When Momoko Nakamura, who goes by the name Rice Girl, arrives at my home to make brown rice, she has only given me one instruction in advance: make sure to have her favorite cast-iron pot.
Nakamura has just flown in from Tokyo to give a talk and demo at the Museum of Food and Drink in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her work focuses on the 24 sub-seasons (sekki)—and further, the 72 micro-seasons (kou, five-day blocks that all have poetic names)—of the Japanese calendar. She travels the countryside to meet rice farmers who practice Shizen farming, the Japanese farming tradition of growing and harvesting according to the season, without the use of pesticides or harmful chemicals.
“The poetry has always been there,” says Nakamura. “Our grandmothers’ generation could probably speak to the 24 seasons accurately, but our generation has only kind of heard of these things. The rice farmers who use Shizen farming are much more aware of this micro-seasonal calendar because they have to make smaller edits to their farming practice every single day.”
Nakamura, a former producer for the Food Network, has dedicated her life to educating others about rice, much the same way a sommelier teaches about viniculture.
”When it comes to rice, most families use white, mass-produced rice instead of the brown rice grown by our ancestors,” she says. Nakamura posits that during World War II, when land was destroyed and growing became more scarce, the time it took to polish brown rice and turn it into white rice made it a more sought after product.
Brown rice is white rice with the outer kernel intact, making it a less processed, more nutritious ingredient. While many prize the silky, fluffy texture and milder flavor of white rice, Nakamura wishes for people to enjoy and observe the many nuanced flavors and textures of sustainably grown rice varietals, 300 of which are present in Japan alone.
“Right now, we are in the last micro-season of fall, right before winter, called morning frost,” she tells me, “where we are just beginning to see frost on the leaves and trees.”
The blend we try together is from Akita prefecture in Japan, where it snows. “The earth is colder and more resilient and yields a sweeter rice. In the same region they make snow-covered carrots, which they harvest in fall and store in winter under snow to make them sweeter,” she says.
Nakamura shares her favorite method for cooking brown rice, developed through her grandmother’s techniques and oral wisdom. In her method, she symbolically uses sea salt to unite two energies, the sea and the land, akin to the geography of her native country, which she believes brings a certain harmony to the dish.
First, choose a cast-iron pot. (She notes that any round, deep cast-iron pot will work.)
Then, measure the rice using a vessel such as a cup (it doesn’t need any special lines). You will use double the amount of water to rice. For example, if you filled a drinking cup with rice, you’ll need two drinking cups of water for the cooking process.
Next, place the rice on a plate or sheet pan. Appreciate it. Touch the rice and let it play between your fingers. Is it cold? Can you feel some of the starch on your fingers? Examining it as such is much like how you would examine the color of wine and how it marks the inside of a glass. Pick out any impurities.
Rinse the rice three times: Place the rice in a bowl and add a large amount of cold water. In a swift, clockwise motion, rinse the rice, turning, spinning and lifting under the rice to remove much of the starch. Repeat two more times, draining and using new cold water each time.
Drain the rice and place in the pot with double the amount of cold water to the measured rice.
Nakamura names the cooking steps—which she categorizes by the level of stovetop heat—by season: medium (“spring”), high (“summer”), low (“autumn”), and off (“winter”).
- Spring (medium): Turn to medium heat and allow the rice to gradually come to a rolling boil.
- Summer (high): Once you begin to see bubbles, turn the heat to high. Once at a rolling boil, cook for 1 minute. You want all the rice from the bottom to bubble up and dance so the grains cook evenly. Season with a barely perceptible pinch of salt.
- Autumn (low): Turn the heat to low and cover the pot for the first time. Cook for about 30 minutes.
- Winter (off): Turn off the heat, take pot off the stove and allow to rest for 10 minutes. When you remove the cover, small holes over the surface of the rice are an indicator of success.
After resting the rice for 10 minutes, Nakamura suggests using a wooden or special rice spoon to divide the mix into four even quadrants, and gently fluffing by folding the rice the way you would egg whites into a cake batter, gently lifting up the grains from the bottom so they don’t become mushy.
The rice should be immediately transferred to a wooden bowl and served, or can be formed into cakes plain or with various seasonings.