Rice isn’t a mandatory ingredient in American culinary culture, but in the kitchens of most American households, you would find a small bag of rice sitting in a corner of a cabinet, ready to be used when its owner wants to take a break from bread and butter.
In East Asian culinary cultures, white rice is the most basic element of our diet and the centerpiece of every meal. However, you and I, growing up with rice or not, we both have the same experience of having at some point gone through a learning curve of cooking rice.
Regardless of your rice cooking levels, a master or a beginner, you would, at least once in your rice cooking career, experience the disappointment when you follow every step of the instruction, but your rice doesn’t. The rice could come out undercooked, overcooked, or clumpy. If you’re having a bad day, you might just get an outcome of a three-layer rice dish: undercooked on top, clumpy in the middle and overcooked at the bottom.
I have experienced all four of those bad outcomes. I can’t forget those unsuccessful times when my mom looked at me, let out a deep sigh, and offered me two choices: learn how to cook rice properly or live on ramen noodles the rest of my life.
With practice and guidance from my mom, I learned that the craft of cooking rice is a lesson beyond measuring time and ingredients. Each tip that helps perfect a pot of rice reflects on a value – one that has shaped the behaviors and the lifestyles of East Asian people for thousands of years.
The right measure comes from love.
No matter what type of rice you cook and what you use to cook it, a rice cooker or a regular pot, the “first knuckle” rule will give you a right ratio of rice and water: Level out the rice in the pot, place your index finger so that it is touching the surface of the rice and add water until it comes up to the first knuckle of your index finger.
This rule isn’t just logic. It’s a shared tradition – a thread that sews generations together. As a child, I loved watching my mom cook. I would imitate her, dipping my finger in the pot of rice just to see that the water covered not only my first knuckle, but up to half of my finger. My mom would respond to my confusion by saying that my hand was too small to cook. She said that only when I grew up and learned to love and care for my family would I be able to make a good pot of rice.
People are accustomed to the textures of rice that they grow up with, which are prepared daily by their moms. Different people enjoy different textures of rice. Some like it to be a little dry. Others like it to be soft and chewy. There isn’t a way to standardize a perfect pot of rice. A mom knows her family the best.
Haste makes waste.
To cook the rice, turn the heat to high and let the rice/water mixture come to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer, stir the rice, and allow it to cook for 20 to 30 minutes. When the rice is being cooked, you should not do anything but wait. Stirring the rice doesn’t speed up the process. Constantly opening the lid and peeking doesn’t either.
Patience is a key to success in rice cooking. Patience is ingrained in every rice grain, from when it’s sowed on the paddy to the moment it’s served on the table. So is it in each person who grows up in the rice culture.
In most East Asian countries, farmers still practice the traditional hand methods of cultivating and harvesting rice. They prepare the paddy by ploughing with a plow drawn by a water buffalo, fertilizing, smoothing, and flooding it with water drawn from a river. Then, seedlings, which are implanted in seedling beds for about one and a half months, will be transplanted by hand to the field. During a six-month-long growing season, irrigation is maintained by dike-controlled canals or hand watering.
When the green paddy turns gold with the blooming grains, it will be drained out. The harvest begins: cutting the plants, threshing for grains, milling and cleaning the grains – all the hard work and excitement are anticipated for the coming of the pure white rice grains.
In the steamy kitchen, waiting for the rice to be cooked, I leaned against my mom, enjoyed the breeze from the ceiling fan and listened to her reciting the process. Thirty minutes of waiting turned into a time of appreciation and training in patience.
Rice isn’t served by itself.
Here comes the moment of joy when the rice cooker makes a clicking sound: the last step is to fluff it and serve it.
As a child, this is one of a very few household tasks that I volunteered to do with anticipation. Standing on my toes, I reached into the rice pot with a pair of giant chopsticks and stirred thoroughly. If American kids enjoy tasting their dipped-in-cookie-dough fingers, Asian kids love licking off sticky rice on the chopsticks after fluffing the rice. Soft, sticky and plain – the taste of the freshly cooked rice was just a pure joy.
We simply steam rice in water without any seasoning. Since steamed rice has a neutral flavor, it is served with side dishes to make up the diversity of tastes and nutrition. A typical meal consists of five tastes: the neutral taste of rice, the salty and sometimes spicy flavors of a meat dish, and a vegetable soup accompanied by the sweet and sour tastes of pickled vegetables.
A pot of rice is brought to perfection when it is complemented with various tastes of the side dishes, just like how on the communal culture of East Asia works. A person’s value in life is strongly connected to his or her community. Living a good life means living harmoniously in a community. Just like a pot of rice, one’s life should contribute to and be complemented by the community’s values.
After all, a perfect pot of rice isn’t anything too ambiguous. It takes a deep understanding of a culture. And practice.