I spent five years cooking in fine dining restaurants in the U.S., and yet I was not quite prepared for life as an apprentice in a Japanese kitchen.
The honorific language spoken, the vertical relationships observed and the traditional food ways preserved are much more intense than anything I had encountered in my several previous years in Japan. Linguistically, when I first started working in a small kappo- style restaurant in Osaka I suddenly found myself not having “to do” anything but rather “having the pleasure of letting someone allow me to do” even the simplest tasks.
The cuisine at the small Osaka kappo-ya is pure Japanese casual kaiseki, a style of food traditionally served in tiny restaurants fringing neighborhoods with high concentrations of teahouses and catering to the men who frequent these geisha stages.
The most exciting part of cooking behind a counter is learning new preparations everyday. Each season, each holiday, there is something new and challenging. But before I was ever allowed to start being challenged with a new menu daily, I had to nail down the basics, the everyday necessities of the Japanese kitchen. The two tasks I had to master first were cooking rice and making dashi (stock).
Domestic rice (Oryza sativa) has three major subspecies commonly grown around the world: indica, javanica and japonica. The several varieties of rice traditionally grown and used in Japanese food fall in the japonica category, and are short-grained and glutinous.
The majority of rice consumed in Japan has been stripped of the hull and bran and polished to obtain what we call “white rice.” White rice is not nutritionally complete and must be supplemented, generally by a legume, to prevent malnutrition in those whose diet consists primarily of rice. In Japan, soy products, mostly tofu, play this important complementary role.
There are several varieties of white rice available in Japanese markets and from rice vendors. These range from less-expensive blends to costly name-brand rice varieties such as Koshihikari. Still, differences in taste and texture, I have found, relate more directly to the proper cooking of the rice than to the price tag.
It may seem obvious, but there are a few tricks that if mastered will help you make perfect rice in your cooker every time.
1) Measure the rice
Use the cup provided to measure the rice. I generally measure 2 cups for three people, but for some this amount might not be enough. With most rice cookers you will not get a good result cooking less than two cups.
2) Wash the rice
The Japanese verb for rice washing is togu, which also means “whet,” “sharpen” or “polish”; it is not used to describe washing anything else. First cover the rice with ample water and discard this first cloudy water immediately. Next, with an open palm, rub the drained rice in a pressing motion against the bottom of the bowl, being careful to agitate and force the rice upon itself. Add more water and discard again. Repeat this process several times until the water runs almost clear.
3) Soak the rice
Cover the rice with water and let it soak for 30-40 minutes.
4) Drain the rice
Drain the washed rice into a sieve or colander fine enough to catch all of the grains. Let the rice stand for five minutes or until completely dry.
5) Add water
Next, place the rice in the cooker and add water to the designated line on the side of the cooker.
6) Cook the rice
Replace the lid and press the button; the rice will cook itself.
This step is critical. When the electric cooker has clicked off, remove the lid, stir once and replace the lid for at least 10 minutes. There is a traditional folk song that tells how to cook rice. In the last line of the verse the song implores, “Even if the baby cries from hunger leave the lid on.” This 10 minutes will finish the cooking and make the rice ready to eat.
8) Hold the rice
Rice may be held in most cookers; some gas machines are too hot to hold rice. Traditionally, and many say this is best, rice is removed to a special covered wooden box to be served at the table.
There are many other ways to prepare rice in the traditional Japanese kitchen. In future articles we will explore rice gruels, porridges, takikomi, mochi rice, sushi rice and more. First, though, we will have to tackle dashi . . .