice Cooker by Pai at Hot Thai Kitchen