Tag Archives: Rice

What tickles your nose?

I find comfort in smells, kawan kawan.  Good smells, of course. Musky aftershave colognes that titillate, feminine fragrances that when inhaled send triggers of happy thoughts of summer days and girly nights out, the clean and crisp smell of newly laundered sheets and clothes,  aromas released by spices being heated in a frying pan, the confectionary perfume of cakes baking in the oven. These are a few of my favourite smells….

However, my most favourite smell of all has to be the fragrance of rice being cooked.  Did you know that rice has a perfume of its own, kawan kawan?  This beautiful aroma is released when the rice grains are almost cooked.  It permeates the house just like coffee being brewed in the morning does.

Rice, being the staple carb in my family, features in every meal, especially at dinner time.  Dinner is a whole family affair, announcing the return of the patriarch, my dad, from work and when homework and chores have been completed. Dinner is when my sisters, both parents and I get to sit down ensemble to chat, discuss, argue and converse at the wooden table in the kitchen with its tiled top where we all convene for meal times.  My mother would have prepared a soup – a clear stock of some meat variety, a dish of sautéed chinese greens, a plate of meat, usually chicken or pork stir fried with another variety of vegetable and/or a dish of steamed fish with slivers of ginger, soya sauce and sesame oil.  Sometimes, she fries the fish that has been seasoned with a little salt and tumeric which turns the oil she fries them in to a yellow river.  This is her tweak on the signature Malay dish called ikan panggang, a type of grilled fish. For this dish, she will have prepared a dipping sauce infused with  lime, sugar, minced chilli peppers and garlic. All these dishes are eaten with a bowl of white rice, with the soup served in individual little bowls to be eaten at the same time.

I know when dinner time is approaching just by the smell of rice permeating the house.  This is shortly before the click of the on/off button on the rice cooker, signally that the rice is done. A little hole on the lid of the rice cooker lets out the steam which is the element that cooks the rice, the steam which is produced by the remnants of what water is left that is required to cook any rice.  The rice is done when all the water has been absorbed by every rice kernel.

My Favourite Smell - Rice steaming

I was feeling a little lost and displaced again the other day. I don’t know what had caused this feeling, I only knew that I wanted some home cooked comfort food. I had been doing a little voluntary work at the secondary school, helping some students with their English.  A Korean girl that I was assigned to had been all but receptive of my role. I had sensed by sitting next to her and through my failed attempts to make conversation that only produced monosyllabic answers that she not only resented my presence but also resented the fact that she had been transplanted from her country to a harsh and foreign place where she doesn’t speak the language and where she has to be taught in a tongue that she finds hard to decipher. My heart went out to this girl because not only is it difficult to be uprooted from what you know, to be transplanted to an unfamiliar territory which can seem hostile because of a language gap and then to have to endure an education in a language that you are not wholly comfortable in, couple that with raging hormones which can cause confusion and irrational mood swings. Not a great combination, my friends.

I was told by her teacher that she is an intelligent girl when she wants to be.  One manifests intelligence in one’s tongue because one knows what words and phrases to use in a conversation, discussion or argument.  It is a challenge to show how intelligent you are when you don’t fully understand your medium of instruction, let alone having to express yourself in this foreign tongue. When expressing yourself in your mother tongue, you can be eloquent, elegant and intelligible.  In a foreign tongue, you risk sounding gauche, awkward and frustrated because the words don’t seem to roll off your tongue like they ought to….. in your language.

At the appartement later, whilst preparing dinner and waiting for the rice cooker to sound her familiar click signalling that the rice is ready, I was suddenly overcome by a throng of homesickness.  It was the fragrance released by the rice that caused me to feel this way, it occurred to me later. Another reason could be my feeling terribly sorry for the Korean girl that spurred this feeling of homesickness on.  Standing next to the rice cooker, I inhaled deeply, taking in the aroma.  I felt how good it is to be able to recreate this sense of childhood comfort.  The fragrance of the rice represented home and hearth, it symbolised the security of the familial space, a haven where I can be myself, let my hair down and put my feet up.  I was glad that in a foreign land, I was able to find this little piece of heaven.

