Gohan: Standard White Rice
The fixation is woven right into our language. The word for rice – “gohan”- also means “meal”. “Asa” means morning, so to say “breakfast” you have to say “asa-gohan”: literally, it’s our “morning rice”. “Hiru” means “midday”, so lunch becomes “hiru-gohan”. And evening is “ban”, so you can guess what “ban-gohan” means.
Now, lets not fool ourselves: to the western palate, Japanese rice comes across as terribly bland. The standard recipe is completely plain. No spices, no salt, no flavorings, nothing. Just rice, water, heat and time. It certainly takes time and practice to learn to discern the subtle differences in taste and texture that set apart exceptional white rice from the merely ordinary kind.
It’s hard to think of a simpler dish, yet we Japanese obsess about it endlessly. At top-end Japanese department stores, you can easily find rice cookers that cost $1,000 or more. All children learn exactly how to cook white rice in elementary school. Journalists get sent out to cover the first rice harvest of the season because everyone knows that the early-harvest rice is just better than the rest. Government scientists research the question of harvest timing extensively.
Even the Emperor has to ritually plant and later harvest some rice each year to offer to the Sun Goddess; in fact, some scholars hypothesize that, in Ancient Times, the emperors got their start as rice shamans, rising to political power thanks to the belief that they had magical powers over the rice harvest. As one author explains:
The symbolic importance of rice is deeply rooted in the Japanese cosmology: rice as soul, rice as pure money, and ultimately, rice as self. During Edo era (1603-1867), rice was circulated as an intermediate, as money.
Even though the Japanese had the custom of eating rice since ancient times, only after the nineteenth century did rice became the national food staple. Therefore, rice has been valued as a special food associated with rituals. Rice harvest rituals, both among the folk and at the imperial court, have been a major cultural institution. The Japanese emperor originally was the shaman who celebrated rice harvest in ancient times. Harvest ritual celebrate cosmic rejuvenation through an exchange of their souls, that is, selves, as objectified in rice.
People believed that rice had mysterious super-natural powers. One example can be seen in an ancient custom; people shook rice in bamboo and let the dying person hear the sound at his deathbed. On mountainsides, people called rice “the Buddhist saint (Bosastu).” The word “offering (to the God),” osonae, itself used to refer to the rice cake prepared for ritual services. It means that the rice had been used as main servings for the formal rituals to God.
Rice is not a mere grain, rather a personified thing that has soul. People perceived a rice cropping to be closely connected to the super-natural, religious behavior, rather than an economic activity. Rice farmers had a notion of “ina-dama,” the soul of rice, and personified rice. Therefore even today, people believe that the soul of rice, which is called the God of the rice paddy, dwells in the last rice stubble. The person who reaped the last rice would bring it back home and hold a service. This custom is still practiced at the rice harvest rituals.
So you’ve been warned: this dish may be exceedingly simple, but it is not to be trifled with. Simple white rice is the cornerstone not just of our diet, but of our whole way of life.
And, now that I think of it, it’s not just at harvest time that rice is suffused with ritual. Making rice at home is full of little ritual gestures as well. In this post, I try to share some of them.
- Rice – 4 cups
- This must be short-grain japonica variety rice. (Note: In the West, japonica rice is often sold as “sushi rice”.)
- Try to buy rice harvested early in the season.
- Rice loses its freshness over time: buy it as fresh as possible.
- Water – 5 cups
- Japanese readers may think that’s a little too much water: in Japan, the standard is as little as 1-to-1. The exact ratio depends on the kind of rice you’re using: the precise variety, its freshness and how early or late in the season it was picked.
- Here in Montreal the Japanese rice we find is often not super-fresh, so it needs a little more water than usual. The better and fresher your rice is, the less water it needs.
