Friday, 3 February 2012

Plain Old Boring Rice

Yes, paella is nice, so is risotto and congee and nasi lemak and all these special rice dishes, but there is just something so essential and comforting about a "boring" bowl of rice to an asian meal. And you'll be surprised how many people can't get it right. It was the hardest thing to me when I first started to cook for myself. It either clumps, or isn't cooked on the inside, or is both of them at the same time.

Long-grain white rice is the humble staple to accompany almost everything for me. I don't particularly fancy the korean/japanese sushi rice for anything other than well, sushi, so this is a guide only for the common white rice. I have 2 favourite varieties, basmati rice to go with curries/for fried rice, and jasmine rice to go with most other se asian/chinese food. The methods are a bit different because you want different end results (see "so what is perfect rice" below), but not that different, so here we go.

So many people don't seem to find this important, but it is. They say it used to be necessary to remove talc in old processing methods but rinsing does more than that. You remove surface starch, stop it from clumping later, and just makes it overall cleaner and fresher tasting. Put the uncooked rice in plenty of water and swirl and swish and massage. Plus, you give your hands a nice shot of free SK-II anti-aging skincare at the same time. Wash till the water runs almost clear, it won't ever be totally clear.

Soak (only for basmati)
Soaking makes the grains really long and slender. I try to soak it for 30 min, sometimes I forget and leave it for an hour, and other times, I forget and just do it for 15 min. After soaking you throw away the soaking water with more unwanted surface starch. Cooking in fresh water makes the rice really fluffy and separate.

Water to rice ratio
My mum has this traditional method I'm sure you've all heard rumours of, sticking your finger in and adding enough wanter to come to the first knuckle of the index finger. It works for her, and it works for me sometimes, if I'm doing it in the pot of the same size, and for about the same amount of rice. But I don't know if it will work for a big guy with giant fingers.
So the more conventional ratio I always hear is 2:1. I don't know how it can work for people because I always get mush with 2:1.
For jasmine rice, I do 1 1/4: 1.
For basmati rice, I do 1:1, perhaps a bit more if it wasn't soaked.
But it varies a tiny bit with the brand and age. Just experiment. 2 flops should do it.

What else?
For basmati, also add a drop or two of ghee or some other oil.
And most western cooks seem to advocate salting the rice. I guess it's all good and fine if you want to, but most asians don't. It's really just a plain bowl of rice, sweet and simple, to go with the colourful flavourful side dishes.
Of course, if you want, you can throw in some spices like a cinnamon stick or some cardamom pods to the rice for extra fragrance. BUT these are instructions for a "boring" bowl of rice.

The Rice-cooker Way
"God every asian has this!"- english roommate in year 1.
Haha yup, it does make life easier.
1. Add water (and oil) to rice. Cook. How difficult can it get?
2. But also do the "close and wait, open and fluff, close and wait, open and breathe".
(i.e. When it's done, do not open for 10 min. Then open, give a fluff through with a chopstick or fork but no spoon. then close and let steam for another 5 min. Then open for a min or so to let excess moisture evaporate, take the time to breathe in the wonderful fragrance. You can then eat or let it stay warm in there for a while longer till you want to eat.)

The Stovetop Way
1. Add the water (and oil) to rice, bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
2. Once it starts boiling, turn the heat down to a medium and let it simmer, don't peek. Takes about 15 min, probably less if it's soaked basmati rice. Or just until you see most of the water has been absorbed and you see craters.
3. Turn the heat down to very low, and let it finish cooking for about 10 min.
4. Take it off the heat, and do the "close and wait, open and fluff, close and wait, open and breathe".

So what is perfect rice?
For basmati, it's that unique basmati aroma, and the fluffy, long separate grains of rice. Not sticky, not dry either but loose enough for the rice to flow easily when you run your spoon (or hands) through it.
For jasmine rice, it's that warm jasmine scent, the grains will be soft but not mushy, and plumper than the basmati. Not sushi rice-sticky enough to pick up a clump with a pair of chopsticks, but less dry than basmati, so you can shovel it safely from bowl to mouth with the chopsticks (bowl being just in front of your mouth of course).

Whichever it is, "plain old boring" rice is a thing of beauty. I love the little pearly white* grains, the curl of steam unfurling from it. I love how humble and simple it is- how easily it pairs with so many things, yet how happy it is to give its partner the limelight. I love the distinct signature fragrance it gives off, and even the sound of the rice cooker clicking when it's done.