For the Italian, it is the aroma of the tomato sauce simmering or the fragrance of the bell peppers stewing that bring him home.  For my children, it is a mélange of the rice cooking one day or the pasta boiling on another which also emits a unique perfume of its own, both recreating the sense of home for them .

That night, I had the rice ready, and a dish of scrambled eggs with tomatoes to accompany the rice.  This very easy to prepare dish is called Fānjiādàn 蕃茄蛋
in Mandarin and is really a very typical rustic dish.  It is eaten a lot in Taiwan and in SE Asia.

Scrambled Eggs and Tomatoes

This is one of my favourite comfort food, kawan kawan.  Surprisingly, this dish is also much loved by la grande and the Itlalian.  It is what SS remembers eating as a child when life was just the two of us.  Sadly, I have yet to pass this love completely to RN who endures this scrambled egg dish but is not totally enamoured by it.  She only eats eggs if they are white!  I might cook this dish with egg white only, la prochaine fois, mes amis!

I hope that those who are feeling displaced due to a recent uprooting are able to recreate a sense of home through a particular smell that they love coupled with a particular food that they enjoy.  Eating dinner that night, I whispered a little prayer for the Korean girl who tugged at my heart strings, wishing her well and that somehow, in this jungle of foreign words, she is able to recreate a sense of home.


What are they Eating in America Today?

Browsing through the myriad of food blogs on the internet, I came across one that reported Ruth Reichl having said Korean is the next American. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been eating and enjoying Korean way before she mustered the authority to categorise Korean as the next American. Suffice it to say, I think her statement is really rather passé.  But none the less, she is a revered American food writer and critique and as all people who predict and set trends, be it in fashion or food, what she says goes.  Don’t be surprised that the next American who you may have the chance to speak to is singing about Korean food.

Reichl’s statement has put Korean food on the map for lots of people who haven’t tasted this country’s spicy cuisine.

Korean food is very unlike their neighbouring Japan’s.  Firstly, it is very spicy for those with a delicate palate.  Secondly, Korean food contains a variety of vegetables and can be almost vegetarian although meats like beef, pork and chicken do feature in the cuisine, along with fish.  There is a lot more usage of sesame oil which in my observation, douses all their little dishes. Sesame oil can be detrimental for people with nut allergies, so beware, if you’re one of them. And speaking of little dishes, the Koreans do like serving small dishes of vegetables, pickled with a spicy red chilli paste called gochujang or simply dressed with sesame oil and salt.

These little dishes, known as banchan, are side dishes, usually served with rice. The most common banchan is kimchi, which is served with every meal.  There are many varieties of kimchi, the most common being made with napa cabbage. This fermented spicy vegetable side dish is also the main ingredient in many popular Korean dishes, like the kimchi stew, kimchi fried rice, which is incidentally very scrumptious and kimchi soup, which is similar to the tom yam, only less sour.

I wanted to spice up my day and the natural choice of cuisine could only be Korean. It had been a long morning.  I had errands to run because we were expecting some guests and I had just finished counting up the money that we had made for Save Japan Day at school.  All the addition and sorting out the float which consisted of lots of centimes made me hungry. Fortunately for me, down the road from the secondary school where SS attends, there is a Korean.

I needed some carbs today and settled very quickly for the bibimbap.  This dish has such a cute ring to it.  It sounds exotic and musical to my ears because I don’t speak Korean as all foreign words tend to sound to the ear of a stranger.  I learnt later that bibimbap really is a rather prosaic and ordinary word in Korean which means mixed meal.  This signature dish is served as a bowl of white rice crowned with sautéed vegetables and  gochujang, a hot chilli paste.  Topping the vegetables and rice is an egg fried sunny side up, with the yolk still runny.  Slivers of bulgogi beef can be added too, if one fancies a little red meat.  The bibimbap is served in a stone bowl, directly from the fire to your table, it is so hot that you can hear the ingredients sizzling.