- Wash the rice thoroughly but quickly:
- Pour water over rice, swirl a bit, and discard the water quickly. Repeat. (These first two rinses produces the dirtiest water: you don’t want the rice to absorb this water, so get rid of it right away)
- Start to “sharpen” the rice. This is a gesture everybody in Japan learns in childhood, but most Westerners haven’t ever seen it. This video shows it well. Pour a small amount of water into the rice, make your hand into a fist, press down into it, twisting and turn. Put pressure on the rice using the bottom of the palm of your hand, like a massage. Don’t use too much pressure: you want to avoid breaking up the rice grains.
- Add lukewarm water to the pot until it’s full, swirl briefly, and discard the water, getting rid of the white run-off washing creates.
- Repeat the previous two steps several times.
- The entire washing process needs to happen quickly, in no more than 3 minutes. If you do it too slowly, the rice absorbs the filthy washing water.
- Pour luke-warm water onto the rice. Let it soak for at least 40 minutes.
- Again, the optimal soaking time varies depending on the type and freshness of the rice you’re using. If you’re using very fresh, early-harvest rice a 20 minute soak may be enough. If you’re using rice that’s been in storage for a while – which is what you usually find in Asian stores in Europe and North America – you need to soak for at least 40 minutes, and often as much as an hour. Undersoaked rice is extremely unpleasant!
In Japan, almost everyone has a rice-cooker at home. You don’t need a rice-cooker, though: the stove-top method works fine if you just pay close attention to what you’re doing.Try not to uncover as long as possible in whole process.
- Cover the pot and set over a high flame
- After around 10 minutes, when the water starts to boil to blow, turn heat down to medium
- Cook on medium heat for about five minutes
- Once all the water is fully absorbed, turn heat off (if you’re using elecric stove, if you are using gas stove, turn the heat all the way down) and let it sit for another 5 minutes.
- After that turn over thoroughly with a shamoji, a flat rice paddle. If you don’t have a shamoji, use wooden spatula, never a metal spoon.
- Put cover back on, turn heat off, and let it steam for five to ten minutes.
When perfectly cooked, Japanese rice sticks together just enough so you can eat it with chopsticks easily. It should never feel gummy or clump together in great big masses.
If all goes well, you end up with a bowl of dreamy, fluffy, plump rice that holds in all the moisture you’ve added, gives off a subtle, distinct, deep aroma and glimmers when you put it directly under the light.
Now, here’s a secret my mother passed down to me: cooked rice freezes well. It may sound unlikely, but it’s the best solution I know to the problem of making delicious rice available in a reasonable period of time.
- Once the rice is finished cooking, divide it into individual serving sized portions and wrap it in celophane (saran-wrap).
- Allow the packages to cool to room-temperature
- Put them it in the freezer.
- To reheat, place the frozen packages, still wrapped, in the microwave on full power, for about 2 to 3 minutes
- Unwrap – being careful not to burn your fingers with the steam when you open the plastic – and serve.
The technique is surprisingly effective at keeping cooked rice plump and fresh-tasting, and it avoids having to go through the time consuming wash-soak-and-cook process each time you want a simple bowl of rice. So consider making a big batch of rice and freezing the leftovers.
Even if you use a rice-cooker, keep in mind that you should never keep rice warm in the cooker for a long time. It makes it unpalatably dry and ruins the taste. So freezing is a good option even if you use a rice-cooker.
I understand that that may seem like a crazy amount of time and worry energy devoted to a dish that’s basically rice with nothing in it. But Japanese culture is like that: we obsess over tiny details, and when you’re dealing with something you’re going to be eating three times a day your entire life, a bit of obsessiveness seems well deserved.
It’s easy to overstate the bother, though. Once you get the knack to cooking rice this way, you don’t have to think about it that much each time you do it. With time, all the steps just get hard-wired into your routine, and then cooking rice turns into just simple, everyday activity.
For today’s rice, I made Mapo tofu for the first time. When you have something with a strong taste like Mapo tofu, you absolutely need good plain white rice to go with it!