This may sound strange coming from a food lover, but I used to find rice rather boring. When I was growing up, it was served without much fanfare, usually as a quick, easy starch that required little seasoning nor much attention. In our family, pasta and bread were the carbohydrates of choice, with rice making only an occasional appearance on the dinner table. This was fine by me, as my favorite foods were cereal, pasta, and bread, in that order. (I was actually a pretty adventurous eater, but those three always topped the list.)
When I moved to Chicago for college, this pattern continued, in part because I lacked a rice cooker. Steven eventually bought me one for fifteen dollars at the local Walgreens, but it never seemed to work properly. There was always a thick layer of gluey rice left on the bottom of the bowl, and so any benefits offered by the machine were ultimately negated by the amount of time it took to clean. Eventually, I took to cooking rice in a pot on the stove, but I always encountered the same problem: an intractably sticky mess. In retrospect, this was probably because I failed to rinse the rice beforehand and added too much water. In comparison, pasta was easy – bring salted water to a boil, add noodles, stir, taste periodically, drain. Why was rice so frustrating? I was a perfectly competent cook, yet this simple grain continued to elude me.
Not until I came to Japan did I really begin to appreciate rice as a staple. Of course, rice is ubiquitous here – from donburi and onigiri to the myriad forms of sushi and wagashi. So when I moved into my apartment outside Tokyo this spring, one of first things I began looking for was a used rice cooker. Eventually, I managed to score a great one for $25 from an Uzbek family who was leaving Japan. (Thanks, GaijinPot!)
Now cooking rice is no longer an ordeal but rather a calming ritual. It begins with the tinkle of the grains falling into the metal bowl, followed by washing and rinsing: swishing the rice through water, rubbing the grains between my fingers to remove the excess starch, pouring off the milky liquid. Finally, I use the tip of my index finger to gauge the water level and shut the lid. When I open it again, a puff of fragrant steam envelops my face. I gently fluff the rice so as not to break the grains and then sit down to practice my chopstick skills.
A good friend came to visit recently, and we visited a sushi shop near Tsukiji market for breakfast.
As the chef formed rice into oblong bars for nigiri zushi, he asked us, “donna nihon no tabemono ga suki desu ka?” (“What kinds of Japanese food do you like?”)
My friend barely hesitated before answering, “rice.”
“Really?” he asked.
We tried to explain that Japanese rice has a certain sweetness we enjoy. I think he understood, but what we really meant is that it doesn’t have a flavor. Rather, there’s an underlying essence, a pureness to Japanese rice that can’t really be described unless you taste it, plain and unadorned.
This quote, from an article by Harris Salat about the Kyoto chef Hisao Nakahigashi, sums up the notion perfectly:
“’We never get tired of white rice,” the chef said matter-of-factly. He told me that he considered the other dishes to be a journey. “Why do you enjoy traveling?” he asked rhetorically. “Because you have a home to come back to. When we eat white rice, we go back to the origins of Japanese cooking. It’s like coming home.’”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.