The Stone bowl of Rice

As soon as the bowl is served, the attendant/waiting staff mixes the rice, vegetables and egg up for you.  Usually this version of bibimbap which is called dolsot bibimbap is served with a raw egg that gets cooked very quickly in the mixing against the hot stone bowl.

All Mixed Up

It was totally sedap, kawan kawan.  The gochujang gave it that right amount of heat and spice. The sesame oil left a film of nuttiness so redolent of childhood meals for me.  I love eating plain rice congee flavoured with sesame oil and soya sauce on rainy days or when the weather turns from summer to autumn.

The bibimbap is really a meal in itself as the name suggests.  But my eyes being  substantially bigger than my stomach saw on the menu a side order of kimchi which I of course asked for.  The banchan of kimchi came in a variety of legumes, some pickled in a spicy viniagrette and others sautéed with sesame oil and salt. These little dishes were great accompaniments to white rice and as I was savouring each dish, I also thought that they would go great with plain white rice congee or chook as they say in Cantonese.

Those on the Side

Well, kawan kawan, I really recommend that you try Korean, if you haven’t already.  You don’t want to miss out on the next American trend, do you?


Maki Making

Cooking classes abound in Paris.  Debbie K, a kawan of mine and fellow food enthusiast orgnized one at her favourite sushi bar, Comme des Poissons.  I was very excited to be included in her mailing list because a cooking class at this prestigious sushi bar is trés difficile to come by.  I was told that there is a long waiting list amongst the Japanese housewives in Paris, dying to learn how to make sushi rolls the right way.  Yes, even Japanese housewives are eager to learn from this sushi chef.  What more honour can there be than for Kino san to welcome gaijins like me to his humble resto?

Apron in hand and eager to start, I head off to the rue de La Tour in the seizieme for a 10 o’clock start.  No sooner had I arrived, I saw Kino san bounding up the road to open his sushi bar ready for today’s lesson.  His sushi bar only sits 10 pax at a go and Mondays are when he does some R and R.  This Monday though, he unlocked his resto/bar for the ladies of the ISP (International School of Paris).

The lesson begins full swing in Japanese with Debbie K san translating.  Kino san says a mouthful in Japanese and Debbie K san says two words in translation and so this goes on until end of class.

The first and  most crucial thing we learnt that morning is that the gohan in any sushi roll is the most important ingredient.  Mais oui, I thought, sushi is rolled rice, n’est ce pas? But what Kino san meant was this:  the rice and the sushi vinegar that goes into the rice has to be made fresh just before the sushi is rolled. He would rather be complimented on his rice than on the ingredients that he puts in the rice – his words.  Of course, the ingredients have to be fresh too especially the fish that goes into the sushi.

The rice has to be Japanese short grain rice and this can be purchased in any Japanese grocery store or at the Chinese supermarket, Tang Fréres in Paris. He recommended this brand:

Premium Japanese Rice

This rice is grown in California, incidentally, where the soil and climate are conducive for rice harvesting.

Rice harvested in the autumnal months are more moist than that harvested in the spring/summer months, Kino san explained and this knowledge is crucial in determining the amount of water to be used when cooking the gohan.  Rice is the staple food in Asia and features predominantly in every meal much like potatoes are in Europe and America.  My mother taught me that the correct amount of water to add to washed rice is up to the first knuckle of your index finger and no more.  So if you divide your index finger into thirds, it is the first third from the base of your finger nail.

The rice kernels have to washed very well. That means that the water has to be clear before the rice can be cooked in the rice cooker. Look at the water at the start of the rice washing process:

Cloudy Water

Stir vigourously whilst washing to release the starch from the kernels.  Then pour out the cloudy water and start all over again.  Some people have a special number that they stop at, like my mother who counts up to 6 times. But really, if you’re not too number obsessed, then wash the kernels til the water runs clear:

Clear Water

This works for any type of rice you’ll be washing in future.  Basmati and Thai Jasmine rice have lesser starch content and do not require that much washing. Rice is ready to be cooked once the water in which it is washed runs clear.  Then measure your water as explained above or if you prefer, 4 cups of rice requires 4.4 cups of water (amount of rice x 1.1).  As you know, I am not one for exact measurements because cooking is all about trial and error.  My family has cooked the aghak-aghak (guess-guess in Malay) for generations and the recipes that my parents have shared with me are mostly based on this way of cooking…and our rice is always cooked just right with the first-knuckle-of-your-index-finger measurement.

