Monday, July 27, 2015

White on rice. Or something.

You can pretty much tell where you are in China by the starch you are eating. Generally speaking, wheat is served in the cold, dry areas to the north and west, while the humid south and east are the places where rice grows well. Other grains and tubers round out the cuisines, of course, but all in all, wheat and rice form the bases for every meal. In fact, starches are such fundamental parts of all these food traditions that they are called the “main food,” or zhǔshí 主食, in Chinese.
Pour water into the rinsed rice

Everywhere outside of North and West China relies on rice in some form, though, for the daily meal, and most folks just steam up a couple cups while they are cooking dinner. It’s an easy and pretty much foolproof way to round out your meal.

If you are old school, you can try steaming rice in bamboo steamer baskets. The main thing to remember is that the rice has to be soaked before steaming. Some people advise that you soak it for 8 hours or overnight, but it really depends upon the type of rice and how fresh it is. I tend to soak white rice for around 3 hours and then use the fingernail test to know when it’s ready to be cooked. Check out the directions for Fermented Rice if you want detailed directions on making steamed rice the old-fashioned way.

Bring to a full boil

Nowadays, though, almost every Chinese person I knows has an automatic rice steamer that gets used on a daily basis. When I lived in Taiwan years ago, the go-to brand was Tatung, and it was a simple, hard to break cooker that could also be used to steam fish or whatever else was on the menu. Today’s rice cookers tend to be more dedicated to cooking nothing other than rice, and in my opinion the Japanese have this subject nailed. The best one on the market right now is the Zojirushi “Neuro Fuzzy” rice cooker, which also has to win some sort of prize for the strangest name. These are fully automatic, so if you cook a lot of rice, this is something to seriously consider. Just follow the directions that come with the steamer.

However, I did not have an electric rice steamer even after almost three decades of living with a Chinese guy simply because I had always worked in tiny kitchens with limited counter space. Be that as it may, I served rice many times a week by simply cooking it on the stove. When done right, it’s foolproof.
Set your timer

Although this is not technically steamed rice, what you end up is virtually indistinguishable from the real deal. Brown rice cooks up perfectly this way, too. Lots of rice producers will have directions printed on the package, and that is the perfect place to start because each brand and variety of rice definitely is different. Don’t add any salt or oil when you are cooking the rice for a Chinese meal, even if the package tells you to, as this is just not done in East Asia. However, you can always add oil and seasonings after the rice is cooked, as with fried rice or Taiwanese Sticky Rice.

Another thing that I've come to love is the array of different rices on display in the bulk section of many supermarkets nowadays. This allows me to buy just a pound or two of whatever looks delicious to me that day, and then I can look forward to trying something new the next time around. If you don't plan to use your rice up within a week or so, consider storing it in the refrigerator to prevent it from getting buggy.

Simple ingredients & recipe

Shown in these pictures is organic jasmine rice, which has a deep perfume that I adore. What I like to do at the store is smell each bin, as my nose unerringly informs me as to what is really fresh. Other rices are just as delicious, of course, and I could not live without plain white rice, brown basmati, sticky Thai black, or inky forbidden rice. They all taste and look and feel so different from each other that sometimes it's hard to believe they're actually related.

One thing you should note is that the measuring cup for a rice cooker holds about ¾ cup - not a full cup - so adjust your measurements accordingly.

This is the recipe I have used since forever:

Stovetop rice
Shǔizhǔ báifàn 水煮白飯
Makes about 3 cups

1 cup plain white raw short-grain rice
1½ cups water

1. Rinse the rice in a sieve until the water runs clear. Dump the rice into a 3- or 4-cup saucepan, preferably with a heavy bottom and a clear lid. Pour in the water and swirl the rice around in it to loosen up any clumps.

Rice with the variation below
2. Bring the water to a full boil and then turn the heat down to low. Cover the pan and let the rice slowly cook for 17 to 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the rice sit covered for another 10 minutes. Fluff the rice up with chopsticks or a fork and serve.

For brown rice, use 2 cups water and cook the rice for 45 minutes, or follow the package directions.

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One of the really nice things about simple foods like rice is that they can be dressed up with pretty much zero effort. The following is one example. I actually got the idea for this from Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, a book I cannot recommend enough. Few people write as poetically about food as Mr. Slater, and I get hungry just reading one of his beautifully shaped recipes, which seem to call upon all of the senses, as well as memories, the weather, and how he's feeling just at that moment. Sheer bliss is eating something good while reading his books. 
The star attraction

Cilantro rice
Yuánsuī fàn 芫荽飯
Makes about 3 cups

Cook the rice as directed above, and just before serving, fold in:

1 cup (or so) coarsely chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons green onion mingyou
A couple grinds of black pepper

This rice doesn't keep long because cilantro (aka coriander, aka Chinese parsley) hates to be anything other than fresh, uncooked, and sprightly. So, make only as much of this rice as you are planning to eat in one sitting. It's especially delicious with something like a broiled or grilled bit of fish. 


  1. I love making a ginger-scallion oil sauce and stirring that into freshly steamed rice--a perfect snack.

    As an aside, Carolyn have you seen this video on rice cooking from ATK?

    1. Thanks, Michael. I hadn't seen that before. America's Test Kitchen is always so wonderfully thorough about things.

      P.S., I usually don't publish comments with links in them because 99% of them are spam, so thanks too for explaining what the video was.