Making a perfect pot of steamed rice is a simple and worthy thing to aspire to. Especially if you are making stir fry. Then, you want to have plenty of fragrant jasmine or another long-grain white rice, standing by to serve with all those healthy cooked vegetables.
Some cooks have turned to rice steamers, and swear by the consistent good results. Some of us don’t have rice steamers and, handy as they might be, probably won’t ever buy one. I’m in the latter category. I’ve always figured I can whip up a pot of pretty good rice, white or brown, on the stove in a plain old pot.
Last week, though, I discovered that “pretty good” wasn’t good enough for rice. This new attitude came after I had pulled a cookbook off my shelf that I’d opened only briefly in the past, “The New Classic Chinese Cookbook” by Mai Leung (Council Oak Books, $26.95).
What I found especially interesting, as I leafed through the book, was Leung’s discussion of rice — what it means to the Chinese in the Southern area of the country where she grew up, as well as the stories and myths that surround this important staple of their diet.
“In southern China, rice is a must in our daily meals. Everything we eat without rice usually is considered a snack, not a real meal. I remember when my uncle used to come home late from doing business, he always announced that he had not eaten for the whole day. A mutual understanding among the household was that he was far from starving, for he had eaten dumplings or noodles in the tea houses many times during the day. But he never considered that those were meals or that he had been eating at all. He was like many of the southern Chinese: a good healthy meal was plain rice, a bowl of soup and a few dishes prepared at home,” writes Leung.
The children also were taught to never waste even a grain of rice. “My grandmother used to threaten us: Every grain of rice left in our bowls meant a pockmark on the face of our future mates. We giggled, but we shined our bowls.”
Refined, long grain white rice, including jasmine rice from Thailand, remains the favorite with the Chinese. The rice is cooked without salt or seasoning. In fact, the Chinese do not eat salt and butter on their rice, preferring instead to taste the natural sweetness of the grain, writes Leung.
The ingredient list for her Plain Rice recipe was not long: rice; water.
Right away I saw that there was a rather large difference in this rice method compared to what I’d always made. For six servings, it called for 2 cups long grain rice and 3 cups cold water. My rule of thumb had always been twice the amount of water as rice.
Next, the rice grains are washed and rinsed in cold water until the rinse water runs clear. I’d been taught that this was not necessary in making rice, and didn’t do it. And it may not be “necessary,” but this recipe called for it so that’s what I did.
Then, you put the washed rice and the water in a 3-quart pot (one with a tight lid) and cook over medium heat without covering the pot. (Not the way I had ever done it, which I was getting used to by this time.)
When the water comes to a boil, let it boil into a foamy, steamy mass (but don’t let it boil over). Do not leave the stove at this time, says Leung. “Stand by and watch it closely.”
In a short while the water will evaporate and you will see on the surface of the rice many small, crater-like holes which the Chinese call rice eyes. When you see the “eyes”, you put the lid on top of the pot, lower the heat and let it cook on low, covered, for 10 minutes. Then, you turn off the heat and let it stand, still covered, for another 15 minutes.
“Do not peek during this 25 minutes,” says Leung. “Otherwise the magic steam will escape and you will have half-cooked rice for not having faith.”
I was very pleased with the results. It was Chinese restaurant steamed rice, perfectly cooked. It was good with our stir-fry — and I promised myself I wouldn’t waste even one grain of the leftovers.