Growing up in the suburbs, my family and I would go to steakhouses often, our Friday night ritual at the end of the workweek. Think: ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, Louis Huang's Cattleman's Ranch Steakhouse. As soon as we'd come home from dinner, even after that huge meal, my dad would head straight to the kitchen and eat a spoonful or two of cold leftover white rice (the gonggi bap) straight out of the rice cooker. Maybe with some ice-cold kimchi from the fridge, a sheet or two of gim (roasted seaweed snack). Dinner was never dinner unless there was white rice to round everything out. It was as if he couldn't feel fully satiated without it.
I wonder if other Koreans can identify with this longing for rice to complete a meal. It signifies for me a long-lasting lore I've always felt that white rice is food, and food is white rice.
It is significant, isn't it, how the word for "rice" in so many cultures is synonymous with the one for "food"? In Korean, bap means both "rice" and "food," or "meal." In Mandarin, it's fàn. In Japanese, gohan. I'm no linguist or historian, but it makes sense to me that this would be the case for cuisines where white rice is at the center, always the starch on the table, the prized crop in the agricultural makeup of all these cultures' food economies.
I think there's also a lot of mystification out there about how to cook white rice. Maybe because everyone does it differently: It's likely that your way of making it is different from your friend's or from Tejal Rao's, from mine. Indeed, how we cook food differently will always be an indication of the variability of culture, and the notion that there is no one right way.
That said, there is a right way in my life, and in my brother's, and in my dad's. I thought it was high time that I share some wisdom from my own mother Jean, whose rice is quite famous for being perfectly fluffy, never mushy, and exactly right. She's been making it for 50 years and, as far as I know, hasn't changed her method since. It comes out immaculate every time, so there's got to be something to it right?
I have to say here: This method uses an electric rice cooker, which is prevalent in every Korean household, like an electric kettle might be in every British household. If you're looking for the stovetop method, proceed here.
Otherwise, here's my mother's method, which, I've learned in recent years, is a little different.
- First, Jean rinses short-grain white rice (the sticky kind you get at Korean and Japanese restaurants, not jasmine nor basmati, not Uncle Ben's, but this one) straight in the rice cooker. That is, she fills the removable inner pot with rice (never measures), takes it over to the sink, fills it with water, stirs with her hands, and pours the cloudy water out—and repeats this process, say, three or four times until the water runs clearer. She used to make me do this when I was little while she prepped dinner, and I'd get rice all over the sink (which is why now I always rinse my rice in a sieve).
- Next, she fills the inner pot (a little water in there is fine, good actually) with enough water so that when she places her palm flat into the rice, the water level rises to the crease in her wrist where it meets the hand. I always thought this was black magic. "My hand is way bigger than yours!" I'd say. And she'd go: ¯_(ツ)_/¯. But I'd end up making rice like this for decades, sticking my palm into the rice and feeling anxious about the lack of science of it all. How accurate could this be, really? Eventually, when I started developing recipes that required exact measurements, I was able to figure out the actual rice-to-wrist-level-water proportions. Which came out to be about 1 cup water for every 1 cup rinsed, drained short-grain white rice. Remember: This is for the rice cooker, not for the stove, so if it doesn't sounds like enough water, just trust me (or rather, trust my mother).
- This next step is subtle but, in my experience, essential (especially if you're using the 1:1 water to rice ratio above): My mother lets her rinsed, drained rice sit in its water for a bit before cooking. Sometimes she'd forget about it completely and it'd sit there, and sit there, and sit there. But the idea is that the rice should soak. The resultant texture is, for me, so much fluffier, rounder, better. Even when you think you don't have the time, just soak it a little. Five minutes is better than zero. These days I set a timer for exactly 10 minutes, which I've learned over the years is totally sufficient. Longer is fine, if you forget like her (and me sometimes), but any longer than an hour or so and you run the risk of entering mushy rice territory.
- Finally, press the button and wait. But don't watch it. A watched rice cooker never steams.
How do you cook your white rice? Let us know in the comments below.