Every year when Dr Amber Spry teaches a class on identity politics at Brandeis University in the United States, she kicks off with the same question on the first day. “Rather than the usual ice breakers,” she tweeted, “I ask: how does your family or culture cook rice?”
Let’s call it the rice breaker.
This is an interesting query because rice is such a ubiquitous food, in so many parts of the world, that people have strong opinions on the right way to do it. Sometimes they even feel affronted when they see others cook, season and eat rice differently from them. For example, Hersha Patel copped the wrath of many BBC viewers (and YouTuber Uncle Rodger) this year when she rinsed the rice after boiling it, as part of her process of cooking fried rice. Other viewers pointed out her method is a standard way to cook some types of rice dishes – and eventually she united with her loudest critic for a video.
The relationship that communities have with rice is reflected in language. In Japanese, breakfast literally translates to “morning rice” and in the Malay language, there are different words for cooked and uncooked rice.
Pamela Chan, an Australian-based chef and owner of a home catering business, grew up in Malaysia and was used to cooking white rice using a rice cooker. “Back then, I would wash and rinse the uncooked rice at least three times before I cooked it. Seems excessive, but it was to remove small bugs or dirt from the uncooked rice. And the other reason was to wash away the starch. If you skip this step, it will turn out clumpy and not fluffy. When you press down on a grain of steamed rice, it must smear; that’s how to test if it’s cooked properly.”
A rice cooker is a very common appliance in most south-east and east Asian households, and occupies the same revered countertop space as a toaster or microwave. Unlike pots and pans, it is rarely put away in the bottom kitchen shelf after a single use. Part of its charm is that users can just set-and-forget and come back to perfectly steamed rice. In comparison, cooking rice on a stovetop requires monitoring to ensure that the water does not evaporate too soon, else the rice at the bottom of pot will burn or have a thin crust.
Chan swears by an old National brand (now Panasonic) rice cooker that her parents lugged across borders for her back in the early 2000s, when it was difficult to find one in Australia. However, as a trained chef who has worked in commercial kitchens, she concedes that there is more than one way to steam rice. “I once saw a chef cook 80 kilos of rice by putting it in a huge tray, covering it with water and cooking it in a Combi oven. It had a steaming effect, just like a rice cooker.”
This technique of cooking rice in an oven is not limited to commercial kitchens. According to Adele Drago-Stevens, baking rice dishes is part her Maltese culture. “We have this dish called Ross Il Forn, which literally translates to ‘rice in oven’. We put uncooked rice, water and Bolognese sauce [in a dish] and bake it in an oven. The toppings depend on each cook, but generally there’s parmesan, egg or peas.” When the dish is cooked correctly, it can be sliced into individual rice cakes.
This dish and its cooking technique has a set-and-forget element to it too. But the best part, according to Drago-Stevens, is the cheesy, crunchy top. “That’s the bit we all fight for.”
The former chef and current Melbourne-based architect Saeid Zand explains that fighting for the crunchy layer of saffron rice on top of a tahdig is part of his Persian culture too. The way to get this layer is a two-step process and plenty of experience. “The first step is to boil the rice with coarse salt and vegetable oil, so the rice does not clump together. It has to be soft but not overcooked.”
The second step may surprise many BBC viewers – the rice is rinsed in a colander and returned to the pot to cook with a lot of butter. “What we want to avoid is steamed rice, so we wrap a cloth around the lid of the pot, so the cloth absorbs the steam and the rice becomes separated and not sticky,” he explains.
The addition of butter or fat, which oozes to the bottom of the pot, is how the rice gets its prized golden, crispy layer. Sometimes cooks will add a piece of flat lavash bread, or thinly sliced potatoes to the bottom of the pot to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom. This is important, as the dish needs to slide out of the pot and be overturned onto a plate, while retaining its shape.
Rice is a staple food in Iran and in some parts of the country people eat it in all three meals. Zand puts this succinctly: “We used to say, if you haven’t eaten rice that day, that means you haven’t eaten!”