The rice cooker:  Kino san advised a Japanese made one but in reality, the one I have that has been manufactured in China works just as fine.

Sushi rice has to be cooled before sushi making. Here, you’ll see Kino san fanning his rice after he has added his secret potion of rice vinegar mix:

Fanning the Rice

Of course, he declined to name the proportions of sugar to mirin to rice vinegar and simply advised us to buy this:

The secret potion

Mixing the rice is very important to ensure that it is thoroughly coated with sushi vinegar.  The Japanese word for this action is cutting.  As I watched Kino san, I realized that he was slicing through the mountain of rice several times.  It is important not to break the cooked rice kernel.  Then he waits:

Waiting by the Rice

I love how patient the Japanese people are.  They understand the beauty of the adage that Rome was not built in a day and that grace and patience achieve results.

When the rice was at the right temperature, maki making begun.  First, it is important to surround wrap your mat.  This prevents any excess rice from sticking to the grooves in the mat and makes for easy washing.  I wish someone had told me that before…. but you learn something new everyday.

Then place a piece of nori at the edge of the mat nearest you and wet your hands in a bowl of water that you should have already prepared next to you along with a wet tea towel.  This is to ensure that the rice does not stick to your hands and that you don’t waste any rice by wiping your hands with the wet tea towel and throwing the excess rice back into the rice bowl or trough.  Kino san explained that much respect and regard have to be shown to the number of days that it takes to grow rice which is 88.  The kanji for rice and also the chinese symbol for rice can be pulled apart to make up the number 88 in Japanese and Chinese characters.

Rice equals 88

So “waste not and want not” was what he meant.  It was humbling to see this great sushi chef savouring every grain of rice not wanting to waste even a single kernel whilst showing us how to make maki.

Did you know that nori has a dull side and a shiny one?  Well, Japanese people eat with their eyes it has been said.  Presentation and plating is very important in Japanese dining.  So the shiny side is what you see when the sushi is rolled with the seaweed facing you.

Kino san showed us how to make the expert sushi, that is, with the rice enveloping the nori.  First, spread the gohan on the dull side of the seaweed, then nudge it towards you gently with your fingertips until the rice reaches the base of the nori square.

Nudging the rice towards the sushi chef

Then you do a flip of the nori/rice parchment and voilâ, the seaweed side is now facing you.  Spread a thin film of wasabi in the middle of the nori

The Green Stripe

and then begin placing your filling.

The Filling

When that is done, it is time to start rolling.  Place your thumbs at the base of your mat and push both mat and sushi towards the middle of the mat over the ingredients.

Like So desu

Press gently but firmly down to secure the filling and then roll once more to the end of the nori.  Dahdum!  you have your first maki made!

To say that it is difficult would be lying and to say that it is easy would also be fibbing.  Practice makes perfect is what I can say….. Correct practice, that is. Don’t be put off by the stickiness of the gohan, with time, the rice will no longer be sticking to your hands.  Just look at those perfect sushi hands of Kino san in the picture – sans riz!

I’ve purchased my sushi making ingredients and mat and tonnes of surround wrap.  I’ll be trying this out with the kids.  I bet, they’ll appreciate better the sushi that they’ve made themselves and I don’t have to be ordering livraison from the local non-Japanese Japanese anymore….

Japanese Grocery Shops

Kioko, 35 rue des Petits Chaps 75002

Jujiya, 46 rue St Anne 75002

Nanaya, 81 Ave Mozart 75116

Kanae, 118 rue Lecourbe 75015