by Terry Watada
Editor’s note: While Terry is on his summer hiatus, we decided to look back on his nearly thirty years of writing about and for the Japanese Canadian community and by extension the Asian Canadian community. We will be reprinting some his columns until his return.
Welcome to the Christian Millennium! Give or take a few years, this so-called new era needs a bit of advice to see us through it. I came across some from an unlikely source: Frank Delima, the popular Waikiki stand-up comedian who is a cross between Weird Al Yankovic and Don Rickles at his most irreverent. Delima sets satirical lyrics to music. His favourite targets are haoles (hakujins) and every other ethnic group living in the palm-treed islands. He is very funny but can be offensive to the uninitiated.
Anyway his advice is simple – eat rice. Simple yet somehow it speaks to our entire zeitgeist. I’ve eaten rice virtually every day of my life. It’s soul food, it’s comfort food, it’s a staple. “A day without a bowl of rice is like a day without sunshine,” said an old acquaintance who didn’t heed his own words and eventually went crazy somewhere in the Midwestern United States.
I like fried rice, paella or risotto. Chirashi is divine and red bean rice is for good luck, but mostly I like it steamed. I don’t like Uncle Ben’s or Rice-a-Roni. I don’t think it polite if someone pours shoyu all over it. Ravishing the white purity of well-prepared rice with the blackness of soy sauce is unseemly. Better to set the okazu on top and let the natural juices sink into the snow bank of rice below.
Chef Hiroshi Fukui of L’Urabu restaurant in Hawaii describes perfectly cooked rice as “not sweet, but with just a hint of sweetness.” Well put but hard to achieve. To make a good attempt at it, the best rice that is available must be had. There is brown rice, long grain rice, Basmati and wild rice but I like the standard short grain. But which brand? Dundas Union used to deliver 100 pounds of Calrose brand, whenever we needed it, which I had to carry down to the basement. My left shoulder is sloped lower than my right as a result. Some swear by Kokuho Rose. I personally like Sakura which tends to last longer after cooked. A real treat is ochazuke with leftover rice (cold of course) and hot green tea. It wouldn’t be complete, however, without tsukemono but that’s another column.
In a sufficient pot, pour in the desired amount of rice. Don’t use a rice cooker. Saves time and mess, I know, but it takes away from tradition. Rinse the rice to get the talc off. Three times some say, others say forget it, the new type of rice isn’t coated with talc. My mother would’ve had a fit so I keep using fresh water, swishing it until it’s relatively clear. The final amount of water used for steaming is measured using the middle finger of either hand. The level should just touch the first joint. Some use the index finger but I find this method doesn’t provide enough water, making the rice too hard. “Like eating teeth,” my father used to say. Others place the whole hand on the surface of the rice and then fill the pot with water up to the bottom of the wrist bone. I suppose this is all right if you’re making rice soup – chagai or juk as the Chinese call it. Obviously a lot of experimentation must take place.
I often wonder how the lumber camp cooks prepared the rice for the workers in prewar B.C. I’ve heard they used oil drums over an open fire. But how much water was used? And how did they measure it? They didn’t use their feet, did they?
Okay, once the pot of rice is ready then cover it and place it on high heat. Knowing when to stop the boiling process to let it simmer is the key to making a perfect pot. My mother taught me to let it overflow and then turn the heat right down immediately. Sometimes however the top won’t explode, causing the rice to burn on the bottom. Now some people like koge or burnt sheets of rice. They put it in tea and eat it like ochazuke, but I can’t stomach the stuff myself.
Once the rice is simmering, leave it for fifteen to twenty minutes and then turn off the heat altogether. I often check it in the last stages. If the surface is dry it’s done, I figure. Within its depths, the rice is moist “with just a hint of sweetness”. Perfection.
Before serving, the rice must be turned with a paddle to release the steam. A profound moment as the starch and steam cover the face. Then and only then can the rice be brought to the table along with the okazu.
There’s nothing worse than badly cooked rice. Some of it can be salvaged as in the case of koge but mushy rice or undercooked rice simply cannot be saved which can lead to throwing it out. A major sin. “Think of all the starving children in China!” my mother used to say. Consequently we toughed it out and ate the stuff. I guess that’s why someone invented the electronic rice cooker.
One last piece of advice: eat every grain served. Besides those destitute children in China, think about the effort it took to make that perfect serving of rice. Show some appreciation for the simple pleasures and this millennium won’t seem so daunting after all.