I say, sod it with all the talk about "healthier" brown rice.
My mum absolutely hates brown rice. She says it's hard, and sits heavy in the stomach. There was a period of time I was convinced I loved it because it was higher in fibre and nutrients and what not, but in fact, the phytates in the hull of whole grains prevent us from absorbing all these additional nutrients so in fact we absorb a lot less goodness eating brown rice than white. I've since returned to the type of rice I grew up eating- white rice. And just look at the healthy Japanese, Koreans and Thais who prefer their rice white too. That said, I do have soaked wholegrain rice, but as I learnt from traditional chinese medicine and ayurveda, its warming and drying properties make it suitable less frequently than the neutral and calming white rice. There is a reason why our bodies cleverly seek out food that tastes better.


Related basics how-to post


  1. My mother taught me to rinse rice "five times for luck" - and I've done that ever since!

  2. A good tutorial for we who are rice challenged!

  3. Very interesting reading. I try to soak all rice but now I know this is only necessary for basmati.
    The "first knuckle of the index finger" trick - seen and heard before on numerous occasions, it works but I am not convinced so I don't do it.

  4. I've been courious about your take on white vs. brown rice. I know brown rice has phytates but less than other grains. How you do think the nouritional benefits of properly soaked brown rice vs. white rice compare? It's true most Japanese, Thai... that I've met are very healthy comparatily.

  5. Great post with some brilliant tips. Think I'll be saving this for future reference. Thank you!

  6. Just made some basmati ruce for dinner!!
    Hava a nice week end

  7. I can't fathom life without a rice cooker. Great guide!

  8. Thank you for this very useful and interesting post. I have had my rice cooker for several years and it is the most miraculous kitchen appliance I have had after the food processor.
    I am totally addicted to Japanese short grain rice, my preference goes for Yumenishiki rice, and I think the rinsing stage is especially important in the case of Japanese rice.
    I am not a fan of brown rice either, but I can say one thing: it improves digestion. The digestion problems the Japanese suffer from (several Japanese told me about it) are according to my Japanese friends linked to the big amounts of white rice they consume (less or no fibers). Apparently many Japanese women take regularly pills to improve digestion. On the other hand, too much wholegrain bread or rice, as you say, is dangerous... (I have wholegrain rice practically never, but I try to have wholgrain bread from time to time). I am not sure why other Asian rice eating nations don't seem to have this problem (at least I have never heard about it).

  9. the owl wood: haha my mum says 3 times, but i do often end up doing it 5 times. I find it very relaxing and meditative.

    susan: haha it took me a lot of times to get it right.

    three-cookies:i think you're not supposed to soak jasmine. haha the knuckle trick does work, but I don't know if it works for everybody.

    katie: I dont think we can look at things like food and break it down into micronutrients, i think food works in a very special way, and somehow our great grandmothers just learnt form experience and from their great grandmothers the best way to prepare and eat something. so yup, i would say white, but brown's fine too, but I would soak it like my mum insists, and have it less often.

    avillagepantry: glad it helped (:

    manu: yum i love basmati!

    lizzie: haha, so you're asian too.

    sissi: i don't think you can say for sure the digestion issues are linked to white rice, it's hard to prove when there's so many things involved in a person's diet. I think in a balanced diet you get fibre from the vegetables you consume too; too much fibre actually hinders proper digestion. for sure the older generations of japanese had no problems, so perhaps it's a modern phenomenon due to exposures to other foods and stress? i'm no expert either though. oh, and totally not the point i was trying to make, but anyway, sticky rice (i.e. jap rice) is considered by traditional chinese medicine as hard on the digestion. hmmm....

  10. Nice, Shu Han - I have to say... I *suck* at cooking rice... it's just my nemesis! Thanks for this handy guide. I remember having some Chinese girls at my house one day for dinner when I was a student and they were all laughing at me when I was cooking the rice because I added so much water and one of them exclaimed that "of course, it's normal - he's English!" :'(

    I'd never heard that about basmati rice (re: soaking)... no wonder my basmati rice always seems small. I must try that especially. My mother-in-law always heats the un-cooked rice through in oil for a few minutes... almost as if she were sautéeing onion, except rice, and not so hot, before boiling it, and she makes the best rice I know - I don't know what the deal with the oil is...

  11. So interesting to hear that white rice is better for you than brown rice. Also I cannot believe how many people do not rinse their rice - very naughty!

  12. I have no idea if what my Japanese friends say is true... but I suppose it's the amount of rice that plays the main role. Rice is the main ingredient of practically every meal.
    I wouldn't call Japanese rice as sticky. I think it's practically as sticky as Jasmine rice when cooked. Do you mean sticky/sweet rice?

