Monday, February 22, 2010

Rice: Not So Boring After All

I must confess, I have always treated rice as a second, or even 4th, class citizen. A devoted noodle slurper, bread muncher and baked potato fan (it's the perfect vehicle for gobs of sour cream) rice has never been high on my starchy side-dish priority list. Sure, I've leaned on rice in times of need: to cool my mouth after a fiery bite of Thai curry or to keep the beans and carnitas company in an infant-sized taco truck burrito. But rice has always been my Joan Cusack of carbohydrates. Never the lead role. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Until now.

My rice cooker has easily become the most-used appliance in my kitchen (well, actually my rice cooker lives on top of the washing machine, but whatever). Every night I engage in the rice ritual: scoop the short grains from the 10kg bag and pour them into the rice cooker, wash the rice at least twice, scrubbing and swirling until the water turns milky, drain, add fresh water and a dash of salt, and set the timer for 10am. That's right, the timer. The Japanese have combined their two favorite things, rice and technology, allowing me to wake up to fresh rice every morning; the little yellow "warming" light kept aglow until I manage to slog out of bed and scoop it into a bowl.

Like many Japanese people, I have taken to eating rice two or three times a day. The grains are so deeply incorporated into the culture that the Japanese words for breakfast, lunch and dinner (asa gohan, hiru gohan & ban gohan) literally translate to morning rice, afternoon rice and evening rice. I have actually started to crave rice daily and it just seems to taste better here: a little nutty and a little sweet with a satisfyingly sticky mouth-feel. In the morning, I often have a bowl of warm rice sprinkled with furikaki, a rice seasoning, sold in dozens of varieties. I prefer a mix of thinly shredded nori, toasted sesame seeds and bonito flakes. Sometimes I top my morning rice with garlicky sesame spinach and a scoop of homemade daikon kimchee. On a less stinky morning I'll swirl a couple of beaten eggs into a bubbling pan of dashi, soy sauce, sugar and mirin then shake the soft cooked, umami coated, eggs over the warm rice. But sometimes I just want the simple comfort of plain, unadorned Japanese rice.

When I leave Japan, one of the things I will miss most is onigiri; the humble rice ball. Stuffed with a nugget of smoked salmon or maybe a pickled plum, and wrapped in a sheet of nori, onigiri are the perfect snack and a bento box staple. I make onigiri at home every morning, using my adorable little onigiri holders to mold the rice into perfect triangles. But what I really love are the ones from the convenience stores. I don't know if they're blessed by manatees or simply coated in crack, but man can 7-11 make some tasty onigiri! I could eat about 32 a day. My favorite part is the initial snap of the seaweed, closely followed by the soft chew of the rice. When I'm feeling simple I go for the triangles stuffed with a tiny blob of tuna mayonnaise or a tangle of dark green konbu. A fancy day means onigiri bearing raw tuna and green onion or a hunk of crab. I recently met a girl who works in the local 7-11 bento factory. I actually met the person who makes my precious onigiri! I nearly asked for her autograph.


  1. I must confess, Rachel converted me to the joys of rice. I came home and bought a rice cooker and have yet to make it as scrumptious as it was in Japan. Maybe I need those fishy flakes.