I Love This Appliance
I, a Hong Kong native, had somehow made it into my late 20s without ever owning a rice cooker. Seems unholy, doesn’t it? And while I have always been able to turn out a serviceable pot of rice on the stovetop, that pot is wearisome to clean.
Enter this baby:
My Black & Decker 3-Cup Rice Cooker may or may not turn out to be a piece of junk, but it only cost me twenty bucks. In fact, if I’d bought it on Amazon, I would have paid $12.99 for it. Still, it’s worked fine for about a month now, and in addition to making the perfect amount of rice for a couple (enough for two, with leftovers for a packed lunch), it’s the perfect size for a New York kitchen.
The best thing about this purchase, though, is the boost it’s given to my relationship with rice. (Yes, I have a relationship with rice; I’m half Chinese.) I’ve been eating a lot more of it, and I’m treating it right.
I came late to the world of rice cookers because I grew up in a household with terrible rice. We ate a lot of short-grain white rice, for some reason, which is sticky as it is, and which we made stickier by cooking it in too much water. Short-grain rice is fine in the right context, but that context is Japanese food. I spent my childhood mealtimes yearning for the slender-grained and fragrant rice that I only ever seemed to eat in Chinese restaurants.
Short-grain, long-grain; more water, less water. The variables seem simple now, but I managed to grow up believing that good rice, like good pizza, was something that restaurants had and homes didn’t. So after I left home for college in Scotland, far from missing my daily rice bowl and trying to recreate it, I was downright promiscuous with my carbohydrates. I did find it questionable that the cafeteria lunch ladies not only salted and peppered but buttered the rice, and I raised an eyebrow each time my sophomore-year roommate boiled rice in salted water and drained it in a colander, but, for the most part, I looked away and ate my fusilli. Or couscous. Or curly fries.
Lately, though, as I’ve heard can happen as one grows older, I’ve been looking upon the foods of my youth with a new fondness. Not the rice we had at home, which even through the soft-focus lens of nostalgia still looks pretty bad, but the rice in Hong Kong’s ubiquitous faan hup (polystyrene lunch boxes filled with 1 part roast meat to 3 parts rice), or the rice my mother could never keep from ordering during the fish course of a Chinese banquet. (Chinese people don’t eat a lot of starch on festive occasions, preferring to glut on pricier proteins, but the sweet soy sauce ladled over a scallion-strewn grouper wants white rice the way pâté wants a cracker.)
The Cantonese expression heung pun pun is often used to describe warm rice. Heung simply means “fragrant,” but the pun pun part is as close to onomatopeia as any scent is likely to come, each pun a puff of aromatic steam. In the fantasy etymology that is my consolation for not knowing how to read Chinese, this is the lid of the rice cooker rattling as that steam crescendoes, or a rice-carrying freight train that whistles pun! pun! as it approaches your belly.
Every rice cooker is different, and everyone’s heung pun pun is, too; it took me three weeks to get mine the way I like it in my Black & Decker. It came, as all cookers do, with a measuring cup for the rice and corresponding markings for the water level, but those markings are only suggestions. I now know that, for every 1 1/2 cups of uncooked rice, I need to fill the container to 1/5th of an inch under the appropriate fill line. The rice is still edible if I add the officially sanctioned quantity of water, but it’s too mushy, and useless for fried rice.
Since I bought the rice cooker, I’ve been making sure I rinse my rice, and I mean really rinse it: eight times, ten times, or until the water it soaks in stays clear. I used to skip this step, but I shouldn’t have, because it removes excess starch and keeps the cooked grains separate and distinct. I make better fried rice, too, always using twice as much oil as I’m comfortable with, with an extra tablespoon for good measure. And some nights I’ll put in a length or two of laap cheung (Chinese sausage) to steam with the rice, infusing it with the sweet scents of star anise and Shaoxing wine, or add a handful of frozen salted mustard greens in the final minutes of cooking.
You should really buy one, too.