  13. my relative use the water left from rinsing rice to water the plants, she said it will make them grow greenier and healthier.

  14. charles: hahaha I used to somehow just not be able to get rice right too! it's not an english thing ;) yup i do that when I spice my rice, saute it a bit too, the oil helps to make it even more separate and not stick, and of course it brings out the fragance of the spices!

    gourmet chick: hehe exactly!

    sissi: I guess I mean medium-grain/ short-grain rice!

    lena: my roommate does that too!!

  15. I had gestational diabetes (pregnancy-related diabetes) and was told to switch from Jasmine to Basmati. The reason being, Basmati has a higher Glycaemic Index than Jasmine rice (ie it takes longer to convert from carbo to sugar, hence making you feel fuller for longer). The formula I perfected cooking Basmati rice is 1 cup rice to 1.75 cup water. I don't do the finger-measurement. Jasmine rice would need much lesser water, I believe. But I don't know anymore because I have not cooked jasmine for a long time (except using it for porridge).

    1. wow your ratios are quite different from mine. Do you soak? I think also it matters whether you use old (aged) or new basmati. Basmati is also my favourite rice, just because of the wonderful smell of it, and I like its loose light texture. I also use jasmine mainly for porridge or pudding! haha! just can't get the right creamy consistency if I use basmati. I've heard about the GI thing too, though I like to think more about food in terms of their energy, and in ayurveda, basmati is considered the rice of choice. But I find in general all long-grain white rice very light and easy on my tummy(:

    2. Hi Shu Han, I don't soak the basmati rice. I buy mine from (ahem) Tesco. And yes, long-grain rice is better for the body (Low GI = better for diabetics, or in my case, people at risk of diabetes).

  16. Although rice is not a "must-have" in my diet (unusual for a Chinese), I am fussy with my rice. Generally I prefer it cooked on the stove-top. The ones cooked in old-fashioned brick-built stove are the best, but difficult to come by. Aluminium pot on honeycomb charcoal is also good, as it produces better "crust" at the bottom. Being in the UK though I have to lower my standard. So far I've managed to find a type of "sushi rice" (large sack from Chinese supermarket, that has Korean writing, "sushi rice" in English and "Northeast rice" in Chinese, sounds strange I know) the closest to what we get back in China :) I often cook it on the stove-top as the washing up is easier.

    1. Wow you're quite the rice connoisseur for someone who doesn't really need rice in your diet. I feel antsy after a coupel of days without rice. I tend to go for long-grain rice instead of medium grain/ short grain sort of rice. maybe because I grew up in southeast asia, and the rice we have tends to be jasmine rice, and also bcause I LOVE indian food so often have basmati rice.

  17. I just stumbled upon your site after searching for kimchi recipes using rice flour. Fun! I'm Korean and my mom taught me to rinse rice and I ALWAYS have. Now, in addition to all other reasons you note, it's even more important to do so in order to wash away some of the inorganic arsenic found in rice - at least in the US. Boy am I glad my mom taught me this! For some brands, brown rice was shown to have higher levels of arsenic than white. Levels were lower if the rice was from California or other parts of the world, like Asia and India, versus just generally the rest of the US. I agree with your sentiment from your "How to Eat" page! People need to relax! And go whole, natural, and tasty as much as possible. Cheers from California!

    1. I am completely rubbish I can't believe I missed this comment until a year later. So glad you agree, it's really tricky trying to convince people who are bent on a certain way of thinking, so my philosophy is each to their own, do what you believe and makes you feel good. Hope you're still reading this blog and hello back from London! x

  18. im taught to rinse 3x always, but i do 2x just to be difficult. my measurement is by sight. i fill it up and tip it about 30* or so so i can see water to rice ratio more clearly. i like 1:1.25 for short grain. a little drier than most people like.

    1. Hahaha naughty. I do two.. I think it's enough... You must be a rice expert to do it by eye! I need to pick that trick up- sure to wow my friends ;) I don;t cook short grain rice very often so am not sure about the ratios but that sounds good. Just never 2:1, as many western cooks do– mush!!

  19. I love the the stove top method and my favorite. I always have to warn my husband----"I'm making rice!!! Don't lift the lid!!" Glad to have found your blog, I'm here in Oklahoma, USA and looking forward to trying some of your recipes!! Very inspiring!! Thank you!

    1. Hello!! Ha that's cute! Maybe you should put up warning post-its ;) Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Your comment made my day! x

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