Japanese rice, a meal in itself

Japanese rice
Rice is a staple food for half of the world's population. There are many kinds of rice from different regions around the world, and the grains vary in size, shape, length, texture and taste.
Japanese (Japonica) rice is characterised by short translucent grains that become sticky when cooked. It is the foundation of almost all Japanese meals. In fact, the word for “cooked rice" (gohan) also means “meal” in Japanese: asagohan, hirugohan and bangohan are respectively breakfast, lunch and dinner, or the morning (asa), midday (hiru) and evening (ban) meals. It is usually cooked plain, and according to washoku priciples, cooking it right means bringing out the essence of its natural flavour. Of course many people like to top it with furikake (dried toppings of seaweed, sesame seeds, dried fish, etc.) or make a donburi (rice bowl with toppings such as raw or cooked fish, egg, pork, etc.). But in the traditional ichijuu sansai set up (one soup, three side dishes), rice is pretty much the main meal, and its neutral taste pairs well with the oft salty, sweet or umami-filled Japanese dishes.

There are three basic steps to cooking Japanese rice:

- rinse/wash
- drain/soak
- cook/steam

Each step is important, and though preferences may differ a little from person to person (washing techniques, whether or not to drain, how long to soak, rice to water ratio, exactly how many minutes to cook), these three steps always remain.

If you have access to musenmai, or “pre-washed” rice, this step can actually be skipped, but it might be hard to find outside of Japan.  Otherwise, you absolutely must not skip this step. White Japonica rice, called seihakumai, is already polished from its original state (genmai, or brown rice), but the initial polishing process can’t remove the hada nuka, a very thin coating of bran residue. So if you don’t remove it yourself, this residue will become very sticky, resulting in mushy or gooey rice – not what we’re going for.

Put the rice in a bowl and add enough cold water to cover it. Move the rice gently around with your hand, raking your fingers through it. The goal here is to gently polish the grains by having them rub against each other and your fingers. No need to squeeze or press them – you don’t want them to break.

The water will soon become a milky white; quickly pour it out, taking care not to dump the baby – I mean rice – out with the bathwater! Add more water and repeat this process at least 3-4 more times, or until the water runs almost clear. Except for the first rinse, you can reuse this water for your houseplants, or even for washing your face and hair!

Put the rice in a colander or fine mesh sieve and set aside for at least 15 minutes to allow the rice to drain out all the excess water. Then put the rice into the pot you’ll cook it in (a heavy-bottomed pot with a tightly fitting lid or a pressure cooker work best) and add water to let it soak for at least 30 minutes. Both the draining and soaking allow each grain of rice to absorb an equal amount of moisture and cook evenly (though some of my Japanese friends do only one or the other of these steps, according to how dry/moist they like their rice).

How much water to add depends on how fresh the rice is. Newly harvested rice is called shinmai. It can be cooked with a 1:1 ratio, but might be hard to find outside of Japan, so it’s safer to add a bit more water, something like 1:1.1 (a 250mL (metric) cup of rice to 275mL of water) or 1:1.12 (a 250mL cup of rice to 280mL of water).

There is a saying in Japanese about cooking rice, from back in the days when it was cooked over a fire:

     初めちょろちょろ中パッパ ー Hajime choro choro naka pappa ー The heat is low at first, then it boils
     ジュウジュウ吹いたら火を引いて ー Juujuu fuitara hi wo hiite ー When steam blows out, turn down the heat
     赤子泣いてもふた取るな ー Akago naitemo futa toruna ー Don’t remove the lid, even if the baby cries*

*(presumably of hunger!)

The secret to perfectly soft, plump and sticky Japanese rice is to leave the lid on during the whole process. No matter how much you’re tempted to check on the rice, lifting the lid even a little will allow precious steam to escape. So just DON’T DO IT. Listen to the sound of the rice bubbling and check for escaping steam to know when to turn down the heat. It might take a couple of tries to get this right as the cooking time will vary from pot to pot depending on how well it retains heat, but you’ll get a feel for it.

After cooking over low heat for about 10 minutes, make sure to remove from heat and set aside for another 10 minutes at least to allow it to steam. Fluff up the rice with a paddle or wooden spatula before serving so that the bottom grains don’t become overly moist. If you have leftover rice and want to set it aside for refills, just cover the pot with a cloth and the lid. If you have served the amount you need and still have some leftover, the best way to preserve it is to divide into portions while still hot, then wrap and freeze them. Don’t put cooked rice in the refrigerator, as this will dry it out!

If this all seems too daunting, you can use a rice cooker to do the work for you. There are a variety of rice cookers available internationally and online, ranging from the cheapest models with a simple on/off function, up to high-end cookers that include timers, “keep warm” functions and automatic settings for different kinds of rice. As not all rice cookers were created equal, not all of them will yield great results. Also, I think the fancy expensive models are not really worth the investment or counter space they take up, since it’s not that hard to make rice on the stove top. All you need is a heavy-bottomed pot with a fitting lid, or a pressure cooker.

Rice is the heart of traditional Japanese meals. You can make it with a rice cooker, but if you don't have one, don't despair! It’s not difficult to make it on the stove top. Just make sure to rinse and wash the grains, drain and soak the rice, and cook it with the lid on, allowing it to steam. This process will bring out the essence of its flavour, balancing harmoniously with the rest of your oishi Japanese meal. Enjoy!